Saturday, January 23, 2010

Now Available: Space:1999 Shepherd Moon


I mentioned the upcoming Powys Media releases a couple weeks ago, but now there's more news. The officially licensed Space:1999 anthology, Shepherd Moon is now available for order. Whoo-hoo! (I ordered my copy this morning!).

I'm pleased to announce I have two short stories included in this collection: "The Touch of Venus" (which opens the book...) and "Futility."

There's also "Fallen Star" by Albert Leon, Ken Scott, Lindsey Scott-Ipsen and Raja Thiagarajan.

Then there's "Cargo" by Brian Ball, "Dead End" by E.C. Tubb, "Mission Critical" by Michael Faries, "Spider's Web" by William Latham, "The Astelian Gift" by Emma Burrows and "Remembering Julia" by Stephen Jansen.

In all, the collection is over 270 pages. I can't wait to get my copy and jump in. If you're ready to order, click here.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes motion picture cycle is also the most overtly violent and controversial entry you'll discover in the classic, five-strong franchise.

Schaffner's original Planet of the Apes (1968) offered an anti-nuke, pro-peace message to top them all with that trademark, shocking Statue of Liberty climax. The fallen, rusted Lady Liberty was a tragic visual reminder that man had ruined himself and his posterity over clashing fleeting political ideologies (CCCP vs. U.S.A.). "God damn you all to Hell!"


Even Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970) -- the sophomore series entry which ended in the Earth's final obliteration -- was anti-violence in thematic thrust. The first sequel gazed at the polarization between races -- in this case simian and mutant races -- and suggested that if we didn't all learn to "get along," our world would become but a burned-out, lifeless cinder. Dark? Indeed. But encouraging of violence....certainly not. The film even featured the equivalent of college-age, Vietnam War Era, pro-peace protesters. Only in this topsy-turvy world, they were intellectual chimpanzees...

By contrast, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes -- written by Paul Dehn (and based on characters by Pierre Boulle) -- is dramatically different in both tone and theme from these cinematic predecessors.

The best of the four sequels to Planet of the Apes -- and a great science fiction film even as a stand-alone venture -- director J. Lee Thompsons' film suggests -- in unblinking, brutal terms -- that in the case of subjugation, oppression, slavery and injustice, violent revolution is the only solution to rectify the problem. In the words of the film, despotic masters won't be kind until they are "forced" to be kind. To force kindness, your people have to be free. To have freedom...you must possess power.

This notion of violent revolution as panacea to matters of social inequality didn't just arise from the ether. Like all great works of art, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, released in 1972, strongly reflects the time period during which it was produced. And from 1965 through the early 1970s, the United States suffered a number of debilitating, disturbing and violent race riots in many of its most populous urban areas. Angry African-Americans took up arms, looted merchants, and destroyed property in an attempt to express their grievances with the social injustice they witnessed and endured.

The Watts Riots occurred in Los Angeles in the year 1965, and 4,000 rioters were arrested by the police. 34 rioters were killed, and over 1,000 were injured. A political commission convened after the riot judged that the outbreak of violence had been caused by the following conditions: racial inequality in Los Angeles, a high jobless rate, bad schools, heavy-handed police tactics, and pervasive job and housing discrimination.

The LAPD chief at the time of the lawlessness didn't exactly help calm things down either. He referred to the rioters as "monkeys in the zoo," according to Social Problems, 1968, pages 322-341. As silly as that may sound, that very description -- of rioters as monkeys -- is literally translated in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

The Watts Riots did not represent an isolated incident, either. There was also the Washington D.C. Riot of 1968, the Baltimore Riot of the same year, and the Chicago Riot too. And -- perhaps most dramatically -- there was the so-called "Detroit Rebellion" of 1967 which lasted for five days (during a hot July) and saw 7,200 arrests, 40 million dollars worth of property damage, and over 2,000 buildings burned to the ground. The root causes of this violent spree were -- again after the fact -- deemed the same as those that had been observed in Watts. Unemployment by blacks doubled that of whites (15.9% to 8%) in Detroit; the community had little access to adequate medical facilities; there was distinct "spatial segregation" in the city; and 134,000 jobs had been lost over the previous decade-and-a-half.

In toto, half-a-million African-Americans were involved in the various race riots of the late 1960s. To contextualize that sum total, this number is equivalent to the number of American soldiers serving in the War in Vietnam. (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 79). This huge figure alone should put truth to the lie that the riots were but isolated incidents, or somehow just involved career criminals. Clearly, this was a social movement, not a crime spree.

From this turbulent era of violence, riot and protest was formulated Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a sci-fi film which projects an ape slave uprising in technological North America in the far-flung future year of 1991. As also suggested by author Greene, the film's text is actually "key for re-reading the Watts Riots as a justifiable reaction to intolerable oppression, rather than just an outbreak of lawless abandon." (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 16). In Dehn's script, the rebelling apes are even specifically referred to as "rioters."

Shot entirely on the futuristic-looking campus of the University of California at Irvine, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is set in "the future," in an America that has transformed itself into a rigid, fascist state. Nightly curfews are enforced rigorously. Heavily-armed police officers patrol the streets. American citizens are subjected to torture by the State (via a device called an authenticator) without any respect to due process of law. Announcements to citizens by the "Watch Commander" play regularly in the background on the heaivily-guarded city streets...the ubiquitous voice of Big Brother. Labor demonstrations and gatherings are ruthlessly put down by military police.

Because all dogs and cats have died (killed by a space plague in 1985), apes have replaced these beloved animals. First as beloved pets but now as slaves.

These slave apes are "conditioned" to obey human masters, and are punished via "conditioning" when they fail in their tasks or simply don't perform fast enough.

A populist human movement resists the enslavement of apes...because the simians are (involuntarily) taking away their jobs. GO HUMAN, NOT APE, reads one placard. SLAVES ARE SCABS reads another. UNFAIR TO WAITERS screams one more We saw signs and isceral protests like this in District 9 (2009) this summer too: a nativist fear that ethnic "newcomers" are here to steal jobs, depress wages and tax our already overburdened system.

In Conquest of the Planet of the Ape's dynamite, extended opening sequence -- shot entirely in the shadow of 1970s "futurism" architecture -- the viewer is introduced to the rules and locales of this cold, fascist world. Apes are trained en mass in the public square, running a gauntlet of tasks at the bidding of armed, uniformed masters. They are constantly instructed and disciplined in cruel terms. "Go!" "No!" "Do!" It is the ape's job to serve, but not to question. The slaves are also forced to breed, but not allowed to maintain families.

In keeping with the overarching metaphor of the race riots in America, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes further contextualizes the apes' 1991 slavery in terms of the historical African-American experience in our country.

We see, for instance, a racially-charged image of prejudice: a slave ape obediently shining his master's shoes (a shoeshine boy!). We also see apes transported from their native habitats (Borneo) against their will to serve in the United States, via ships. Again, this is an echo of Ghana's "Gate of No Return," and the involuntary journey of many slaves from Africa to our shores...as prisoners.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes even depicts slave apes in neck shackles, and auctioned off in a public square to the highest human bidder. If you've ever toured the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, SC, you'll recall that such auctions are not fiction; and that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes does not exaggerate the plight or treatment of slaves in our history.

Conquest of the Planet of the Ape's screenplay draws specific parallels to the African-American experience, not merely with these resonant images, but also in the presentation of an African-American character named MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) who serves as the aide to Governor Breck.

McDonald is sympathetic to the ape cause and the ape leader, Caesar (Roddy McDowall) notes that McDonald "above all people," should understand him. "Above all people" is an explicit verbal reminder of MacDonald's racial identity and status as the descendant of a black slave.

Later, one of the oppressive aides in Governor Breck's dictatorial regime notes that the compassionate McDonald must be an "ape lover." Not to be excessive, but this is a variation of the ugly epithet "nigger lover." Another aide replies caustically (about McDonald), "Don't it figure?" Again, these are veiled, bigoted references to McDonald's skin color and his heritage as a black man. Governor Breck even terms MacDonald a "bleeding heart," equating him with the position of civil-rights-fighting "liberal" in this battle.

The villain of the piece, Governor Breck (Don Murray) finally informs ape leader Caesar why he hates apes, and his detailed explanation is one built on the backbone of racial hatred; a belief that the "other" (black man or ape...) is inferior to him. Breck calls Caesar "the savage who must be shackled in chains...You poison our guts. When we hate you, we're hating the dark side of ourselves."

Our question becomes: is Breck referring to the "dark side" of human nature (which certainly doesn't seem to fit the kindly, innocent apes; especially those like Lisa...), or is the governor actually making another coded statement about skin color. "The dark side" might actually be interpreted to mean dark-skinned.

What remains rather audacious about Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is that most audiences -- white, black, what-have-you -- register the subjugated apes (and Caesar) as the unambiguous heroes of the piece; as the wronged party -- even though it is the entire human race that stands to lose in any violent revolution.

Perhaps such reflexive identification with the underdog, with the exploited, speaks to the inherent goodness and fairness of the American people. Intellectually, we immediately reject racism and oppression, and so therefore easily sympathize with the put-upon, subjugated apes. Yet, ironically, that's not at all what happened regarding the real life riots of the 1960s. Nixon's "silent majority" found it easier to disregard the rioters as lawbreakers and opportunists than acknowledge them as fighters against injustice; fighters for equal rights in American cities of consdierable social disparity. Of course, a movie allows us to experience things that we don't see or understand in real life. As viewers, we saw in Conquest torture, degradation, inequality and other moral sins. But how many of us went to Watts to live? Or Detroit?

At 88 minutes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a short, fast and brutal film, but it is also one of the most effective and direct science-fiction movies of the era. Many of the visuals reinforce the pervasive theme of governmental subjugation.

I'm particularly fond of an artful shot that visually "entraps" Caesar and his kindly master, Armando (Ricardo Montalban) within the parted, uniformed legs of an armed soldier. The images tells us how the State surrounds and dominates the characters.

I also appreciate the manner in which the inspirational Caesar wordlessly transmits his message of total resistance (and then rebellion...) to his kindred ape slaves. Caesar simply appears on the scene (sometimes in close-up; sometimes in medium shot), and then there's quick pand and zoom to a slave ape...and then the slave ape very actively rebels; dumping garbage, dropping books, even starting a fire. This brand of cause-and-effect shot is repeated again and again in the latter half of the movie, and it's a perfect visual signifier for the notion that you can't kill a powerful idea. Now, Caesar can't literally be everywhere at once; but his message of freedom and liberty transmits at light speed across the slave population. The visual approach reveals how powerful, and widespread the idea of liberty can be in a population that lacks it.

The final sequence of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes depicts the specifics of the ape uprising. It is a clash between riot police (with shields, guns, and helmets) and armed, screeching, enraged apes. This extended, and very violent sequence diagrams "the slave's right to punish his persecutor." The sequence ends with mankind fallen, and Caesar assuming command, ironically, from the pulpit of the human civic center. Behind him -- in the background of the frame -- skyscrapers burn out of control. Again, given the context of the Detroit Rebellion or the Watts Riots, this image is meaningful. People watching the nightly news during those real-life conflagrations had also witnessed "the night of the fires" as Caesar called it, and wondered: would order be restored? Or was this the dawn of a new order? The order of the oppressed...

20th Century Fox apparently grew concerned that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was too overtly a political film., and took steps to de-fang the social commentary it offered.

In the original, scripted ending, Caesar announced, basically, that Apes would now rule the world just as cruelly as man had ruled it. But a last minute bit of post-production editing changed the tenor of Caesar's pronouncement. After his anger is released Caesar relents and notes that even the inhuman (the apes...) can prove "humane" in their domination over mankind. It's a quick philosophical turnaround and doesn't entirely work. In fact, your head may spin from the shift. But still, you can understand the compromise. The studio didn't want Conquest of The Planet of the Apes -- in the environment of race riots -- to be interpreted as an incitement to real-life violence.

Still, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ends on a haunting, unforgettable note. Flames consume the the futuristic city, and the planet of the apes is born. And as the end credits roll, the screeching of the victorious apes continues unabated. No closing music softens this shrill sound. The night of the fires continues into an unknown future...

So, is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes really pro-violence? Or is it simply pro-slave? In an interesting sense, the answer is undeniably affirmative: it is pro-violence. Thomas Jefferson once explained that "experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms (of government) those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

We see that tyranny clearly depicted here: the America of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes exists for the glorification for the rich and powerful at the expense of liberty and freedom for all. Breck's administration is positively despotic (and he's running for President!) And Thomas Jefferson's prescribed cure for tyranny was not unlike Caesar's in the film; the steadfast belief that "every generation needs a new revolution."

So Conquest of the Planet of the Apes re-interprets the Watts Riots and other race violence of the 1960s as one possible and even legitimate response to entrenched racial inequality in America. Caesar tells Mr. McDonald that the only means left to him and his people (the apes) is, indeed, revolution. "We cannot be free until we have power. How else can we achieve it?"

MacDonald then insists that Caesar's attempt at revolution is doomed to failure. "Perhaps, this time," Caesar replies, indicating that this initial riot will not be the last attempt. This response further contextualizes the race riots in America: they exist not as separate, individual, isolated incidents of rampant lawlessness...but as organized, necessary steps along the pathway from slavery to freedom, to total equality.

I realize it is controversial to equate a science-fiction film about "apes" to the Black experience in American history, yet that's precisely the comparison Conquest of the Planet of the Apes forges, as I hope the images in this post, and my contextual examples, reveal. The result is an incendiary, subversive and endlessly intelligent film; one that asks us to gaze at what Caesar calls a myth: "the ideas that human beings are kind."

Like District 9 (2009), Conquest of The Planet of the Apes judges man by the way he treats those populations he controls or dominates. Namely the slaves, the minorities, the immigrants, or the ethnic "others."

In both films, there's an implied warning to entrenched power (one made much more overt in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes):

The tables can be turned. Or worse, over-turned...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

ACEFEST 2010: Judge Muir!

The New York Press made the announcement recently, so now I can share the news here too: I've accepted the invitation to serve as a judge at the upcoming ACEFEST 2010 Film Festival in NYC.

This is the film festival's fifth year, and the event will be held from August 20th through 28th, 2010. Tickets go on sale, Monday July 12th at 11:00 am.

Here's a snippet from the New York Press article involving the festival and, in particular, the selection of the judges:

The judging panel consists of 14 film experts including Emmy-award winning visual effects guru Ben Grossmann and Splinterheads director Brant Sersen. The panel’s talent pool is deep and diversified and they have all been called upon for their specific expertise because this year ACEFEST is trying something new with their judging process.

“For the past few years, we’ve pretty much taken anyone who’s interested in the judging within reason,” O’Malley said. “If they had any sort of notable resume, they were in. This year we tried something different. We very specifically made categories which we wanted to fill with judges. Categories such as performance, directing, special effects, cinematography and writing. Then we set out to fill those particular categories with judges. They’re all looking with an open eye at everything they see of course, but they’re all accomplished experts in their fields. They’ve seen it all. They’ve done it all. It’s going to be very interesting what they bring to the table this year because - I guess for lack of a better term -we got more organized. It was less of a free-for-all with our judging panel.”

And O’Malley expects the judges to have their work cut out for them if the caliber of submissions, which start being accepted Jan. 11, are on par with prior years.

I must say, I'm really looking forward to this gig with tremendous excitement. I can't wait to see all the films; and I hope that all you independent filmmakers out there get signed up for the competition. To learn more about ACEFEST (and the film submission process), click here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Open Water (2004)

Amidst all the recent buzz generated by the low-budget Paranormal Activity (2009), I began contemplating another low-budget horror initiative of the 2000s; one that attempted the same alchemy (at least to some degree...), and also met with financial success. Yet this "other" movie has virtually been forgotten these days...

I refer to Open Water, a venture that cost a little over $100,000 to produce and which, like Paranormal Activity was also widely compared to The Blair Witch Project in terms of genesis, production, marketing, and even cost. After American and international theatrical release, Open Water grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million dollars....making it an unqualified hit. There was even a DTV sequel in 2006.


Shot on digital video, the original Open Water was a fictionalized account of a harrowing real-life incident. In 1998, an American couple was accidentally abandoned at sea by a commercial scuba diving boat following an incorrect head count.

That leaping-off point doesn't sound anything like Paranormal Activity, I readily acknowledge, but I suppose the association was triggered for me when I recalled that Open Water also featured, essentially, a cast of two (a man and a woman), focused intently on our use of and over-dependence on modern technology, and, finally, concluded in grim, unrelenting terms.

Directed by Chris Kentis, Open Water (like Paranormal Activity) depicts the routine of a very modern, very professional, very youthful American couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan). They've ceded too much of their lives to all-consuming careers. When the couple needs a respite from incessantly ringing cell phones and e-mail, Daniel and Susan steal away on vacation to the Caribbean.

Ironically, when the exhausted Dan and Susan get to the islands, they don't relax. Instead, they fill every iota of free time planning expensive, colorful excursions, including a scuba diving trip. But once on the dive, a simple mistake results in the heretofore unimaginable: Daniel and Susan are left behind by their diving boat!

Adrift together in a turbulent, endless sea -- with night falling and sharks circling ever closer -- Daniel and Susan start countenancing the incomprehensible truth. No cell phones are available to call for help. No e-mail can type out a distress message. No rescue infrastructure, bureaucracy or "mommy" government will pluck them from the immediate and mortal danger. The easy, automatic, nay thoughtless technological "connectedness" of their daily lives proves an illusion in nature. And out here -- in the swallowing, hungry sea -- they have only each other to hold onto.

The majority of Open Water's scant seventy-nine minute running time is indeed spent at sea, featuring endless, vertigo-producing ocean-level shots of the couple coping with their horrible circumstance. Dan and Susan grow hungry. Fish nip at their legs. They vomit. They urinate. They fall asleep. They clutch at life, and, finally, to each other. It's a chronicle of unceasing agony...a hell on Earth.

The authentic location, the naturalism of the nearby threat (no CGI or mechanical sharks here...just the real thing...) and the capable hand-held camera work weave a more-than-sufficient tapestry of dread. This isn't a movie to watch dispassionately, it's one to experience almost literally as a participant. Those eye-level shots put you in the water too; so that you can almost feel the endless, merciless lapping of the waves.

Yet Open Water also remains an effective horror film because of the template that forms the bedrock of its simple narrative. This movie -- with such spare aesthetics and a blunt depiction of the worst no-win scenario imaginable -- intriguingly mimics Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous "five stages of death and dying."

Basically, Kubler-Ross's theory is that in facing mortality, human beings transition through a series of developments or stages. Open Water walks the audience through these five stages, as our protagonists attempt to come to terms with their fate in the pounding, eternal ocean. In other words, the movie -- once it hits the water -- is about preparing for the inevitable.

In accordance with the first stage of death and dying, at first, there is complete denial on the part of these tech-savvy, over-scheduled Americans. Daniel stubbornly clings to the hope that they will be miraculously rescued. In fact, he doesn't even swim towards another boat that is visible on the horizon because he believes so fervently that their diving vessel will recognize the mistake and return to the exact spot where it left them. Needless to say, that doesn't occur.

After a time, anger swallows-up denial. Splashing his hands in the water like a petulant child, Daniel bellows at the top of his lungs and throws a temper tantrum. He is bitter that they "paid" for this experience, the opportunity, essentially, to die at the mercy of the sharks. This too is a subtly funny comment on modern Americans, I suspect. Daniel seems more upset that the company took his money than that he is going to die. Soon.

Daniel and Susan then argue a lot, and she blames him for their crisis. This is her encounter with anger. He remained underwater looking at fish for too long, she complains, and that's why the boat left. It's always nice to be able to blame someone else, isn't it?

Ross's third stage of death and dying is bargaining. So Susan and Daniel talk about how -- if only they could just return to their comfortable life in front of the television and the Discovery Channel -- they wouldn't be so foolish as to entertain a venture like this again. They stepped out of their natural habitat (a technological one, interestingly), and have paid the price.

Shortly, the fourth stage, depression, sets in on our unlucky protagonists.. The doomed couple realizes that no one is coming to rescue them and that this is, indeed, how they are going to die. Here. Today. Now. No TV, Hollywood bullshit. No last minute cavalry coming over the hill.

Ross's fifth and final stage -- acceptance -- is at last broached. In one of the most coldly realistic, unflinching and horrifying scenes I've ever seen in a horror movi, Susan analytically accepts the reality of her situation. This protagonist makes a choice that is carefully weighed as a better option than being eaten by sharks. Our final survivor dips below the sea on purpose...and willingly drowns. With Daniel gone (eaten), Susan lets the ocean take her under...and away from life.

Open Water follows the Ross-style transition from one stage of death and dying to the next stage, from denial all the way through acceptance. The movie climaxes only when all five stages have been adequately vetted, and this structure grants the horror film a kind of artistic completeness and intellect that is all too rare in the American cinema today. It rings scarily true.

I still recall leaving the theater after Open Water feeling discomforted and troubled. The movie doesn't blink, doesn't retreat from the reality of the horrifying scenario, and there is no sunlight to part the dark clouds. Instead, the film reminds us that we don't control our fate. Something as simple and ultimately as meaningless as a mistake — a frigging arithmetic error — could impact our very lives. It's a horrifying thought, and one that we have all considered, no matter how briefly, after the terror we saw on 9/11. And this thematic terrain makes Open Water a profound statement about the human condition today.

Paranormal Activity features a couple in a similarly harrowing situation (only dealing with demonic possession), and it makes a comment about our dependence and fascination with technology -- and the belief that technology somehow barricades us from danger. But Open Water is a more hardcore, believable, natural and ultimately moving variation on the same theme: Our American Any Couple -- confident and affluent -- realizes that life isn't as secure as it seems.

Paranormal Activity made a lot of "best horror films of the decade" recently, while Open Water made relatively few or none. I suspect that's because Paranormal Activity has more fun with the premise; and because it lingers on things that aren't real (like demons). It ultimately gives us gimmicky horror touches that we can discount as fake: CGI demon faces and harness stunt work. Open Water relies on no such trickery. It is nihilistic in the extreme and doesn't tread into the supernatural. That might make it too strong a film for some.

Da Vinci once stated that water is the driver of nature. In Open Water, water is the medium that drives our human nature. How do we face inevitable death? Denial? Anger? Bargaining? Depression? Acceptance? Open Water is a brilliant horror film and a great character piece because there's something universal in Susan and Daniel's progression through Kubler-Ross's gauntlet of mortality. We recognize the steps.

And we fear them. For after acceptance...oblivion.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Coming in February: The House Between Soundtrack CD





In February, to kick off the fourth anniversary of the premiere of my independent, sci-fi web series The House Between (which has twice been nominated for "Best Web Production" by Airlock Alpha/Sy Fy Portal...), the official series soundtrack is being released.

Above, you can see some of the beautiful CD artwork created by talented Kim Breeding. The CD itself features every prominent cue and composition from all three seasons of The House Between as written and performed by maestros Mateo Latosa and Cesar Gallegos. And as an added bonus, the CD also includes Kim's haunting "The House Between" song, featured in the episodes "Settled" and "Ruined." I'll provide ordering information here as soon as it becomes available.

Also coming in 2010: a re-edited, re-mastered Complete First Season DVD release of The House Between. More on that exciting project as the time nears.

Meanwhile, if you haven't checked out The House Between, you can still catch the original Internet broadcast episodes for a limited time at Veoh, or at The House Between smart hub.

Monday, January 18, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Moon (2009)

Victor Hugo once wrote that "the greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

Now imagine a world in which you carry such great happiness and love in your heart, only to discover one day....that it's not true. Or more accurately, that it's not yours. Rather it is an illusion, and the love you carry is but the "property" of someone else, another individual.

In vague terms (in case you haven't seen the movie), that's the crux of the understated and haunting Moon (2009), a hard science-fiction film starring Sam Rockwell, written by Nathan Parker, and directed by Duncan Jones.

Moon is set in the near future, primarily on a moon base called Sarang that is busy producing Helium-3, the miraculous new energy source needed down here on Earth.


Manning Moon base Sarang is one lonely, strung-out astronaut, Sam Bell (Rockwell). Sam is rapidly nearing the end of his three year contract, growing a little loopy from passing the hours alone, and he spends much of his day chatting with the base's ambulatory computer/robot, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

But Sam longs to return home to his beautiful wife, Tess, who periodically sends him recorded video messages. Sam also has a beautiful little daughter, Eve, that he misses desperately. In two short weeks, he can resume his life with them, he believes. That's the only thing he is holding onto.

Sam is so excited about returning to his family that he ignores some odd events going on around him. Like the fact that the large diorama/model he's worked on for 938 hours was actually begun before he arrived at the base. Sam also ignores the phantasm of the girl in the yellow dress, and jolting video images of himself that seem to sparkle to life and then vanish on his view screen without rhyme or reason. He doesn't seem to worry much, either, that he can never, ever get a live feed transmission back to planet Earth.

Then, one day, there's an accident on the lunar surface involving one of the powerful energy harvesters. Sam is injured in a lunar rover and suddenly things really take a turn for the truly weird. Somehow, Sam is returned safely to Sarang's infirmary. Who rescued him? How did he get there? Why can't he remember the specifics of the accident?

Upon recuperation, Sam overhears Gerty talking to officials of the LUNAR Corp. in hushed, conspiratorial tones...even though supposedly there's no available live feed to Earth. Then the officials abruptly decide to send a rescue mission to recover Sam before his tour of duty is over. Why? What is the real reason the enigmatic "Eliza" rescue team is moon bound?

Finally, Sam meets someone on the lunar surface, in the wreck of the lunar rover, and comes to realize that he's been a patsy in someone else's game for a long time. That reality is nothing like he had imagined it to be.

I don't want to give away too much more about Moon's plot except to say that it is fascinating, and lives up to Outland's (1981) famous ad-line: "Even in space, the ultimate enemy is still Man."

And that allusion to an older science fiction film -- one set on a moon base orbiting Jupiter -- leads nicely into a discussion of Moon as dedicated homage to the outer space film tradition of the late 1960s-early 1980s.

I'm not talking about the swashbuckling Star Wars "adventure" tradition here, but something else entirely: the sort of "man alone"-confronting-the-mysteries-of-existence tradition. These are films and TV installments that focus on the details of our near-future space "tech" or hardware, but also on the condition and future of the man who operates it. It's not the holodeck/transporter room/bumpy-headed tradition of latter-day Star Trek, either (not that there's anything wrong with that...). But here, life in space is extremely difficult, and one little mistake means instant death.

Accordingly, Moon references a number of respected older productions. Alone on his job, going slightly bonkers, Sam might well be Bruce Dern's Freeman Lowell in Douglas Trumball's Silent Running (1972). There, Dern's character -- the only human aboard an agro-freighter called The Valley Forge -- had just three drones (Huey, Dewey and Louie) to converse with and play poker with. Here Sam has the company only of Gerty. Dern's character was also put in the position of disobeying orders and attempting an escape of sorts. Sam's journey mirrors that aspect of Silent Running too.

There's also a reference in Moon to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Remember the scene in Kubrick's masterpiece which featured Dr. Floyd arriving on the space station and telephoning home to wish his daughter a happy birthday? There's a recorded birthday call between Sam and his daughter here too. It's interesting how the same idea is re-purposed in an original way by Jones. In 2001, the phone call represented a marvel of communication: a way for humans to stay close across vast distances. In Moon, the call represents the opposite: Sam's distance from his family. The recorded message allows no real back-and-forth. It's only a reminder of what's lost: real-time contact between father and daughter.

And, viewers familiar with Outland (1981) will instantly recognize the over sized, digital countdown clock ticking away to the "rescue" shuttle's arrival at Sarang. A similar clock counted down the arrival of a supply shuttle at Io in the older film. But that Outland shuttle was really carrying a team of assassins to murder troublesome Marshal O'Neil (Sean Connery). Likewise, the countdown clock serves the same purpose in Moon: building suspense, and carrying assassins bent on murdering poor Sam. In both cases, an individual (O'Neil or Sam) has stepped out of the prescribed order, learned a secret, and must be dealt with before the population at large discovers the hidden truth. There are even some similarities in shuttle design in the two pictures.

Right down to the smallest details, Moon echoes the outer space thrillers of yesteryear. One Purina-style logo on the computers comes right out of Alien (1979), as does the frequent talk of work "contracts." Also, the company LUNAR -- which runs the moon base -- is of English/Asian origin, just like nefarious Weyland-Yutani. And Sam's discovery of a body on the lunar surface -- wiping ice away from the face plate of a space suit -- also refers back to a haunting image from the classic Space:1999 (1975-1977) episode titled "Another Time, Another Place," and it's actually the same discovery: the horrifying vision of a corpse that can't possibly be a corpse. In that Johnny Byrne episode of Space:1999, the discovery involved alternate worlds and alternate selves. Moon boasts a resonance of the latter element.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the film's plot and resolution comes around to echo Blade Runner's (1982) central theme; and idea of man playing God with living beings who feel, think...and love. Mankind tampering with life-spans, memories and emotions.

What I found so consistently intriguing and delightful about Moon is that although it indeed alludes to all these great productions of the late 1960s-1980s, it isn't a remake, a re-boot, a re-imagination, a "brand" or a sequel. While cleverly aping the austere, minimalist visual style of 2001, Silent Running and Space: 1999, director Jones nonetheless weaves an original and thoughtful narrative.

It's one that -- like Silent Running, Solaris, Blade Runner, etc. -- asks important questions about what it means to be a human being. And it questions whether love is something we can transfer -- perhaps through osmosis, perhaps through programming, perhaps through cloning -- to our creations.

Gerty is one answer to that question. Jones teases us throughout the film that Gerty (a robot with a 1970s yellow smiley face screen...) may be as secretive and manipulative as Kubrick's HAL 9000. The truth is somewhat different...and ultimately affecting.

Gerty lives up to his programming, but it's implicit that he's doing something more than that as well. That he boasts an emotional bond with Sam that goes well beyond company directives and protocols. I mean, the robot understands the concept of self-sacrifice. Moon seems to suggest that man and machine, clone and robot, are more than the sum of their "constructed" parts. When we dismiss such things out of hand, it makes us all...less human

Interestingly, Moon opens by explaining that we have conquered our energy problems. A voice over narration informs the audience "there was a time when energy was a dirty word," for instance. But after optimistic talk of this great breakthrough, it then it goes on to tell Sam's story; a story of a corporation that has made moral compromises to achieve that breakthrough. A Space:1999 episode of the 1970s ("Dragon's Domain") noted that "space adventuring is terribly expensive" and that "the opportunities" come "one at a time." Moon acknowledges that reality: watching the bottom line, LUNAR has assured that no humans will die on the moon; and that no interruption of the energy flow will occur either. But the way the corporation has achieved this end is both deceitful and immoral.

Moon is a sturdy, introspective, intelligent meditation on the near-future trajectory of humanity. When we go to the stars, how will we treat the men and women who represent the vanguard? How will we replace people who are injured? How will we assure that those astronauts remain psychologically sound during long durations alone, isolated? Moon finds answers -- and it also finds pitfalls -- in LUNAR's solutions.

The film is not a shoot-em-up, it is not a blockbuster, and it is not a crowd-pleaser. The location may be space, but the approach is entirely human; entirely grounded. The last film that attempted this alchemy was Solaris (2002), and I remember how vehemently modern audiences hated, hated, hated it. It's easier to tell a sci-if story about light sabers, drooling aliens, and rampaging robots than it is about the condition of the human heart, I suppose. By some way of thinking, Moon is even a love story: an impossible love story.

Moon is a space epic all right, but it is an emotional, intimate epic.

And no, that needn't be a contradiction in terms.