The Problem With Current Sci-Fi Films and What We Should Learn From Watching ‘Moon’

With the recent surge in popularity of sci-fi/action hybrid films in mind, it's clear that sci-fi needs to get back to its roots.

It would be difficult to argue that sci-fi is an unpopular movie genre at the moment: the Marvel Universe is dominating the box office, and most of the other highest grossing films from this year have had heavy sci-fi elements. Transformers, X-Men, Captain America, Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Godzilla are all included on the list of the ten films of 2014 with the highest worldwide grosses, and we can only imagine how well the upcoming Star Wars movie will do at the box office next year.

So, what’s a lifelong geek like myself doing complaining about the current state of sci-fi cinema? Take another look at that list of top grossers; every one of them is as much an action film as it is sci-fi, as are most of the sci-fi blockbusters we’ve seen in recent years (think Avatar, Pacific Rim, and Inception). Now there’s nothing wrong with action, plenty of the titles I’ve listed are great films, and I have nothing but praise for the Marvel franchise. Still, it seems that nowadays works of “pure” sci-fi are few and far between, and I’d love to see more films that return to the roots of sci-fi as a gene distinct from action movies.

What does “pure” sci-fi look like? Any halfway respectable geek will point you to the literary giants of the genre, and Phillip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke are going to be near the top of almost everyone’s list. They’re authors, of course, but their works have been adapted into two of the most important sci-fi films of all time (and neither of which could be considered action movies): Blade Runner (Dick) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Clarke). Giant explosions and over-the-top fight sequences are all well and good, but I want more sci-fi movies that get back to the roots of the genre; movies that are definitively sci-fi, not just action films set in a sci-fi universe.

Of course, all this isn’t to say that there haven’t been any sci-fi films in recent years keeping pure sci-fi alive, and Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) is arguably one of the best. In both themes and content, Moon owes much to the classics of the sci-fi genre, but still manages to offer some fresh innovations on the tradition.

Using a futuristic setting to explore the ethical implications of advancing technology and its impacts on humanity, Moon is in many ways a typical sci-fi drama, following a familiar pattern seen even in early science fiction films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the protagonist finds himself unraveling a dark conspiracy that reveals unsettling secrets about the world in which he lives.

However, unlike many such films, Moon places virtually no dramatic emphasis on the discovery itself: Jones seems to consciously deny the viewer the experience of a “surprise twist” moment and instead focuses on the individual psychological effects of a shocking discovery. As a result, although it contains many elements that could construct a fast-paced surprise-driven thriller, Moon shifts the narrative focus away from the twists themselves, instead offering its audience a gradually-unfolding examination of character and identity that is primarily concerned not with the mystery of its world, but with the subjective experience and inner conflicts of its protagonists.

Here’s a quick overview of the plot of Moon (Major Spoiler Alert, but I’ll get to why that doesn’t matter as much as you might think): Sam Bell is about to finish his three-year stint working as the only human on a remote lunar mine facility when an identical Sam Bell with identical memories shows up as his replacement: as it turns out, both are part of a long line of clones created for the sole purpose of running the facility.

Jones’ ability to acknowledge Moon‘s debt to the sci-fi tradition while simultaneously subverting convention and audience expectation may best be illustrated by GERTY, the artificially intelligent computer responsible for running the base (and also notably, the only major character in the film other than the two Sam Bells). With its distinctive monotone and apparent eagerness to serve, GERTY is doubtlessly a “conscious” nod to Kubrick and Clarke’s HAL 9000, now a ubiquitous figure in the sci-fi canon. As a result, a viewer already familiar with 2001‘s malicious red camera eye may also suspect something sinister beneath GERTY’s friendly emoticons. Jones initially seems to further encourage such expectations, for GERTY opposes (the second) Sam’s attempts to go outside the base, and both the two Sams and the audience are given reason to believe that GERTY knows more than we do about the nature of the facility.

However, Moon departs from convention by actively omitting the “twist” from the HAL trope: the seemingly-friendly sentient computer who claims to have our heroes’ best interests at heart actually does have our heroes’ best interests at heart! Because the viewer likely expects GERTY to sabotage the Sams’ plan to escape, the computer’s role as the two Sams’ faithful companion – and eventual savior – is particularly impactful. In defying audience expectations (as well as his intended programming), GERTY becomes a fully-developed character in his own right, completing an arc that echoes the themes of identity and individuality present in the Sams’ conflict and supporting the psychological/character-centered objectives of the film as a whole while avoiding dependence on a now overly-recognizable trope.

Overall, Moon‘s treatment of the “discovery plot” (i.e., that the two Sams are clones) follows the same pattern of subverting the audience’s expectation that the dramatic action is building to a single climactic twist. Soon after the two Sams meet, the newer Sam casually (but correctly) suggests that they are both clones, even explaining the economic logic behind the cloning operation. As the second act progresses, the Sams (and the viewer) discover more information that only further confirms this theory, and the dramatic tension derives primarily from the Sams’ differing emotional responses to the revelation that their lives are a lie — rather than from questions about the lie itself. Jones makes no attempt to mislead the viewer with other explanations for the identical Sams, instead allowing the audience to gradually verify the truth about the lunar base alongside the two Sams.

More invested in the emotional and psychological experience of its characters than in surprising its audience with unexpected twists, the film spends the majority of its running time focusing not on the discovery itself, but on the ways in which the two Sams cope with their sudden identity crises. Undistracted by mystery and conspiracy theories, the audience is able to place its attention and emotional energy with the struggles of the individual characters, seeing the world only from their perspective.

Jones’ interest in providing a subjective experience closely-aligned with the Sams’ perspectives can be seen not only in the restriction of the audience’s knowledge to what the Sams have learned, but also in the corresponding “anticlimactic” way in which new information is revealed to both the viewer and the clones. The Sams’ relationship with GERTY is quite similar to the viewer’s relationship to Jones himself: just as GERTY never lies to the Sams about their existence and answers their questions truthfully, Jones never tries to misdirect the audience with false conclusions, only providing information that further confirms our previous suspicions.

Because the “clone explanation” seems inevitable almost from the start for both the Sams and the viewer, the emotional emphasis of the film rests not with the external struggle to learn the truth, but with the internal struggle that commences when one does. In undermining the audience’s expectation of a more conventional plot structure, Jones highlights the unique emotional viewpoint of his story, forcing the viewer’s attention onto the experiences of the individual characters that lie at the heart of his film. At once an homage to the classics of science fiction and its own unique innovation on the genre, Moon is exactly the kind of sci-fi of which we need to see more.