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Moon: Coding a Consciousness

If you need more reasons than Sam Rockwell to watch the cinematic masterpiece that is Moon…well, there shouldn’t be any. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to watch a film in passing and find that diamond in the rough actor. An actor that can seemingly take on any role and make it their own. For me—that was Sam Rockwell. I personally fell (deeply) in love with this highly versatile actor back in the days of Charlie’s Angels circa 2000. (And if that doesn’t say commitment then I don’t know what does.)

Sam’s performance, as Sam Bell, in Moon is nothing short of captivating and highly entertaining. Very few actors find themselves co-starring with no one but themselves—with a little dash of Kevin Spacey, as GERTY, on the side—and not only making the film riveting but thought-provoking too. Moon itself starts off in the near distant future, on an Earth that is suffering from an energy crisis that is miraculously no more! This is due to a compound called Helium 3 which is found on the Moon and is being mined by Lunar Industries. I bet you can guess where the film takes place.

We quickly find out that Sam has been on the Moon for almost three years, and he only has two weeks left in his contract. It’s absolutely no surprise, however, to find out that the Sat Comm’s are down. Anyone else feel like that’s a go-to trope for the Sci-Fi genre? Now this, of course, is when the audience gets its first real taste of foreshadowing. Technology is malfunctioning and we’re now aware of Sam’s reoccurring headaches. But on the plus side, GERTY’S robot charm is almost immediate. He has an adorable smiley face visual interface and there is an easy establishment of their obvious friendship. I mean, what’s a space Sci-Fi film without some good old fashioned Artificial Intelligence?

robot smiley face

Moon continues to leave us breadcrumbs by showing more issues with the technology onboard the Moonbase. And as we all know, any tech issue is never a good sign when AI is involved. One of the most prominent problems we witness is during Sam’s daily observations of the different mining facilities. We see a frazzled and disheveled version of Sam on the screen. This image of Sam is strikingly different from the one in front of the monitor. At this point, we clearly know something hinky is up. (Can anyone call Scooby and the gang?) But we’re quick to forget, as Sam has an unfortunate accident and it’s GERTY to the rescue.

Or is it?

Several things begin to unravel for Sam Bell and fast. GERTY is found having a video conference with what we can only assume is Lunar Industries. So what happened to the Sat Comm’s being down? What’s more suspicious, is Sam’s now suddenly forbidden to leave the facility. Fixing the stalled harvester is quite literally in Sam’s job description. Yet, his job has been effectively put on hold. Logically, Sam’s next step is to cause a fire—the obvious way to halt the shenanigans going on around him. This forces GERTY’s hand into allowing him outside his Moon base to ensure no further fires start.

And that’s when we’re reintroduced to Sam Bell. No, not that one. The other one—the one in the harvester that was assumed dead. Duncan Jones, the director and writer of Moon, really begins to challenge our perception of what we understand and expect from a typical Sci-Fi film. Or more actually, a Sci-Fi film that includes Artificial Intelligence.

Unlike most Sci-Fi films based around the idea of AI, GERTY is portrayed as lovable and downright charming from the first moment we’re introduced to him. Yes, there might have been the odd occasion where you second-guessed his camaraderie with Sam but that’s not how GERTY rolls. Or well, glides? GERTY is further cemented as being a benevolent machine. He has steadfast loyalty to the many Sams and he ensures that we know his priority and main concern is to keep the Sam Bells safe.

The audience is now posed with the complicated implications of what cloning brings to the table, especially from a corporate perspective. The newer Sam (which we’ll call Sam #2), is quick to focus on the hard-hitting issue: “What’s cheaper? Spending time and money training new personnel or just have a couple of spares here to do the job. If they make it through their contract, great. If they don’t, hallelujah!”

Cloning is a complicated issue, as ethics and morals come into play, and they’re often left at the door, or in this case, on Earth. This film pushes us to ask ourselves: where is the humanity?

sam bell clone conversation

For that, we’d need to have a working definition of what to base that answer off of. In Moon, that answer is found in GERTY. His role as Sam’s provider and protector has made him kind and patient. He offers a certain kind of lightheartedness to the overall atmosphere, in what else would be described as a darker film. And unlike most humans, GERTY doesn’t lie.

Instead, GERTY flirts with the English language and finds ways of phrasing responses so that he can skirt around the questions that Sam asks. Yet ultimately, he reveals all to Sam. GERTY explains the process of awakening a clone and the memory implants that are embedded in them. This now leaves us with the truth—that Lunar Industries is problematic and unethical. So how is it that an AI is better able to understand the compassion needed towards one man? A man who has nothing because everything he was given was fabricated; a false memory put there to increase obedience.

The needs of one versus the needs of many has always been a philosophical debate that humankind is going to discuss. More so when an energy crisis is involved. In this instance, that problematic scenario is exacerbated by the issue of cloning. The clones of Sam Bell all have a working conscious of their own and none gave consent to the situation they found themselves in.

If you thought that was bad, it only gets worse. Sam #1’s health begins to rapidly fail and he begins to realize that his shelf life as a clone only allots to three years. This, of course, is conveniently the amount of time in their contract as stipulated by Lunar Industries, which we learned earlier in the film. The Sams find the hidden room on the facility filled with hundreds upon thousands of Sam Bell clones all waiting activation. It seems like the question posed earlier by Sam #2 has been answered. It’s simply cheaper to have a spare.

The gravity of how immoral Lunar Industries—and as we realize—even the original Sam Bell is, only continues to grow. The lack of ethical standards in play is juxtaposed quite nicely by GERTY’s kindness and empathy. Sam #2 asks, “Gerty? Why did you help me? With the password? Doesn’t that go against your programming or something?” GERTY simply states, “[h]elping you is what I do.” As if it’s the most logical reason to go against his coding, what is expected from Lunar Industries and us as an audience (hello HAL 9000 anyone?) and choosing to do the right thing.

In this way, GERTY has overcome his linear programming. He’s managed to create his own complex understanding of what it is and means to help Sam Bell. He goes so far as to awaken another clone and to erase his own memories—sacrificing himself—as to not endanger the future of Sam #1 and Sam #2. (Both of which who have gained enough knowledge to create a plan to begin the downfall of Lunar Industries and expose their cloning scandal.)

Moon truly is unique, as it allows audiences to query if humanity is truly only found in humans? And if not, how does AI, such as GERTY, begin to develop those traits we only associate with consciousness. Moon is exceptional in the way it defies and breaks the rules that are practically expected of AI in Sci-Fi nowadays. And if I still haven’t convinced you it’s worth an initial watch, or a re-watch, I have two words for you: Sam Rockwell.


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Written by Brittany Babela

Former writer and editor.

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