Michael Collins was once the loneliest human being ever born.
Every two hours, the pilot of the Apollo 11 command module orbited the Moon. As he passed over its dark side, he spent 48 minutes in the occultation zone: cut off from all humanity 385,000 km away back on Earth and 3,400 km from his colleagues exploring the surface below.
The extreme loneliness Collins faced is the jumping off point for Moon, the feature film debut of British director and writer Duncan Jones. The science fiction thriller is centred on the daily life of Sam Bell, hired by Lunar Industries to manage the largely automated helium-3 extraction facility on the surface, to power fusion reactors back on Earth (supposedly producing 70% of the planet’s energy, according to a passing TV ad).
Bell is on a three-year contract, and it’s clear he cannot wait to go home. Chronic communications failures caused by a solar flare, which knocked out his downlink satellite some time ago, limit him to occasional recorded transmissions to and from Earth. Bell – deftly played by Sam Rockwell (Frost/Nixon, Matchstick Men) – logs blasé reports on mining operations, listens absent-mindedly to updates from company staff, but visibly brightens up when an occasional video message from his wife Tess and their three-year-old daughter Eve arrive.
His only real companion is GERTY, an articulated robot that hangs from the ceiling and speaks with the rich and calming voice of Kevin Spacey. A small TV screen mounted on its body mostly produces ‘smiley’ face, which can change depending on the mood it is trying to convey.
It’s not long before the routine changes. Less than two weeks before his term ends, Bell begins to hallucinate, imagining he sees other people on the base – which prompts him to burn his hand with scalding water. He hides the visions from a suspicious GERTY. But during a rover excursion to extract helium from a harvesting machine, he sees a teenage girl on the lunar surface and, distracted, crashes into the harvester.
From here on, all is not as it seems: the solitary life Bell was living begins to unravel, and tension is maintained as the audience wonders if the cascade of unusual developments are real or in his mind. As complications mount, a rescue team is sent to fetch him, and this turns out to be not at all what Bell wants.
Moon is excellent, thoughtful science fiction. Jones, a philosophy graduate and sci-fi fan (and son of musician David Bowie), paints a masterful portrait of the human condition in the near future. The depiction of our natural satellite – from the slow-motion dust thrown up the harvesters to the haunting desolation of the frequent moonscapes – is hauntingly beautiful, and gives you a real sense of being there. Not surprising, as they are based on the work of photographer Michael Light, who digitally remastered 1,200 master negatives and transparencies from the Apollo missions to create his celebrated Full Moon travelling exhibition.