Sunday, 16 March 2014

Duncan Jones' Moon and the Ex-Novum

If there is one thing I learned taking a science fiction class, it is that one of the most important elements in identifying a work as science fiction is the "novum", which is derived from Latin and roughly means “new thing”.

In short, this is the speculative element; often a new or revolutionary idea that is explained through scientific means without resorting to magic or the supernatural. It can be almost anything, though some common examples include depictions of “futuristic” technology (with varying degrees of accuracy in regards to contemporary science) such as spaceships robots and artificial intelligence, various depictions of time travel, the discovery of aliens in one way or another, or visits to unexplored locations.

All of these could be seen as a "novum", or "new thing".

In Duncan Jones’ science fiction film Moon, one can see a variety of different possible novums, including the Lunar mining base, the artificially intelligent computer GERTY, and the process of cloning. 

However, I'm more interested in looking at an example of an ex-novum, specifically, the setting of the film’s title. The absence of a novum within the film’s setting makes it intriguing, but in a very different manner from prior Moon-based science fiction stories. The general environment and tone of moon are in a very interesting way reflective of a drastic change in the outlook of the science fiction genre, especially with regards to space travel.

The moon has always been a popular choice of location for science fiction stories. In film it goes as far back as George Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, released in 1902. 

That film, however, drew loosely from the novels From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells. The former of these two involved a group of arms enthusiasts constructing a massive canon with which to launch a manned projectile toward the moon (Verne even attempted to accurately use contemporary science in designing his method). The latter novel had a scientist develop a peculiar form of metal which could cancel out gravity, allowing him and the protagonist to fly to the Moon where they encounter a race of aliens called “Selenites”.

With these earlier stories, one can see a romantic tone in how the moon is depicted. Subsequently, the moon itself becomes a novum- the “new thing” to be discovered; often with the filmmakers trying to provide creative speculation on how one could travel there and what they would find when they arrived. 

Even the later movie Destination Moon, released in 1950, reflects some of this attitude despite the filmmakers striving to depict the moon as accurately as possible for the time. Simply landing a rocket on the Moon is considered a triumphant achievement.

Now if one is to move into the present- following the actual moon landings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s- and to look at Moon, there is clearly a very different outlook on the experience of being on the moon. In fact, there is not even any need to show how the protagonist arrives. The film simply starts with him already there, reversing the formula of older stories of lunar exploration. In A Trip to the Moon and Destination Moon, the heroes start on off on Earth and want to get to the Moon; in Moon, the hero starts off on the Moon and throughout the movie wants to get back to Earth. 

Sam Bell feels none of the adventure or excitement that was displayed in Méliès' explorers or the heroes of Destination Moon. Instead, there is a very grim outlook towards living on the moon. Sam is alone, his only companions being a computer and, later on, a clone. The first Sam shown is slowly going mad from his prolonged isolation and increasing homesickness. Though slightly more level-headed, the second clone to appear is hardly any more enthusiastic about his job.

The reason for this change has to do with the actual landings on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. A Trip to the Moon and Destination Moon were both made prior to the Apollo Missions, while Moon was released 37 years later. Prior to the 1960’s, the idea of voyaging to the moon seemed like a fantastical idea. It was a significant piece of history when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but by 1972 the landings had started to seem much more mundane and pointless, eventually leading to the end of the program. 

The transition in science fiction can be said to have happened around Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released just before the first moon landing. In addition to providing one of the most accurate depictions of the moon during the era, this film took a different approach from those before it by focusing less on the first landing on the Moon, and instead looking at where humanity could conceivably go after. While the characters seem to treat working on the moon as mundane, Kubrick still seeks to impress the audience with the technological advancements that have been made in his world. Though advanced technology is prominently featured in Moon, it is hardly treated as impressive. There is also very little speculation regarding the nature of the moon itself. 

George Méliès showed absolutely no concern for contemporary science, even by the standards of his time, when making A Trip to the Moon, preferring instead to let his imagination run wild. 

I'm sure we all remember when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to deal with the Selenites after landing on the moon. Boy, it sure was a good thing they brought their umbrellas.

Even Destination Moon, one of the first to actively try to be as realistic as possible, still mistakenly depicted the moon having jagged mountains. 

By the time Moon was released, the moon was no longer the undiscovered country it had been seen as before; leading to a very dull, realistic look at the Moon as a smooth rocky terrain with rolling hills. This is probably the closets of all three to the real lunar surface.

Most of the few contemporary films that show the moon otherwise are more likely to use it as a source of humor. A famous example would be the original Wallace and Gromit film A Grand Day Out, where the main characters build a rocket in their basement in order to go to the Moon for a holiday. The moon as seen here has a breathable atmosphere and a surface that appears to be made entirely of cheese.

Nick Park's photo-realistic vision of the lunar surface.

When the movie begins, Sam has only a few weeks left in his contract and is looking forward to going home. He is visibly unhinged from his long-term isolation, and even shows little concern for himself, evidenced by his worn clothes and initially dishevelled appearance. It is also established that his isolation may have affected his sanity. He appears to be growing increasingly homesick, not helped by the discovery of being a clone.

This provides a sharp contrast to A Trip to the Moon (where isolation is not taken into account) and Destination Moon (where it is acknowledged, but mainly during the climax when the possibility is raised of someone having to stay behind), as well as the extensive lunar activity depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moon shows that its setting is no longer a desirable place to visit, but rather something that must be endured to achieve a long-term goal.

Another day on the moon.

Well, it could be much woise. At least I'm not Sam Bell.

I heard that, Joe Sweeney!

The visuals are very monochromatic throughout: consisting primarily of white and shades of grey, adding to the idea of the moon being a dull and uninteresting environment in which to be working . Many of the shots go on longer than would be normal in a film, often lasting from seven to eighteen seconds. This helps to emphasize the vastness of the moon and space, and also emphasizes Sam’s complete isolation. Similar shots were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey but were mixed with a haunting score to create a sense of curiosity and intrigue as the men travel to the crater where they've made a grand discovery. 

Hey Rick, judging by this ominous music I have a feeling something mysterious is about to happen.

Moon’s outdoor scenes help to remind the viewer how far from home Sam Bell really is, combined with the film’s own score, a small amount of diegetic sound in the form of the machines and Sam’s breathing. Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sam is not travelling to investigate a grand discovery related to the existence of extra-terrestrial life, but is, at least initially, just doing the routine job of repairing a broken machine.

Throughout history, humanity has speculated on the nature of the moon and wondered how to get there. Moon provides a very different perspective, changing the experience of being on the moon from a grand adventure to an intolerable and isolated destination.

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