Anybody who has ever worked for somebody else has probably, at one point, thought that they are so knowledgeable, so talented, so valuable, so whatever, that if they got fired or laid off or simply took a hike, the entire enterprise would crumble. Whether one buys into this because it’s a comfortable delusion in a workplace where uncertainty reigns, or whether it comes from an earnest overestimation of one’s own contributions, the thing that usually breaks this illusion is when that workplace connection finally is severed and life continues on for both parties. It’s right about then that people learn one of the harshest lessons of the working life: that no matter how good you are at what you do, you are, in fact, replaceable and perhaps even expendable. No exceptions. This reality has been explored in no small number of workplace dramas intended to remind us of the drudgery of wage living, but perhaps my favorite examination of it is in a surprisingly ambitious and skillfully executed science fiction movie called, simply, Moon.
The story is that in the near future, Earth has had one oil crisis too many, so Lunar Industries starts mining helium-3 from the moon’s soil using automated harvesters and cargo ships. Its stations are manned by a single person on a three-year stint as a biological failsafe, making sure the automation works properly and stepping in to repair things when it does not. Sam Bell is a Lunar technician at Sarang Station, on the dark side of the moon, and he is nearing the end of his three years. He looks like hell; living alone on the moon will do that to you, especially when you left behind a beautiful wife and your unborn daughter, Eve. Thanks to chronic communications problems, Sam can’t have any two-way video calls with his wife, so he must rely on pre-recorded messages they send each other. Sam’s only companion at Sarang is an artificial intelligence named GERTY, who is efficient enough to make you question if humans are really needed on these helium-3 stations.
One day, Sam passes out while driving his big lunar rover around the mining grounds, and when he comes to, he realizes there is somebody else in the station with him. It’s another version of himself, a perfect doppelganger, just a lot healthier looking. After some initial conflict, the two both begin to learn that they have even more in common than would at first appear. Meanwhile, GERTY has plenty of answers he can’t give to questions that Sam knows better to ask, but must. It all boils down to a severe breakdown in the protocol Sam has lived by for so long under trying conditions. But somehow, he is going to understand why his health is failing. He is going to find out why there is a younger, healthier duplicate of him walking around the station. And he is going to get a message through to his family in real time, even if it kills him. And it very well might.
Moon is a story of worker exploitation set in the same kind of industrialized, hard science fiction setting that gave us classics like 2001, Alien and Outland. In fact, the film’s makers cited such movies as a direct influence, and sought to create an experience that brings us back to such stories, highly dependent on an imagined setting with imaginary but plausible technology, and trafficking far more in character development, theme and tone than in SFX spectacle. This is a movie that punches well above its weight visually, thematically and dramatically. And while it isn’t perfect—some pretty sizeable plot holes begin to open up in the final act and in some places, it apes its source material perhaps a little too closely—it still provides a compelling character study of a guy who ironically gave up everything back home so he could take on a job to provide for a better future for the very people he left behind. It’s the kind of thing that makes one wonder, if Sam was so dedicated to providing for his family, did he really have to go all the way to the Moon to do it? For that matter, do any of us really have to go to the lengths we go to so we may provide for ourselves and the ones we love? Or do we entrap ourselves in a certain progression of profession that ultimately takes us to geographical, emotional and moral destinations that always feel a bit strange? Watching Moon, one begins to appreciate both why Sam took this job at Sarang, and why he was a fool to actually go. For once he decides it’s time to cash, going back home isn’t nearly as easy as he would like it to be. The job doesn’t ever let go that easily, and the home to which one returns is never the home one left behind.
The moment of truth centers on that last point: what happens at home when we are away from it for work. As old Sam’s health begins to deteriorate markedly, and as new Sam helps carry out a desperate plan of rebellion against Lunar Industries, and as GERTY goes from collaborator of one kind of collaborator of another…old Sam manages to get to a communications relay and finally patch a live line back home. After so many months of not hearing his wife speak to him for real, he finally gets his chance. What comes out of that conversation is a deeply saddening moment where Sam realizes just how wrong he has been about everything from the moment he worked his first day on Sarang until now. Sometimes, the things employers do to keep people happy are the same things they do to enslave them. Not everyone learns the difference before it’s too late.