“Where are we now?” The question starts up Moon, as Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) listens, for the umpteenth time, to the promotional video designed by his employer, a mining company called Lunar Industries. For Sam, it’s background noise. “How do we make the world so much better?” asks the narrator, before providing the odiously generic answer: “Synergy.”
Sam’s heard this more than a few times. Soundtrack to a part of a routine he’s yearning to end, this story of “the power of our future” has become his own story. Every day he heads out to check the harvesting machines he’s assigned to monitor, three of them, located at various spots on the moon’s surface. Sam has been at it for very close to three years: according to his contract, he has just two weeks to go. It appears that at some point, he thought the time away from home — specifically from his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) — would have done them both some vague “good.” The worst part, Sam thinks, is that he’s missed just about every moment of his three-year-old daughter’s life, and has only watched from afar, the baby waving whenever Tess pointed her in the direction of daddy-as-video-screen.
In lieu of a human companion, Sam spends time watching sitcom reruns and chatting idly with the robot Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), attentive and faux soothing in a manner that recalls 2001‘s Hal. “I want chocolate,” Sam complains, weary of the blandly healthy food supply. “You don’t think you’re sweet enough?” Gerty asks, “You don’t need chocolate.” As Sam resists the robot’s efforts to make his isolation seem anything but abject, he seeks out communications with humans back on earth, football scores and slivers of rock music that are looking more and more like feeble efforts to pretend a connection. “Three years is a really long time,” Sam says — again — and yes, you see, it really is.
In these and other brief, stark moments, Duncan Jones’ movie makes plain how awful it is to be so solitary, how utterly impossible it is to consider this existence a “living.” If the sameness of Sam’s activities isn’t enough to deaden the soul, the white-on-white design of the station is quite sufficiently crushing. The situation is bleak and creepy enough to recall the work of Jones’ father, that is, David Bowie. Like Major Tom, Sam is now “floating in a most peculiar way.” As Gerty puts it, “You don’t seem yourself today.” And while you’re pondering what this might possibly mean, the machine makes a suggestion: “It might help you to talk about it.”
Sam will end up talking about “it,” though not quite in the way you might anticipate. Following an accident out in the field that leaves him unconscious, Sam wakes in the sick bay to find himself not so on his own as he had been — or more accurately, more profoundly alone than he could have ever imagined. For as he comes to, Sam is confronted by himself, literally at least. Sam 2 is cleaner and newer-seeming, judging by his uniform and beard growth. He also seems less inclined to question the strangeness of their situation, their simultaneous doubleness and their singularity.
Sam, however, pursues his perplexity. And it is his struggle to understand the second Sam that provides Moon‘s increasingly compelling plot. Though it poses questions of the existential sort (see also: Kubrick’s movie as well as Blade Runner and both Solarises), it does so in ways that are remarkably moving and concrete. In part, this is a function of the film’s dirty abstractions: the white-on-white is soon messier and more inefficient than “futuristic.” In larger part, the effect has to do with Rockwell: yet again, he makes a man talking to himself seem utterly mesmerizing (on this point, see also: the excellent Confessions of a Dangerous Mind).
First, the questions: “Who’s the guy in the rec room?” Sam asks. The possibilities are not quite endless. When Gerty suggests, “You may have suffered brain damage in the crash,” Sam is aptly skeptical, despite his bloodied brow. Neither does he accept the robot’s usual response (“I’m here to keep you safe, Sam”). Determining that what he’s seeing is not a hallucination, but a sign, Sam approaches the new guy. “They play — so perfectly — ping-pong. They argue and compete, they share memories of earth, based on a model Sam’s been building for the past three years. They even bond, after a fashion. But Sam can’t shake the feeling that he’s still alone — even as he persists in his plans to go home, he’s left with himself.
Still, that aloneness is changed. Now, when the company’s self-promotional tape drones on about “the hard work of people like you,” the potential meanings are less standard, more sinister. “Why do I look like you?” one Sam asks another. “We look like each other,” the first Sam corrects him, insisting that one isn’t necessarily first. And that raises more question — how is originality valuable, and to whom? How is identity a function of faith, of belief in one’s own memories? And, apropos of that jump-starting question — “Where are we now?” — how is identity connected to place and time? Can it be unhinged from such coordinates and still be? Moon doesn’t necessarily answer such questions. It does, however, ask them in suitably discomforting ways.