Duncan Jones 2009
It is generally believed that science fiction is not a genre that lends itself to psychological or sociological insight, and that projects of this genre are conceived without regard for psychologically viable character motivation or interaction. These beliefs, unfounded though they might be, are widely accepted and often result in interesting, emotionally complex and insightful projects – such as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television series – being overlooked and under-appreciated. This summer, however, there were three science fiction films that permeated into public consciousness but, while J J Abrams’ Star Trek had a brand name and District 9 had the public endorsement of Peter Jackson, Duncan Jones’ Moon had a miniscule budget, a first-time director and a screenplay which dictated that there would be, for all intents and purposes, just one character. It’s a good thing, then, that the script, the direction and the central performance are fantastic, both from a superficial and from an analytical perspective.
The first fundamentally psychological condition with which the film deals is the consequence of long-term isolation. The film’s protagonist, Sam Bell, is nearing the end of a three-year contract that bound him to working on the surface of the moon with no human interaction; his obedient robot, Gerty, is the extent of his relationships. Sam begins to suffer from delusions, increasing in frequency and vividness. These delusions are rooted in his isolation and their increasing prominence suggests that the lack of human interaction is eroding away his rationality. Such delusions, for example, seeing and communicating with people who are not there, are often associated with the emergence of severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and paraphrenia, both of which can also be rooted in isolation. There is a suggestion, though it is not explored much, that the entirety of the film is, in fact, the nihilistic delusion of the protagonist.
The physical manifestation of psychological compartmentalization – also known as ‘splitting’ – is another of the conditions prominently featured in the picture. Sam interacts with his clone, a version of himself with whom he has very little in common, although it is suggested that his clone is of the same temperament and has the same knowledge that the original Sam Bell had three years before. It becomes increasingly clear throughout the film that Sam repressed his anger, likely in an attempt to appease his wife and save his marriage. The emergence of his clone, an angry individual, is relevant for three reasons. First of all, he represents the unseen aspects of Sam Bell, the physical manifestation of the qualities which Sam has so completely split off; the irrationality of many of his actions is Jones’ attempt to criticise the repression of feelings deemed by society to be ‘ugly’. Secondly, the fact that both of the lead characters in the film are physically identical facilitates their inevitable projections; these projections suggest a lot about the characters’ emotional stability and – considering we are essentially dealing with the same character but at different times in his maturation – provide a useful way of examining the effects that Sam’s voluntary isolation has had on his temperament, neuroses and the evolution of his personality.
Finally, the literal ‘splitting’ that occurs marks the beginning of another psychological process: integration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the original Sam’s deteriorating health, Clone-Sam undergoes a speedy maturing process that, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the film, never feels rushed or contrived. Clone-Sam takes on the better qualities of his dying predecessor – who, in his three-year spell on the moon, learnt patience, modesty and self-awareness – without sacrificing vitality or becoming world-weary as did the original. By undergoing this crisis of identity and coming out stronger, Clone-Sam – who by this point represents all models that came before and after him – has earned his right to exist and to thrive.
Sam’s existential occurrence, however literal and heavy-handed, suggests that self-betterment is possible, that the foundations of psychotherapy – self-reflection and progression through regression – are critical to humanity’s development. Jones’ film champions individuality by indicting both the ruthlessness and brainlessness of corporate thinking and by providing cinema with a character whose development is viable and whose identity and purpose is discovered. Sam Bell is a proxy for humanity; he embodies Darwin’s theories of survival by fundamentally connecting with his subconscious and emerging from his chaotic mind a better man.
Zachary Boren is the Assistant Film Co-ordinator for the British Independent Film Awards and contributes to The Raindance Film Festival.