Artificial Intelligence and Isolation in Duncan Jone’s ‘Moon’: 10 Years Later

Sony Pictures Classics

The genre of science fiction has developed a fascination with the topic of isolation since its earliest beginnings. Space exploration and all its endeavors have provided ample resources for this continued examination throughout decades of various subgenres. Duncan Jones’ 2009 debut Moon, released on June 12th, explores this very topic through its protagonist Sam Bell’s (Sam Rockwell) isolated assignment on the Moon with only his station’s artificially intelligent robot GERTY (Kevin Spacey) for pseudo companionship.

The set up for the film like many sci-fi classics is simple; nearing the end of his three-year contract, Sam begins to struggle under the intensity of his isolation. It is not until a mid-mission accident that Sam discovers some truths of his mission; causing him to examine his very existence.

The film opens with an artificial and purposefully diverse advertisement for the station’s parent company Lunar Industries; an industry that came into success following an oil crisis on Earth. Unlike many of its sci-fi companions, Moon does not seem to place the cliches of a real antagonist on this company. Rather than force any little tension for narrative’s sake, the film lives in a world of emotion and speculation.

Sam’s home, the Moon station, exists solely for the mining for Helium-3 (or HE-3), a substance required in the process of nuclear fission. The non-radioactive process provides vast amounts of clean energy on Earth, making the mining of HE-3 vital to Earth and humanity’s survival. While this is all in a sci-fi film, the original method is rooted in real scientific theories and could make many question the impact of humanity’s continued greed on, well, other human beings.

 Moon - Sony Pictures Classics

Despite being required on the station for random observation and maintenance purposes, Sam is provided little work to fill his time. The station operates through highly advanced automation which is primarily managed by GERTY. His lack of social interaction causes him to slowly deteriorate into hallucinations and poor health, which is shown from the onset of the film. However, we soon learn that his cabin fever is not the only cause of his depreciation.

Sam’s feelings of isolation only intensify as the film progresses as his limited connections to Earth are stripped away. The feed that he shares with his wife and daughter on Earth becomes eradicated (probably due to a lack of footage), leaving him and the audience sinking further into loneliness.

GERTY provides slight solace for Sam, yet Kevin Spacey’s eery voice acting is hauntingly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL. The lack of emotion in his line delivery leads him to feel untrustworthy to the audience who begin to doubt his intentions.

Moon shares many similarities with Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 sci-fi classic, including but not limited to its themes of isolation, loneliness, and questioning of what it means to be human.  While Kubrick’s film is vague in it’s questioning and rife with subtext, the topic of loneliness is never as profoundly explored as it is in Moon.

 Moon - Sony Pictures Classics

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave, and Frank have each other to ground themselves, but Sam has no one.  GERTY’s wisecracks and archaic emoji like display do not replace the warmth of genuine human interaction. In countless pieces of sci-fi media, humans are all too happy to interact with robots and AI all day long, yet the impact of doing so is never questioned.

The real-life isolation of astronauts, the closest thing that we have to space explorers, has provided ample inspiration for many of these stories. Earlier this year, former Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk commented that “The nature of weightlessness, ionizing radiation, and psychological isolation need to be better understood to make spaceflight safer for astronauts of the future when we venture off to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond.”

At their core, humans are social beings. Our days are filled with interactions and water cooler conversations that aid, educate, and entertain us to no end. To be rid of this would be to remove something entirely human from our personal lives. Something wholly understood by the sci-fi genre, particularly in Moon.

No robotic presence can fill the void left by other humans although GERTY’s appearance in the film is reminiscent of HAL, the former shares little with the latter. Whereas GERTY’s existence solely caters to Sam’s every need, HAL schemes the downfall of the very humans that he serves. However, even as a caring companion, GERTY is only acting on his programming and never out of genuine care.

 Moon - Sony Pictures Classics

After Sam suffers injuries in a crash, he is watched over by a suspicious GERTY and placed on bed rest. When he wakes, he holds no memories of the incident but appears in better health both physically and mentally. This instant improvement feels jarring until the truth is revealed; he’s not the Sam that we knew before.

Instead, this is whom we will call Sam 2. The audience is unaware of this fact until he stumbles upon Sam 1 in a reveal that would not feel out of place in an M. Night Shyamalan film. The later clone edition resembles Sam in every way save for personality and his far superior state of health.

Each clone of the original Sam is only intended to last for three years, leading each copy to physically and mentally deteriorate leading up to this deadline. Therefore, when initially introduced to Sam, he appears rugged, disheveled, and heavily bearded. We are led to believe that Sam was nursed to better health until reintroduced to the Sam that we met in the films opening minutes. Having survived the crash that should have ended his cycle, he appears haggard and half mad.

Sam 1 acts unkind to the cockier Sam 2 due to his fundamental belief that he is simply an imitation of himself. Sam 1’s pain and confusion upon finding out that he too is a clone is heartbreaking to watch and puts a face on the current AI debate. As technology progresses in our world, Moon only becomes more poignant. As artificially intelligent beings become a reality, the topic has begun to dominate science fiction, shown conclusively in Ex Machina and even Black Mirror: White Christmas.

 Moon - Sony Pictures Classics

These beings fit perfectly into stories about loneliness and isolation. Although they are thinking and feeling individuals, who is to say that the products of this technological marvel will never be integrated into a human world?  Who says that companies such as Moon’s Lunar Industries won’t just use them for their benefit?

Lunar Industries happiness to place a human being on the station allows Moon to provide commentary on big business and capitalism that is never directly answered; enabling the audience to form their own opinions. The only directly brutal displays are their “crashes” and the use of Earth Sam’s memories in the clones which feel twisted and cruel, leaving the clones pining for a home that they never truly knew. Much of the companies actions to provide the clones with comfort feel uncomfortable and alienating. The base’ name of Sarang, Korean for love, feels sick. The sterile appearance of the station contrasts the sweet name in an odd display.

Despite the sparse visuals and narrative, Moon remains touching throughout its entire run time mainly because of Sam Rockwell’s performance. Ten years later, Rockwell still feels like a perfect casting choice due to his extremely earthy demeanor. He brings a human feeling to his character that makes the films initial twist all the more gut-wrenching. Small moments such as Sam’s touching the screen after his wife and daughters message ends reveal early on just how lonely and human he is, making the reveal all the more heartbreaking.

Sam takes care of plants, carves, and watches television, yet none of these activities fills him with any real purpose. Within minutes of the films start, he begins to hallucinate and dreams of intimate moments with his wife on Earth. He never appears to converse like a robot; instead, he wears casual shirts, listens to 80’s rock, and speaks in a southern accent, making him appear entirely human.

 Moon - Sony Pictures Classics

Contrasting Rockwell’s touching performance is the minimalism of every other aspect of the film. Moon is hauntingly beautiful in both it’s fantastic score and cinematography that immerse viewers in its isolated world. The minimalist approach to both only serve the feelings of isolation and alienation.

The minimalist design of the film is similar to that used in the vast majority of its sci-fi counterparts, yet in Jone’s film, it feels far more lucid. The empty ship doesn’t hold the sheer terror of the blacked out Nostromo, but manages to provide its own eeriness, as empty corridors feel daunting when filled with no threat at all.

In contrast, the beautification of both the Moon and station provide a perverse aesthetic appeal. It’s as if Sam is selfish for finding himself sad in such a beautiful place, a feeling that all too many viewers who’ve found themselves in new worlds will empathize with deeply.

In the minutes before any hint at the films real narrative, Sam is consistently framed as minuscule and vulnerable. His frame, paired with Clint Mansell’s beautiful minimalist score, frames him as a victim. Mansell makes consistent use of familiar droning sounds and twinkly synths that have become familiar to audiences without ever seeming tedious.

Moon - Sony Pictures Classics

Moon is one of those rare beasts of cinema that leaves viewers feeling lost by its final minutes. Rather than incept severe questions into the heads of its audience, Moon leaves viewers quietly questioning their almost non-existent prior opinions on humanity itself.

Jone’s debut never quite asks the elephantine questions revolving around evolution and existence set by prior sci-fi epics but instead endeavors you to question the very human concepts of emotion and connection. Without which, are we truly human at all?

To help us continue to create content, please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi