It’s genre-meets-genre at your local multiplex, and not since Gene Autry faced down an advanced, subterranean civilization in PHANTOM EMPIRE has the American west faced such daunting enemies as are encountered in COWBOYS AND ALIENS. With Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig bringing steely resolve to their roles as bitter foes forced to set aside differences in order to ward off an impending invasion of vicious, and quite greedy, aliens, the film — under the direction of IRON MAN’s Jon Favreau — is an intriguing mix of western conventions and summer blockbuster thrills. Join special guest Orenthal Hawkins as he joins Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons in a debate over whether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as well as an exploration of why aliens always seem to be on the short-end of the evolutionary development chain, and a discussion of whether there are better ways to build secure, interplanetary vessels.
Also in capsule reviews: Larry and Dan discuss the low-budget, alien invasion film ATTACK THE BLOCK, and Dan gives his take on the experimental fantasy-drama, THE FUTURE.
According to The Hollywood Reporter Sam Rockwell (IRON MAN 2, MOON) has signed on for Jon Favreau’s (IRON MAN 2, ZATHURA) upcoming sci-fi film, COWBOYS & ALIENS. He’ll be joining an already star studded cast which includes the likes of Harrison Ford (STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES) and Daniel Craig (THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE INVASION).
Rockwell is to star in the upcoming superhero film, IRON MAN 2, which was also directed by Favreau, so the two must of hit if off pretty well. COWBOYS & ALIENS is a graphic novel adaptation in which a group of angry extraterrestrials invade the Old West. Writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof have had to work with Favreau to re-imagine the role of ‘Doc’, a bartender who helps our heroes battle the alien nasties, for Rockwell to boost his screen time and change his appearance from a heavy-set boozer.
I’m quietly anticipating this one and the addition of Rockwell to the cast can only be a good thing. COWBOYS & ALIENS is set to start shooting in June.
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.