It’s Sunday, March 7, and everyone is wondering what the winners will be. Well, wonder no more, because here are the official winners of this year’s Cinefantastique Wonder Awards. Oh sure, other people are tuning into the Oscar telecast to see whether Sandra Bullock takes home an Academy Award, but for aficionados of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema, the Wonders are the awards that really matter, because they offer a chance to recognize great films that are often denied Academy Award nominations because of their genre affiliation.
Of course, this year is a bit of an exception, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated two science fiction films for Best Picture, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9, along with one animated fantasy, UP. With several other Oscar nominations in technical categories, the genre has at least a fighting chance of winning some recognition from Academy voters.
Nevertheless, the Wonders are the true measure of achievement in the genre, voted on by experts with a life-long love of horror, fantasy, and science fiction – and more important, voted on by those imbued with that all-important Sense of Wonder. BEST HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
BEST DIRECTION IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
James Cameron for AVATAR
BEST SCREENPLAY FOR A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Neil Blomkamp & Terri Tatchll for DISTRICT 9
Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (story by Docter, Peterson & Thomas McCarthy) for UP
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Saoirse Ronan in THE LOVELY BONES
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Robert Downey Jr in SHERLOCK HOLMES
Sam Rockwell in MOON
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Vera Farmiga in ORPHAN
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Jackie Earle Haley in WATCHMEN
BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
BEST MAKEUP IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
MY BLOODY VALENTINE
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Henry Selick for CORALINE
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Mauro Fiore for AVATAR
BEST EDITING IN A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivki for AVATAR
BEST MUSIC IN HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Michael Giacchino for STAR TREK
EDGAR G. ULMER AWARD FOR ACHIEVEMENT BY A HORROR, FANTASY, OR SCIENCE FILM
Variety reports that Duncan Jones’ debut feature MOON has won the Michael Powell Award for new British feature at this year’s 63rd Edinburgh International Film Festival.
“Moon,” a sci-fi thriller directed by Brit rookie Duncan Jones and starring Sam Rockwell, was arguably the fest’s biggest success. Arriving with Internet buzz from its Sundance premiere, it was the first film in the program to sell out, and also ended up second in the voting for the audience award.
If “Moon” can now use this springboard to become a cult hit at the U.K. box office, it will go some way to validating Edinburgh’s claim to be a “festival of discovery.”
In Part 1 of our interview with Duncan Jones, the director discussed the films that influenced him when he conceived of MOON, his feature-film directing debut, which stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut who is the sole employee of a mining operation on the far side of Earth’s nearest neighbor in the Solar System. In Part 2, we explore some issues that relate to the film’s plot twist, so if you are afraid of spoilers, do not read this until after seeing the film (which you really should do, by the way). After an accident on the lunar surface, Sam Bell wakes up in the moon-base’s sick bay, where he is attended by GERTY, a talking robot, but Sam has no memory of the accident. It turns out that this is a new Sam; when he goes to the scene of the accident, he recovers the old Sam, and the two Sams eventually realize they are just a pair of clones in a long series, each with a three-year life span, working alone until they die to be replaced by the next in line. Ironically, the company for which the Sams work is a “green” company, mining minerals to provide eco-friendly energy for Earth. Duncan Jones insists there was no political message to this plot twist.
DUNCANJONES: There’s nothing political about it. It’s very much tongue-in-cheek – the idea that the company he works for is a green energy company. I thought that was an amusing idea: no matter how positive a company is in what they’re trying to do, if they are a company, they are by nature trying to be profitable, and if they are trying to be profitable, they going to try to cut corners; unfortunately, Sam is one of those corners they’re trying to cut. Jones also points out that he is not making a negative statement about the morality of cloning. DUNCAN JONES: The only problem I have with cloning is it limits the genetic diversity of any particular given species. No one says that identical twins are clones, although technically they are. But as soon as they’re born and as soon as they start having their own lives, experience takes them in different directions. It’s like chaos theory: one little thing can make someone completely different from his identical twin. They are technically clones, but they are human beings.
My biggest problem with it is on the medical side – genetic variation. We are creating problems for ourselves on a biological level. But the entities that we create are lives.… One of the things I studied in philosophy was a guy called Daniel Bennett, and one of the things he described was something called “functional equivalence”: If something – if a machine, in particular – behaves to you as if it has sentience, it is your moral duty to attribute it as a sentient thinking. You have to treat it as an entity in its own right. It doesn’t matter if it’s made of cheese or wood or mechanics or organs; it’s still something that you need to deal with as a sentient being. I don’t care what something is made out of. What I care about is how I deal with it. Besides the science fiction films that influenced Duncan Jones (SILENT RUNNING, OUTLAND, etc), there were two films that he had Sam Rockwell looked to for inspiration while preparing for MOON, including David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS, which featured Jeremy Irons as a pair of identical twins. DUNCAN JONES: There was one film that I wanted him to watch, which was DEAD RINGERS, purely because of the effect and because it gave him an idea of how to differentiate the characters. A role that he’s mentioned a number of times as being really important to him is the Dustin Hoffman role in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. That was a touchstone for him as far as what he wanted to do with the character. Having one actor play two roles necessitated quite a few special effects, which had to be achieved on a limited budget. Jones planned out the script carefully, in order to spread the “money shots” throughout MOON. DUNCAN JONES: There are certain effects like having one actor perform multiple parts, where on a shot by shot level, there are certain shots where you can do it cheap and certain shots where it costs a lot of money. The idea was to work out a narrative for the film, where I could tell my story and I could spread those effects over the course of the movie and make sure a number of them were the cheaper ones and then make sure there was a spread over the course of film of the more expensive ones that lure you into the sense that you’re seeing a bigger film.
So things like, if you have a locked off camera with Sam talking to Sam, and you can find an easy place to split the screen – that’s cheap. You do that where you can. Then once in a while you spend the money and get a motion control rig in and you have the camera moving along and you have one Sam walk in front of the other one. And then once on a rare occasion, you have Sam physically interacting with Sam. That was an effect we knew we could achieve. DEAD RINGERS didn’t do it, and Spike Jonze didn’t do it in ADAPTATION. So we really felt like we were pushing the envelope a little bit with that particular effect – which is a great thing to do on an independent film. One of the trickery scenes involved a game of ping-pong between the two Sams, which required keeping the camera locked off so that footage filmed at two different times could be put together with the set and props lining up on both sides of the frame. DUNCAN JONES: That was a bit crazy because Sam – bless him – didn’t understand how important it was not to touch the table. We did a couple of takes where he was playing one side of that game, where he was playing Sam 1, the older Sam, and that went smoothly. He went up to do his makeup change and we were like, ‘Nobody touch the table; we can’t afford to touch the table.’ Sam came down and did the first take as Sam 2 and immediately scattered it all over the place.’
Me and the effects guy were like ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do?’ We went off into the corner and worked out what we could do. We actually did the playback of the selected takes, and it actually worked really well, so we got that on the first take of Sam 2, and it was like ‘Oh, thank god!’
The way we did that was to audio. We had some proper table tennis guy play a game and recorded the sound of that. Sam, who has a good ear for rhythm, was able to listen to that and he would be miming to the sound of the table tennis game, and we CG-ed the ball in. One of the nice achievements of MOON is that it presents the audience with the situation of the two Sams and lets viewers figure it out as the story progresses, without belaboring the details of why the company is doing this or how long it has been going on (although we do get a glimpse of lots of clones in cold storage, indicating that this is a long, long, long-term project). DUNCAN JONES: It’s a huge challenge to guess how far ahead the audience is going to be from where you are when your telling the story. That is the real challenge, as a feature director, that I am learning now, and it’s probably going to take me a long time, working on feature films, knowing how much the audience is ahead of me or behind me while I’m trying to tell the story. I don’t think we had any real idea other than writing scripts, reading scripts, giving it to people we trusted to read it, and screening it for people whose opinions we cared about – to get a sense of where we were and whether we got the balance right. That’s going to take a long time. The film doesn’t even find it necessry to spel out Sam’s three-year life-span; we simply know he thinks he has a three-year contract, and we judge from his deteriorating condition that the time limit is the result of the clone wearing out after that long. DUNCAN JONES: I hate exposition; I absolutely hate exposition. That was one of the things I was constantly editing out of the script, and it doesn’t matter. All you need is to feel that the universe feels coherent and that it makes sense and that the world the story takes place in is believable because there are no immediate contradictions. A lot of those grey areas sort themselves out. As long as you give people enough ideas about how the world works, if something is not explicitly described, I think they’ll go along with it or they’ll just fill it in for themselves. You just have to make an assumption of where you audience is going to be and whether they’re going to accept it. One of the ways Jones avoids spoken exposition is by providing visual clues for the audience. For example, during an early skirmish between the two Sams (neither of whom wants to admit the other’s identity at the time), the older version loses a tooth. DUNCAN JONES: That was an opportunity to give Sam a physical prop to explain his degeneration as a character. The idea is that he has this three-year lifespan and he starts to break down; the molar was a way to show that. We were talking about wanting to avoid exposition. There was a case of I could have either done that with a dialogue scene between the Sams, or I could just show him losing a tooth. That was the way we tried to get around those exposition moments.
Sam’sthree-year life-span is reminiscent of the limited lifespan of the replicants in BLADE RUNNER. Also, his physical deterioration recalls the slow death of Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of THE FLY. However, Duncan Jones says he was not making a statement on the inevitability of death. DUNCAN JONES: That would be a stretch for me to say that was my intention. I think maybe that’s a pleasant extra. What I really wanted to get at was the idea of you meeting yourself and getting the opportunity to say you’re a decent person. If you met yourself in person would you like yourself? Would you be able to accept that or would you only see the faults? That’s an important thing for anyone who sees the film. If they come out of it thinking about who they are as a person and what they’re like to deal with, I think that would be a good result. This theme of meeting yourself has personal resonance for Jones, who has made a conscious effort to establish his own identity, apart from any association with his famous father (singer David Bowie). DUNCAN JONES: There are lots of things in this film that are very autobiographical. The idea of being able to meet yourself or put your hand on your own shoulder and say, ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’ That’s what the film’s about and that’s what I went through, and I think a lot of people go through that. I think the ‘me’ of now is very different from the me at graduate school. Now that MOON is getting good critical reaction, there is a chance that Hollywood may open it doors for Jones, but he is careful about weighing his options. DUNCAN JONES: I would always want to be a bit choosy. I’m fortunate in that there’s been a good reaction from the festivals and in the industry about the film so far, so I am starting to get offered scripts. It is disappointing sometimes when you read the scripts and see the kind of things you get offered. But there’s some good things coming across. And there’s the project that I originally wanted to do with Sam. That’s kind of the other side of the coin. I think these two films are a really good pair. The first one is about isolation and loneliness, and the other one is a much busier, nosier kind of film. It’s a thriller based in a future Berlin…. If MOON is inspired by films like OUTLAND and SILENT RUNNING, then the next one, MUTE, is inspired by BLADE RUNNER. MUTE will in one sense be a sequel to MOON, in that Jones hopes to include Rockwell in a cameo that would tie up some loose ends left by the film’s closing shot, which consists of a rocket ship taking the younger Sam to Earth, while a radio voice-over (presumably a Rush Limbaugh-type right-wing talk show host) comments skeptically on the stir caused by the clone’s arrival and the revelations Sam makes about what the energy company is doing on the Moon. DUNCAN JONES: We tried a few different endings. We tried it without that [voice-over], with just the visuals. It just felt a little too ‘70s for my liking. It was really flat, really dead. That was a nice way of splitting the difference between showing what really happened when he got back to Earth and keeping it this really somber, dead-pan, no audio ending. Because it’s just voices you can get away with it being podcasts or or radio or whatever, but hopefully if I do get to do MUTE – Sam and I have already talked about it – we’re going to do a little cameo for him. Just a really small cameo to explain what happened to him when he got back to Earth. Audiences leave the theatre with negative feelings toward the company cloning the Sams, only to work each new one to death for three years. Some viewers may wish that the film had had the budget for Sam to blow up the Moon-based in an act of revenge, but Jones says that was never part of his conception. However, one other big idea did fall by the wayside, involving the multitude of clones in deep freeze. DUNCAN JONES: There was talk at one point where we were thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool at the end if they all woke up?’ But we couldn’t afford it.
This excellent little science fiction film is a welcome throwback to an earlier era, when filmmakers used the canvas afforded by outer space and/or the future to explore ideas about the human condition. With allusions and references to everything from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to SILENT RUNNING to SOLARIS, debut director Duncan Jones has crafted a thoughtful and engaging low-budget sleeper that fills the intellectual void left by Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters. He is not afraid – in fact, he is eager – to wrestle with serious subject matter in the context of a scientifically believable piece of fiction that conspicuously avoids the easy excitement of laser battles, aliens, and mutants. The mini-miracle of this approach is that MOON is never self-important or pretentious; it remains entertaining from start to finish, and even if there is a dour, fatalistic turn to the storyline, the film is never a downer – it somehow subtly inspires an uplifting sense of wonder without singing any hokey paeans to the “triumph of the human spirit,” allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions.
The screenplay by Nathan Parker (from a story by Duncan Jones) follows astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who has been working on the far side of the moon for three years, accompanied only by computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Sam is lonely, yearing for the day when he can reunite with his family back on Earth. Communication is dodgy – the signal must bounce off Jupiter and return to the Moon, creating long delay that prevents live communication, forcing Sam to subsist emotionally on recorded greetings from his wife. One day while retrieving material from a roving automated machine on the lunar surface (a mineral that his company refines for energy back home), Sam gets in an accident. Later, Sam wakes up in the moon-base’s sickbay with no memory of what happened. Noticing that one of the machines on the lunar surface is not working (we know it was the one involved in the accident, even if he does not), he goes to investigate and makes a disturbing discovery, coming face to face with literally the last person he ever expected to meet – on the Moon or anywhere else…
Visually, MOON suggests SPACE ODYSSEY and SILENT RUNNING, with its scruffy protagonist interacting with a talking robot, but the closest point of comparison is with Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, which also went into outer space only to stare inward upon the human soul. As in the 1970 classic (and the later, disappointing remake starring George Clooney), an astronaut on finds himself confronting an unexpected newcomer on an isolated station where visitors simply cannot show up unannounced. The search for answers and explanations to an apparently impossible situation forms the crux of the drama. Unlike SOLARIS, which maintained an illusive aura of mystery, MOON offers a concrete explanation, but the net result remains somewhat similar, forcing the protagonist to confront some unpleasant personal truths.
With most of the drama limited to the base (interrupted only by an occasional excursion on to the lunar surface), MOON is almost a small chamber piece – a character study with a very narrow focus (due to the small number of characters). Yet somehow it never feels small or constricted; it never seems to suffer from a lack of resources. The production design lends a believable impression of functionality to the base, combined with just right right lived-in feeling you would expect from a place occupied by a lone man. The special effects mostly eschews modern computer-generated imagery in favor of convincing miniature work that is both appropriate to the serious story and evocative of the older science fiction films that influenced Duncan Jones.
Sam Rockwell, who is perhaps best known for lighter roles in films like GALAXY QUEST and CHARLIE’S ANGELS aces the acting challenge here, holding viewer attention almost single-handedly for the entire running time. He engages the audience even when the character is behaving badly or irrationally; he captures the pathos of his character’s oppressive isolation and desperate desire to return home, but he adds just enough humor to prevent MOON from losing its orbit and descending into the bathetic.
As the voice of GERTY, Kevin Spacey’s vocal inflections walk a tricky tightrope. Instead of trying to avoid comparisons to 2001‘s HALL 9000, Spacey’s smooth tones invite them. The gambit pays off when GERTY turns out to be very much his own computer, his personality (for lack of a better word) enhanced with computer graphics that display virtual emotions through simply smiley-type faces.
Composer Clint Mansell layers the film in a beautifully atmospheric score that captures both the ethereal nature of the setting and the poignancy of Sam’s situation. It’s the final finishing touch on a science fiction films that strives to achieve something more than most genre efforts do today. There are many enjoyable space operas and adventure-fantasies on the screen this summer, but there is too little real ambition – a striving to use the medium to its fullest potential for not only dazzling the eye but also amazing the soul. MOON is ultimately a small film, maybe too small to be regarded as a masterpiece, but within its narrow scope it displays an impressive ambition. There is no slam-bang-pow, but there is a great story and, more important, a genuine Sense of Wonder. I won’t say it is the best science fiction film of the summer (I was too bowled over by the exuberance of STAR TREK), but strictly speaking, MOON is this season’s best filmed science fiction.
MOON (2009). Directed by Duncan Jones. Screenplay by Nathan Parker, original story by Duncan Jones. Cast: Sam Rockwell, Matt Berry, Robin Chalk, Dominque McElligott, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin Spacey as the voice of Gerty.
Our nearest neighbor in the Solar System, the Moon has long inspired the imagination of humanity. Everyone has heard of “the Man in the Moon.” In ancient cultures, lunar eclipses were feared as portents of disaster. The phases of the Moon were thought to have astrological significance, influencing the behavior of people on Earth – a belief that persists to this day (hence the word “lunatic,” derived from “lunar”). In 1935, the Great Moon Hoax convinced many people that life had been discovered on the lunar surface, at around the time that astronomers were establishing that the Moon contained no water or atmosphere – the essentials for life.
Today, the attraction of the Moon still pulls on in our hearts and minds, as evidenced by the literally hundreds of movies that use the word in their titles, usually for romantic and/or poetic purposes (e.g., Mizoguchi’s masterpiece UGETSU MONOGATARI, which translates as “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”). However, thanks to the Apollo landing, every school child knows that the Moon is a barren wasteland, uninhabited by aliens; this undermines some of its potential for science fiction adventure stories (after all, if the place is not the abode of Moon Men intent on destroying the Earth, what good is it?). When it comes to cinefantastique, use of th word “moon” in the title is more likely to represent an excursion into lycanthropy (FULL MOON HIGH, MOON OF THE WOLF, etc) than a journey to outer space. Yet science fiction filmmakers still continue to find occasional use for the orbiting satellite, most recently in MOON, which opens this weekend. What follows is a look at some of the more memorable examples of Moon-based movies…
Moon movies really kick off with A TRIP TO THE MOON, George Melies short and whimsical 1902 film. The story combines elements of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells: as in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, the astronauts ride in a space ship shot out of a canon; as in Wells’ First Men in the Moon, the Earth explorers discover crustacean-like Moon Men. But if Melies owes his humorous tone to anyone at all, it is to Edgar Allan Poe for his satirical hoax “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which describes a trip to the moon in a hot-air balloon. Fantasy rather than science fiction, Melies’ film has a group of men in business – rather than space – suits landing on the lunar surface, where they breathe without trouble about the lack of atmosphere; their umbrellas take root when stuck in the ground; and the annoying moon men go up in a puff of smoke when struck. The primitive quality of A TRIP TO THE MOON date it somewhat (Melies films all scenes in master shots, never cutting to different angles), but the film retains its charm over a century later. In 1929, the great Fritz Lang gave us WOMAN IN THE MOON, which is probably the first feature film to deal with the subject of lunar travel in a serious manner. The lengthy story (the restored version of the film runs over two hours) involves the rivalry during a mission that takes place following the discovery that large quantities of gold exists on the moon. Unfortunately, the silent film was drowned out by the clamor of the new sound era of film-making. Although neglected, at least one writer believes WOMAN IN THE MOON is “quite an amazing film” that “shows Lang at the height of his powers.” With Lang’s WOMEN IN THE MOON overlooked, the first film that earned recognition for offering a believable portrait of space travel is George Pal’s 1950 production of Robert Heinlein’s novel, DESTINATION MOON. A meticulous piece of work that stuck closely to the known science of its day, DESTINATION MOON is a landmark in terms of special effects and production design (including a wonderful panoramic painting of the lunar scenery by noted astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell); it is also, unfortunately, slightly dull. Without a threat of menacing aliens, the moon is not necessarily very interesting, so the film lacks drama, coming across a bit like a psuedo-documentary. Still, you have to give the film credit for the integrity of sticking to reality instead of drifting off into fantasy.
DESTINATION MOON was followed up by 1953’s less well-remembered PROJECT MOON BASE, which was also scripted by Heinlein. Meanwhile, the low-budget ROCKETSHIP X-M(1950) just missed the Moon: its rocket ship (containing Lloyd Bridges, among others) veers off course and lands on Mars instead – quite an impressive accomplishment. Also in 1953 was the immortal camp classic CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON, which is more or less summed up in its title – what more could you possibly need to know?
In 1958, Hollywood stars Joseph Cotten and George Sanders went FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. This competent but mostly forgotten film version of the Jules Verne novel suffered a bit from the passage of time between the source material and the adaptation. Verne often made uncanny predictions about the possibilities of air travel and space flight (From the Earth to the Moon predicts that America is the country with the ambition and ability to reach the moon, and based on the fact that the rotation of the Earth would provide an extra boost to any rocket launch, Verne picks Texas and Florida as the likely launching sites.) However, the method of travel – shooting a space ship out of a canon – would instantly kill any astronauts on board.
The same year as FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, Hollywood gave us MISSILE TO THE MOON, about a pair of escaped convicts who are forced by a scientist to pilot the titular ship – the plot twist being that the scientist is actually a moon-man who wants to get back home. 1963 gave us THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, a political satire directed by Richard Lester (who would go on to direct A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). This sequel to THE MOUSE THAT ROARED (in which a tiny country named Grand Fenwick declares war on the U.S. in the hope of being rebuilt with American dollars after being defeated) depicts what happens when Grand Fenwick decides to enter the space race: Not only do they win; they end up rescuing the astroanut teams from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The film suffers a bit from the absence of Peter Sellers (who played multiple roles in ROARED), but Ron Moody, Margaret Rutherford, and Terry-Thomas do a good job of filling his shoes. The New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther called the result “a blithely outrageous spoof” full of “daffy situations and some very droll dialogue.”
Hercules battled the Moon Men in 1964’s Italian import HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN. Also that year, Charles Schneer produced FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, an adaptation of the novel by H. G. Wells. The film is basically a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects; nevertheless, it retains the Victorian setting and even some of Wells’ ideas, thanks to a script co-written by genre expert Nigel Kneale (best known for his Quatermass serials on British television). With NASA’s real-life Apollo missions only five years away from actually reaching the moon, the film updates much of the science (eliminating the flora on the lunar surface and giving the astronauts space suits made from deep sea-diving equipment), and the story is bracketed by scenes set in contemporary times to help make the period story more palatable to a modern audience (a technique later used in Titanic). Still, for all its virtues, the film feels a bit slow and episodic. Fortunately, Harryhausen’s work is splendid as always, and Lionel Jeffries is quite an amusing incarnation of Wells’ absent-mind professor, Cavor. If 1967’s ROCKET TO THE MOON feels a bit like FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, the reason is that both films were inspired by the writings of Jules Verne. This time we get stars Burl Ives and Troy Donahue instead of Joseph Cotten and George Sanders, in a story about real-life P.T. Barnum financing a trip to the Moon. Terry-Thomas (of THE MOUSE ON THE MOON) and Lionel Jeffries (of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON) lend their support to the proceedings. This independent production from euro-sleaze merchant Harry Alan Towers (also known as THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS) was meant to rival lavish productions like THOSE MANGIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES. DVD Talk’s John Stuart Galbraith opines that the film is “shamelessly derivative but entertaining,” adding that it “wears thin during its aimless middle section, but has enough amusing ideas and performances to sustain it through to the end.” One year later, Stanley Kubrick gave us 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Although only the film’s second section deals with the moon, this has to be considered the greatest “moon movie” ever made, thanks to the utterly convincing special effects and the beautiful classical music used to lend a balletic sense of beauty to space travel. Not only do we get a trip to the moon; we also get a tour of the lunar surface, where TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly) has been discovered – a strange monolith buried beneath the Earth’s surface, presumably for humanity to discover when they have achieved the first step in space travel. The film’s depiction of space travel still ranks as the best and most scientifically accurate ever seen on screen. As if to offer a contrast between science-fiction-based-on-fact and science-fiction-as-all-out-fantasy, 1968 also offered us DESTORY ALL MONSTERS, in which Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra fight off an alien race from the Moon. The depiction of space travel is the stellar opposite of Kubrick’s – completely unbelievable but completely exciting, in a boy’s adventure kind of way; if you ever dreamed of being an astronaut flying through space and defending the Earth from aliens, this is probably exactly how you imagined it. Unfortunately, the real lunar landing eclipsed this type of adventure-fantasy, and “Moon Movies” – unable to compete with reality – began fading from the screen.
In 1969, Hammer Films, a company usually associated with horror movies, tried their hands at science fiction with MOON ZERO TWO. Despite opening credits music that deliberately evokes SPACE ODYSSEY, the film is actually more of a melodrama involving a salvage expert on the moon who gets mixed up with some criminals who hijack a mineral-rich asteroid and crash it onto the lunar surface.
Ten years later, MOONRAKER never reached the lunar surface. Instead, James Bond battled bad guys on an orbiting space station. Although the film is pretty much a self-spoof, filled with laser beams and tongue-in-cheek action-adventure, the outer space special effects are pretty stellar, with an eye for as much accuracy as possible. Another film that tried eat its cake and have it too was SUPERMAN II.Though mostly Earthbound, the film featured an early sequence of escaped super villains murdering astronauts on the surface of the Moon. The comic book nature of the material gave the filmmakers license to ignore reality in order to suit the needs of creating an exciting sequence that would not be filmed with total realism, but the production design and special effects are clearly influenced by the real-life lunar landings, with recognizable space suits and a lunar rover. AMAZON WOMEN OF THE MOON (1987) is an anthology of comedy sketches, along the lines of THE GROOVE TUBE, TUNNEL VISION, and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. The film takes its title from one of the longer episodes, a spoof of bad sci-fi flicks like CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON. Stern-faced actor Steve Forrest sends up his tough-guy looks as the leader of the mission, and Sybil Danning makes an attractive Queen of the Moon. A GRAND DAY OUT (1994) is one of the few “Moon Movies” (besides SPACE ODYSSEY) to earn an Academy Award nomination. The stop-motion film, written and directed by Nick Park, was nominated in the animated short category but lost to Park’s other film, CREATURE COMFORTS. GRAND DAY OUT introduced the world to the delightful duo of Wallace and Gromit, a somewhat dense human and his considerably sharper canine companion. In their debut, Wallace runs out of cheese and gets the bright idea that he can find a ready supply on the Moon; being an inventor, he whips up a rocket ship in his basement, and off they go. Unfortunately, the lunar surface is not as palatable as they hoped, and they encounter a somewhat threatening robot, but everything works out well in the end. The film’s linear storyline is primitive compared to later Wallace and Gromit films, but the humor and charm make this fanciful excursion a wonderful fantasy in the tradition of Melies A TRIP TO THE MOON.
With the Moon no longer quite so mysterious as it once was, the number of films that focus their attention on the lunar surface has dwindled. Earth’s lone satellite is only humanity’s first step into outer space, and filmmakers who seeking space invaders, alien cultures, and strange new worlds must look further out into space. When science fiction franchises like STARK TREK imagine a future when travel to the far reaches of the galaxy is possible, the Moon starts to lose its lustre.
That may be changing, thanks to the passage of time since Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind onto the lunar surface. For those too young to have been impressionable children during that era, the lunar landing may seem less like a piece of history and more like an incredible legend. As Duncan Jones, director of MOON, said in a Q&A posted here:
The thing about the Moon is that I was born after the Apollo missions went to the moon. For a lot of our generation, it’s something very mysterious and slightly unbelievable. Even if you know that humanity has been to the moon, it feels a bit mythic and legendary; it doesn’t feel like something we can relate to. The fact that all of us can look up and see the moon at night…it’s like this place that none of us gets to visit. So I think there’s a mystery there. Even if we know everything about it from a scientific basis, there’s still something so mysterious about it. It’s the obvious place to set science fiction because it’s the first step….
Just for the record, I have nothing against Michael Bay as a matter of principle. I find some of his films fun, if almost always aggressively ADD. But particularly in the summer season, even under the best of conditions, one can begin to long for genre films that deliver a little something more than just the big-bang-boom.
Director Duncan Jones has sought to deliver an alternative in MOON. Reaching back to the more idea-powered films of the seventies and eighties, he tells the tale of a lone caretaker of an automated, industrial moonbase whose countdown to the day when he’ll return to Earth is thrown off-course by a sudden accident and an abrupt encounter with his own clone. Featuring Sam Rockwell as the only significant on-screen actor and Kevin Spacey as the voice of moonbase’s ambivalent computer Gerty, MOON does deliver the occasional boom, but leavens it with intriguing ideas and one of the better fade-outs I’ve seen this year.
Jones — the son of David Bowie (more on that in the episode) — was great fun to talk with. Direct from MIGHTY MOVIE PODCAST, here’s the interview.
MOON, an impressive low-budget sleeper shot at SheppertonStudios in England, stars Sam Rockwell as an astronaut finishing up a three-year stint working alone on a company base located on the dark side of Earth’s nearest neighbor in the Solar System. A deliberate throwback to the science fiction films of the 1970s, when filmmakers used the canvas afforded by speculative fiction (aliens worlds and/or future times) to explore ideas about the human condition, MOON for the most part eschews modern computer-generated imagery, opting instead for a retro approach to the special effects, in keeping with its serious subject matter. The result conjures up everything from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to SILENT RUNNING to SOLARIS, with many others in between. It is thoughtful, imaginative cinefantastique that never lapses into self-importance – in other words, it is the kind of film whose virtues Cinefantastiquemagazine was born to extol , and it would be easy to imagine that, had it been made thirty-five years ago, around the same time as the films it emulates, MOON would have received a glowing appreciation of the kind the magazine lavished on films like THX 1138 and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.
With MOON set to open in limited release this Friday, we recently sat down with director Duncan Jones to talk about his approach to science fiction. MOON, for which Jones also wrote the story, represents the director’s feature film debut after several years making commercials – experience that served him well when it came to using technology and special effects to realize his vision on a low budget. He talked in depth about his work, but since much of the conversation involved plot spoilers, we have bisected the question-and-answer session into two parts; the second will post after the film is out and viewers have had a chance to discover the film’s surprises on their own. CFQ: MOON FEELS LIKE A DELIBERATE THROWBACK TO AN EARLIER AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION, WHEN THINGS MIGHT BE GRITTER, LESS GLISTENING – LIVED IN, YOU MIGHT SAY. WHAT EARLIER FILMS INFLUENCED YOU? DUNCAN JONES:There were a couple of films in particular that I was a huge fan of – and Sam Rockwell, too: OUTLAND, SILENT RUNNING, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. These were films that I remember growing up, and that Sam remembers, and we were basically talking about, three years ago. Because MOON was written for Sam. As a subject matter, we knew we wanted to do science fiction, but we also wanted to do something specific to those films, where it was science fiction about people, and it was a very human story, and they were exploring ‘How are they affected by the future and the science fiction environments or alien environments?” I think that focus on the person – as opposed to going from one special effects set piece to the next one – is what makes it different from a lot of science fiction coming out right now. THERE ARE ALSO INEVITABLE COMPARISON TO 2001’S THANKS TO MOON’S TALKING ROBOT, GERTY (VOICED BY KEVIN SPACEY) WHICH SEEMS EQUAL PARTS THE DROIDS FROM SILENT RUNNING AND THE VOICE FROM HAL 9000. DUNCAN JONES: In that particular case, of Gerty and HAL, it was definitely an influence. But on the whole, the films that I mentioned really were the ones affecting me. To be honest, 2001 is kind of the grand-daddy of all science fiction films; even STAR TREK owes a lot to 2001. But I think there was a group of films that were very much a reflection of 2001, and those films were the ones we were directly looking at. But Gerty is a different case, because when you put a robot in a science fiction film, you immediately are going to have that comparison.
The reason we wanted Kevin Spacey involved, though, was because we knew there was going to be that association between HAL and Gerty, and rather than try and pretend that didn’t exist, I wanted to use that expectation – Kevin Spacey helped reinforce that expectation – and then take it in a very different direction so that the audience does become surprised about what Gerty actually ends up being. MOON ALSO REVEALS A TOUCH OF SOLARIS. THE SETTING IS SIMILAR. YOU HAVE A CHARACTER WHO HAS LEFT EARTH BEHIND, BUT INSTEAD OF FOCUSING OUTWARD ON THE STARS, IT INVOLVES A LOT OF INNER SOUL SEARCHING. AND ROCKWELL’S CHARACTER IS CONFRONTED BY SOMEONE WHO – IT SEEMS – CANNOT POSSIBLY BE THERE, MAKING HIM DOUBT HIS OWN PERCEPTIONS. WAS SOLARIS AN INLFUENCE? DUNCAN JONES:Um… I guess. Not directly. To be honest, there are obvious parallels with the Tarkovskyfilm or the remake that was done. It certainly was not in the front of my mind when I was putting the film together. Yeah, I guess the allusion to that film is the illusions at the start of [MOON], but that is really it – because those visions are really just a precursor to what the film is about, which is very different than SOLARIS. In some ways, we’re a lot faster paced and humorous than the very slow, contemplative SOLARIS films. YOU MENTIONED THE ROLE WAS WRITTEN SAM ROCKWELL. HOW DID THE THAT COME ABOUT? DUNCAN JONES: I was actually a huge fan of his for a long time, even from popcorn movies like CHARLIE’S ANGELS. I loved him in GREEN MILE, LAWN DOGS – every time I’ve ever seen him, he just steals the scene. He’s got so much charisma and there’s something so empathetic about him; you really care about him. I’ve always thought there’s so much to him. He’s probably one of the most underrated actors in the United States. I wanted to work with him. I met up with him about another project three years ago, and we got on very well. That project didn’t work out: he wanted to play one role; I wanted him to play another, and we couldn’t convince each other. It was at that meeting that we started talking about the kinds of films we both love and the kinds of roles he would like to play, and I said, ‘Look, I’ll write something for you.’
MOON IS A REAL SHOWCASE FOR ROCKWELL. HE HAS CENTER STAGE BECAUSE THE STORY IS ABOUT ISOLATION, BEING ALONE, APART FROM LOVED ONES. HOW DID THAT DEVELOP? DUNCAN JONES: It was kind of a puzzle, trying to put the film together, because I started off wanting to do a film with Sam Rockwell. From that point it was really putting the various bits together. We had an idea of how much money we could raise. We knew we weren’t going to get more than $5-million – that was our cap. We knew that we wanted to have a really contained shoot. We wanted to shoot on a sound stage. We didn’t want to go around from location to location, because bad weather or locations moves slow down the shoot. When you have a limited amount of time and money, you really want to be shooting as much of that time as you can.
We wanted it to be science fiction because that was something both Sam and I wanted to do, and because of my commercial background, I had done a lot of special effects work, so I was up to speed on that. We had ideas from going to these more retro science fiction films. There were techniques that they used to use, which still look great. They just don’t get used anymore because everyone gets so used to using CG for everything – but we wanted to use model miniatures like that. It was a look that still stands up; it just doesn’t get seen.
The thing about the moon is that I was born after the Apollo missions went to the moon. For a lot of our generation, it’s something very mysterious and slightly unbelievable. Even if you know that humanity has been to the moon, it feels a bit mythic and legendary; it doesn’t feel like something we can relate to. The fact that all of us can look up and see the moon at night…it’s like this place that none of us gets to visit. So I think there’s a mystery there. Even if we know everything about it from a scientific basis, there’s still something so mysterious about it. It’s the obvious place to set science fiction because it’s the first step. ONE ELMENT THAT COMES ACROSS VERY STRONG IS A SENSE OF OPPRESSIVE LONELINESS. DUNCANJONES: Sam and I talked a lot about the loneliness aspect of it. I think what really helped us both is we were both going through long-distance relationships with girlfriends who were far away. So the whole thing that Sam went through as a character was something that we both had very close emotional touchstones with. It was very easy for us to draw on both of our personal experiences for dealing with that. It was something that was very easy for us to get a handle on. So if that came across in the film, it’s because a lot of it was real. … [adding with a laugh] Method directing. IN SPITE OF THE SOMEWHAT DOUR NATURE OF THE STORY, ROCKWELL MANAGES TO PUT ACROSS A SENSE OF HUMOR WHILE HIS CHARACTER IS STUCK IN BAD SITUATION. WITH HIS BOUTS OF TEMPER AND HIS DETERIORATING APPEARANCE, HE’S DEFINITELY NOT YOUR TYPICAL SCI-FI ACTION HERO. DUNCAN JONES: The fact that science fiction are filled with very archetypal, lantern-jawed heroes is films is not the way it used to be. It used to be that science fiction was about human beings and exploring how a human being could survive alien environments or futuristic environments – and what it was about them that made them human. You did that by contrasting them to the environment that they were in.
Science fiction films of today have dumbed down. It’s about going from one big expensive set piece to the next set piece. I enjoy it; I love big popcorn films as well. But there is a particular type of science fiction film that doesn’t get made any more – but used to get made all the time. There is a history of science fiction films where those characters were the standard.
I hope I get the chance to do bigger science fiction films because I would love to bring that sensibility to bigger films. I think J. J. Abrams did a great job with the STAR TREK film, and I love that, but still, they’re very much caricatures. They’re not deep characters in a lot of ways. I think there is a place for deep human stories and really rounded characters in science fiction settings. ONE OF THE ‘70S TOUCHES IN THE FILM ARE THE TO-GO CONTAINERS GLIMPSED AROUND THE SET. DUNCAN JONES: It’s a low-budget film. We knew that we had to come up with a prop that had a kind of ‘70s aesthetic that felt right for the film. There was this take-out Mexican restaurant around the corner from where I live, and they used those containers. I even managed to give them a special thanks in the credits. YOU GOT CLINT MANSELL (KNOWN FOR HIS WORK WITH DARREN ARONOFSKY) TO SCORE MOON. DUNCAN JONES: I was very fortunate to get him. I had met him once before and we had got on well. My producer sent the script to his agent, and then I went around him and sent the script directly to Clint. There is no way we could have afforded him if we had gone the traditional route. But he loved the project and he knew me. He said he would do it, so he did me a huge favor. YOU RESISTED WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN A CONSIDERABLE TEMPTATION TO USE “SPACE ODDITY” ON SOUNDTRACK. [DUNCAN JONES’ FATHER IS DAVID BOWIE – REAL NAME, DAVID JONES.]* DUNCAN JONES: I made a conscious choice to try to do everything I could on my own. That would be cashing in, in a way that I didn’t want to. Not to mention that I couldn’t afford the rights anyway. MOON GOT GREAT RESPONSE FROM CRITICS AT SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, WHICH HELPED SEAL THE DISTRIBUTION DEAL. BUT HOW DID IT PLAY FOR PEOPLE FROM NASA? DUNCAN JONES: We did a screening at the NASA space center. It was fantastic. About 80% of the audience were NASA employees or retirees. I started off doing a Q&A afterwards, it ended up being me asking questions and them talking among themselves.
One of them was asking why the base itself looked as sturdy as it did – why it looked like it was built of concrete – and not much lighter weight like some of the designs they’ve been coming up with. I was saying, “It’s a few years in the future. I was thinking you guys would be able to use the materials that were up there to actually build the base.” One of the women in the audience raised her hand and said, “Yeah, actually we’re working on something…” and so they just started talking among themselves. YOU WERE A GRADUATE STUDENT IN PHILOSOPHY BUT DROPPED OUT TO GET INTO FILM. DUNCAN JONES:David Duchovny [THE X-FILES] is someone I’ve always been a big huge admirer of because of the fact that he dropped out of graduate school – I said, ‘Yah, it can be done!’ When I was a little kid, one of the hobbies I remember having with my dad was shooting little 8-milimeter films, like one-stop animations and things. So I was working on films from a very early age. I was on film sets a lot when my dad was working. So I was always around it, and then I went off on this academic detour. Went off to college in the United States. Fell in love with a girl and followed her to graduate school. But then we broke up and I stayed on at school for three years, and it was miserable.
It’s no coincidence that Sam’s three-year [job tour] is the same amount of time I spent at grad school, because it did feel like I was on the far side of the moon out there. After three years, my dad was working on this film with Tony Scott; he said, ‘Why don’t you come and hang out with us?’ I did, and Tony Scott was a magnificently generous guy. He gave me some time and talked to me. He said, ‘You’ve always enjoyed film stuff – why don’t you go and work in commercials for awhile and do feature flms?’ That was how it all started for me, about ten years ago. TALK ABOUT MAKING THE TRANSITION FROM COMMERCIALS TO FEATURE FILMS. DUNCAN JONES: It’s a very different kind of job. On commercials you tend to shoot things – as much time as it takes, as much money as it takes – to get it right. On independent science fiction feature films, you shoot two or three takes until you get what you absolutely barely need; then you have to move on. It’s a very different approach, but I certainly think doing commercials is a massively beneficial training ground for working on feature films. The reason I did commercials was to get to feature films. You learn about budgets. You learn about all the equipment on the set, and you work with new technologies all the time because you have a new project every month or two. You also get used to – I didn’t deal with it on MOON, but when I get to that point I’ll already have experienced it on the commercial side, where you have to deal with clients and agencies and people who want to keep their eye on you and second guess you and give you their opinion. I’m ready for that. ANY INTEREST IN DOING SHORT “WEBISODES” FOR THE INTERNET? DUNCAN JONES:I certainly would want to do science fiction TV; I think some of the best science fiction writing now is coming out on TV. What I don’t like are very short duration formats. If it were a ten-minute episode, I don’t think you give yourself any opportunity to tell a proper story in that amount of time. In TV you can certainly do that. But webisodes , if they’re really short, I don’t feel comfortable. Although I did commercials and you have to tell stories in thirty seconds – it’s very different. IN SPITE OF YOUR CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER, YOU HAVE NO PLANS TO BOOK A FLIGHT ON VIRGIN GALACTIC, WHICH HOPES SOMEDAY TO TAKE CIVILIAN PASSENGERS TO THE MOON. DUNCAN JONES: “It’s $200,000 a ticket, I think. To be honest I don’t know if I’d be up for that. I’m more interested in making films about it where you can pretend stuff happens than actually going into space. I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk in my life yet. FOOTNOTE:
Singer-songwriter David Jones adopted the stage “David Bowie” to differentiate himself from Davey Jones of the Monkeys. He named his son Zowie (as in “Zowie Bowie”), but the legal family name was always Jones. After being nicknamed Joey as a child, the younger Jones eventually changed his first name to Duncan.
Come back for Part 2 after you see MOON IN THEATRES.
This excellent little science fiction film -will receive a limited from Sony Pictures Classics on June 12. Hopefully, this trailer will intrigue you enough to give the film a chance, because it really is worth seeing. The story follows astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who has been working alone on the moon for three years, accompanied only by a computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey, giving HAL 9000’s Douglas Rain a run for his money). An intriguing plot twist brings Sam face to face with literally the last person he expected to meet on the Moon, resulting in some SOLARIS-style soul-searching.
This excellent little science fiction film – with elements of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SILENT RUNNING, and SOLARIS – gets a limited release from Sony Pictures Classics. Hopefully enough people will buy tickets so that the distributor will role it out into wider distribution, because the film really deserves it. The story follows astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who has been working on the dark side of the moon for three years, accompanied only by computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). An intriguing plot twist takes place in the first act (the kind of thing you normally see in the last reel) leading to a fascinating story about identity. Online critic Scott Weinberg called MOON “one of the most compelling sci-fi films of the past 20 years,” and we find it impossible to disagree. Directed by Duncan Jones.