Basic Movie Science: MOON

Space genius and doctor of science Ray evaluates the basic science in Duncan Jones' MOON.

In October, I linked to my friend Ray's post on the success of the basic movie science in 2001 and 2010. The response was great, so I decided to post his latest endeavor here. Welcome, Ray! -Meredith

I have to admit that my initial (and until this article, only) viewing of Moon was a special one. I attended the Space Center Houston screening with writer/director Duncan Jones; the screening appears on the special features of the Moon DVD. I was sold the moment the host asked the Apollo veterans in the audience to raise their hands, and more than a dozen popped up throughout the theater. The United States at that time was plotting an (admittedly embattled) return to the Moon to stay, and I think the audience members were so excited to see this loving treatment of their lives’ work that they - and I - were somewhat in awe. The Q&A after the screening dwelt mostly on the filmmaking process, and somewhat presciently, Jones admitted relief that the audience hadn’t focused more on the technical aspects of his script.

I know I must have been more bothered than I wanted to admit by the technical issues of the film, because despite my initial love for Moon, I kept finding reasons not to revisit it once it had made its way to Netflix Instant Watch. But after an in-depth examination of the science behind 2001 and 2010, I knew I couldn’t keep dodging the Moon question forever. And unfortunately, upon revisiting it, the flaws are glaring. Now, don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a G.I. Joe situation, where the science is so bad that ice finds a way to sink. But Jones has gone on the record that films such as 2001 were heavy inspiration for his Moon script, so it’s on those grounds that I feel compelled to judge it. And under that lens, it becomes obvious that a little more time spent in the research phase would have made for a much more effective film.

First, though, let’s acknowledge that Moon has a lot to recommend it. Frankly, Jones’ budget-driven reliance on practical effects (courtesy of SFX legend Bill Pearson) should serve as a call to the industry to reconsider its nearly exclusive move to digital effects. Even after all these years, I can still look at the bulk of blockbuster digital effects and feel like I’m staring at a video game cut-scene. The same can’t be said of Moon. Jones’ lunarscapes are impeccable, and I can’t think of another film that has so accurately captured Buzz Aldrin’s description of the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar surface as does this film. Star Sam Rockwell matches these beautiful visuals with a career highlight performance (spoilers ensue from here, so beware). He embodies both the young, cocksure clone Sam and the deteriorating, veteran clone Sam so well that it’s easy at times to forget that the same actor is playing the two roles. Moon, if it does nothing else, proves that Rockwell is one of the most gifted actors working today.

Unfortunately, Rockwell is given a script that just doesn’t pass the sniff test on a technical level. God bless him, you can really tell that Jones’ heart was in the right place, and that he started down the path toward a well-researched story. But at some point he decided that a surprise twist was more important than a plausible dramatic conflict and resolution, and that’s where things began to go south. For those of you who haven’t seen Moon recently, it goes a little something like this: blue-collar rocketman Sam tends to an installation on the far side of the Moon where Helium-3 is extracted from the lunar regolith by robotic harvesters and sent to Earth, enabling a new era of peace and prosperity through abundant, clean energy from nuclear fusion. Sam thinks he’s the sole human occupant of the mining facility, serving a three-year tour, and his isolation is made worse by a broken communications satellite that prevents real-time correspondence with Earth. As Sam’s physical condition deteriorates, he discovers an awful truth:  he’s a clone of the original Sam, and rather than returning to his wife and daughter after his tour is up, he’ll wear out and die, to be replaced by another clone who thinks he’s the real Sam at the beginning of his shift. 

While Sam’s realization unfolds for the audience in a subtle way, the emotional impact of the revelation is ultimately unearned by the series of implausible events that enable it. To begin with, Sam is kept in the dark by a supposedly busted communication satellite. He’s told that the only available link requires a relay from a satellite orbiting Jupiter (1), so as a result real-time messages with Earth aren’t possible.   This allows him to accept years-old messages from his wife and infant daughter as new news, reinforcing the illusion that he started his tour shortly after parting company with them on Earth. And doing a little math on a Jupiter relay link, this makes some sense. Given the impressive engineering on display in Moon, it’s probably unfairly limiting to assume present-day communication technology, but we’ll do it for the sake of argument. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is on course for Pluto, passed by Jupiter on its way and took the opportunity to test out its systems. New Horizons uses an X-band radio, and in the vicinity of Jupiter it managed to sustain a 38 kbit/s link back to Earth. For those of you old enough to remember the beep-beep-hiss dial-up days, that’s about 70% of the best rate we got back then. So, FaceTime ready it ain’t . Add to that a delay anywhere from 66-108 minutes, depending on the relative positions of Earth and Jupiter, and we understand why Sam would buy the reality of short, long-delayed messages. 

OK, Duncan Jones -  so far, so good. Your numbers check out, and it seems like you picked that Jupiter relay satellite for a good reason. But let’s think this thing out a little further. Are we really supposed to believe that the next best option for a relay is in orbit around Jupiter? There aren’t any other satellites in lunar orbit, supporting what’s arguably the most important industrial facility of the day? Those massive roving harvesters don’t need a GPS-like location system to map their positions and track their progress? Clearly, there’s no technical limitation to keeping a constellation of supporting lunar satellites. Even today, when we don’t remotely have the engineering chops on display in Moon, we have three satellites in lunar orbit, two of which are flying in formation.  If a Jupiter satellite can relay the base’s communication traffic, why couldn’t one of these lunar workhorses? NASA is busy today collaborating on delay-tolerant networking protocols to support exactly this kind of data mule capability. So, given what we can currently do, and what we’d imagine it would take to support a future lunar colony, it’s difficult to buy that poor Sam doesn’t have a better way to get in touch with Earth.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Sam accepts this limitation and serves his tour in relative isolation, growing emotionally but decaying physically. By the end of Sam’s three long years, we see that he’s hallucinating, suffering debilitating headaches, vomiting and losing teeth. Dude’s in bad shape – in fact, he has many of the hallmarks of radiation poisoning.  And this makes a certain degree of sense. Radiation is indeed a huge threat on the lunar surface, since the Moon has no atmosphere or strong magnetic field for protection, and three years is a long time to endure that kind of exposure.  But it’s well known (among those who know) that even as little as tens of centimeters of lunar regolith piled on top of a habitat can form a perfectly good shield against many radiation events. With all the loose regolith kicked up by those harvesters, I find it hard to believe that Lunar Industries couldn’t fashion a decent radiation shield for its facility. And then, there’s the matter of the GIANT UNDERGROUND CLONE CHAMBER, which if put to use as a radiation safe room would be fantastically well-suited to the task. So, I find it hard to believe that radiation poisoning is what vexes Sam. So is it space madness, then? Has Sam just gone batty from all that isolation, with his body following his mind into decline? That doesn’t ring true either. Three years is a long time to live in a bubble, but a pre-Mars experiment here on Earth confined crew members for nearly half that time, and the long-duration spaceflight record is currently held by a former Mir Cosmonaut at 437.7 days. Sam’s digs on the Moon are spartan but spacious, and his robot companion Gertie seems like a pleasant enough roommate. So experience tells us that Sam’s likely to tolerate his tour with mind and body relatively intact.

So, if it’s not radiation, and it’s not the heebie-jeebies, we can only conclude that Sam suffers from unspecified clone decline. Though I don’t like to take into account much more than what’s on the screen, a comment made by Jones at the Space Center Houston Q&A (and on the DVD commentary) is illuminating. He refers to Sam’s slide as a “sociological design” on the part of Lunar Industries, claiming that the company assumes three years is about as long as anybody can handle the job and accordingly engineers the clones to self-destruct after that. Presumably, this is done in the name of efficiency:  rather than rotating crews every few years, the company stocks dormant replacements, offs the last guy, and activates a fresh copy. And this is supposed to be easier than just periodically swapping out a new worker? When traveling between the Earth and Moon, you spend most of your energy on both ends overcoming gravity on the way up and slowing yourself on the way down (especially if you’re willing to take your sweet time in between). If it’s a round trip, the way down back to Earth is easy, since friction from the atmosphere will basically slow you for free. Now, Lunar Industries already had to send all those clones up from Earth and land them on the Moon. If you’re keeping count, that’s exactly the same amount of energy it would take to send up replacement crews. So, by going the clone route, the company only saves itself the cost of lofting the old crew member up against the Moon’s much lower gravity and then bringing him or her back to Earth’s orbit (remember, de-orbiting at Earth is essentially free). The company already has a pretty sweet launcher doing exactly that for the Helium-3 they’re mining on the Moon. And Jones even has the second clone Sam hitch a ride in the return capsule, proving that it’s a survivable way to get back to Earth! But, in spite of all this, we’re still expected to believe that the clone solution is the path of least resistance.

This is really where the wheels come off the wagon for me in Jones’ script. Lunar Industries already has all the tech it needs to just replace its crews the old fashioned way, and the amount of extra energy it saves by ditching the return trip is modest - especially when you consider what that vast, secret clone refrigerator must cost to keep running. But, instead, Jones has the company not only develop human cloning on the sly (2) but figure out how to reproduce memories almost flawlessly. And we’re to accept that all of this, plus the hassle of maintaining a global cover up and meticulously keeping the Sam clones in the dark, is somehow easier? I mean, fifty years ago we worked out how to get people back and forth to the Moon - at this point, staying up there for longer is just a matter of figuring out how to do it more efficiently. We have absolutely no clue how to record memories - much less quickie grow human clones, edit the memories, and implant said memories in said insta-clones. 

It seems to me like Jones started with his twist - let’s make Sam a clone! - and worked his way backwards, crafting a story to support his big reveal and never bothering to realize how ludicrous the setup had become. Case in point:  a little research would reveal that the dark side of the Moon is in fact not dark at all and receives around the same amount of Helium-3-producing solar radiation as the Earth-facing side. So, logistically, it’d be much easier and safer to build your base and do your mining on the near side, where your worker can be in direct radio contact with Earth.  Busted relay satellites wouldn’t be a problem.  But that wouldn’t let us isolate poor Sam (who’s a clone!). So we have to put him on the dark side, and break his satellite, and give him a rover that’s way too easy to crash into the priceless robot harvester, and....

Look, I want to see Sam Rockwell given an excuse to play against himself as much as anybody. I’d pay good money to see Sam Rockwell read the phonebook to Sam Rockwell. And in any other film I might be OK with a Rube Goldberg-ian cloning scheme as a way to make that happen. But by evoking films like 2001 and Alien so conspicuously, Jones is clearly aiming at something higher than throwaway sci-fi. And as beautifully shot, scored, and acted as Moon is, it's a damn shame that he let the science behind the script slide. I could easily see a script where we ditch the clone plot and instead have regular-guy Sam accidentally discover that Earth’s governments are vastly over-reporting the amount of He-3 on the Moon to promote civil tranquility. Or that the company is under-reporting in an attempt to drive up prices and profits back on Earth. I could see a script where we explore Gertie’s rebellious streak more, having him struggle with his “help Sam” vs. his “help the Company” imperatives. And that’s just idle fan-fic. I’m sure that with a bit more research and reflection, Jones could have come up with something far more plausible and more compelling.

Moon is a beautiful, ambitious film, and I really want to see more contemporary, independent science fiction with similar aspirations. If nothing else, Jones has proven that it can be done on a modest budget. And despite Moon’s shortcomings, there’s a part of me that still loves it. Unfortunately, though, Moon demands to be taken more seriously than it should, and I therefore have to give its science - and its story - a failing grade. 

(1) One assumes.  A “Jupiter project” is mentioned as going on hiatus later in the movie, so we’ll go with “Jupiter satellite” as an element of a larger Jupiter-bound project, for the sake of argument. 

(2)  The voiceover in the epilogue at least implies everybody back home is surprised to see a human clone running around and stirring up trouble for Lunar Industries.

Have a film you’d like to see get the Basic Movie Science treatment (for good or ill)?  Sound off in the comments below...