Tuesday, March 17, 2020


I regard this as one of the strongest science fiction movies.

Here is a movie, quite unusual for science fiction, with something rather deep to say about the human condition. That is what sets it apart.

In the opening sequence of the film, we are watching a commercial for a large corporation which runs lunar mining operations to provide energy back on earth. The announcer puts emphasis on clean and virtually limitless energy. The mining operation is where the story is set, and this way of introducing it is brilliant. We’ve all seen such PR from corporations. The tone is just right. Very convincing.

The story is about a man who works alone at the lunar mining operation, a man approaching the end of his three-year contract, something to which he very much looks forward. His only companionship on the moon is an odd but very sophisticated robot and the occasional video of his family from back home on earth. Live communication with earth is not permitted, supposedly for unavoidable technical reasons.

He busies himself with a number of hobbies and pastimes, highly-focused small-scale gardening and the construction of a beautiful and elaborate table-top wooden village model, the demanding nature of the activities telling us that this is a man of some intelligence and focus, and not just an industrial worker.

His job is the regular collection of canisters filled with the element helium-three, canisters filled by gigantic processing machines, resembling in scale the kind of massive machines used in the Alberta tar sands. They run continuously, striping the lunar surface and processing the material to extract the helium.

Sam Bell, the character’s name, keeps track of the gigantic machines back at the base/living quarters, heading out in full astronaut gear and special vehicle to unload full canisters while the machine remains in operation. He returns to the base and regularly shoots the canisters back to earth.

That certainly sounds like a dull, uninteresting situation, but the fact that that proves not to be the case is part of the film’s strength.

We have an outstanding performance by Sam Rockwell, the performance of a lifetime one might think. We become interested in this man and invested with what proves to be a far more complex and mysterious reality than what we first see.

Rockwell, in the tradition of a lot of Hollywood “twins” films of the 1940s, plays two characters. He does so convincingly. They really are two characters, not just an actor changing his facial expressions.

We are taken for a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride with these two as they clash over personal differences and as we see assumptions about the nature of their situation gradually stripped away.

This peeling away of layers of apparent reality during the story is an effective way of holding our interest. We discover the full and unpleasant truth right along with the characters. Corporate echoes about clean energy come back to haunt.

The key to all good stories, whether in films or books, is getting the reader or viewer involved in the character’s situation. Here is a film that does that extremely well, and the more we learn, the more emotionally involved we become.

Gerty, the robot in the story, is given a character quite different than the menacing ones so often attributed to artificial intelligence in science fiction movies, from Colossus in “The Forbin Project” to HAL in “2001.”

Gerty proves empathetic and helpful. Of course, it has been programed to keep lonely workers company over three-year assignments, and that programming in the end overrides restrictions from the mining company.