Friday, April 03, 2009

The "Interplanetary Era" (and a review of Moon from SXSW)

I don't know how many "catch-up" posts I'll do, but I did want to do one for Moon, specifically, because I love it. It's a solidly executed movie, with a very good performance from Sam Rockwell (which is good, because he doesn't share the screen with anybody else except for very brief moments). The folks with knee-jerk anti-CGI reactions will likely appreciate that much of the effects work is done with models, and it looks pretty good.

I've got a special affection for movie like Moon, though, because they take place in a part of future history that is both tantalizingly close and generally ignored. It was a staple of print science fiction for a long time, but never got a lot of serious play in film and television because. My parents, who watched Americans land on the Moon as teenagers, probably expected to live in it, and if they didn't, their kids certainly would.

Call it "the interplanetary era" - the period where we make permanent settlements on other planets and moons within our solar system, but before we've made the leap to being an interstellar civilization. We're arguably on the fringe right now, with our brief visits to the Moon and unmanned missions to Mars. Moon is not much further into the progression, showing us an outpost on the Moon which exists entirely to service Earth, populated by a single astronaut.

We don't see much of this period on the big and small screen, in large part because it's hard. Even if most of the action would likely take place in tight sets, that's not such an advantage, as you'd have to simulate microgravity. Sticklers for accuracy might want the horizon drawn in, sure, but it's making sure that everything on the moon falls at 1/6 normal speed that's the killer, even before figuring out what to do with the ground and the sky for exteriors (or how to make people in spacesuits active and visually interesting).

That's inconvenient, but I think we've got the tools to do it now. If someone wanted to set a movie on Europa, the computer guys could create an ice field that stretches to the near horizon with a dynamic Jupiter dominating the sky. Make it an action movie and set the fight choreographers loose to see what sort of wire-fu they'd come up with for a low-gravity world.

The trouble is, I think that many people are already beyond interplanetary, at least mentally. Despite being technically much further out, it's a lot easier to film something where we can quickly travel to other Earth-like planets. Look at the Stargate series, for instance; they're great fun, but their basis is that most planets in the galaxy (and, apparently, another galaxy or two) have roughly Earth's mass and atmosphere, and plant life that closely resembles that of western Canada. Stargate is doubly convenient, because it's also contemporary.

(This is why I kind of shake my fist at people who gripe about the time period of Enterprise or the new Star Trek movie, saying Trek should be about looking forward, not back. It's still the future, but it's a more challenging, exciting future than the sanitized, familiar, safe places of the TNG era.)

To a certain extent, I think this has hurt space exploration - in the popular imagination, everyone already has their sights set on things that are hundreds of years in the future, and the challenges of spreading through our solar system seem too prosaic compared to what people are used to. In the way that prosecutors have come to hate CSI for giving potential jurors unreasonable expectations of what forensic investigation can do, the public thinks Star Trek when they hear "space exploration", when in fact it will take NASA decades to get us to StarCops.

What, no-one remembers StarCops? A BBC series that ran for nine episodes back in 1987, then appeared on US Public Television a year or two later. It's very much a space detectives series, but it actually made an effort to show microgravity and had an international cast of characters. Smart writing and decent acting if I remember correctly; sadly, I haven't seen it in a while because it hasn't shown up on American airwaves recently, has never been released on Region 1 DVD, and (I think) even the R2 DVD is out of print.

Something you can find if you want a good look at this era is Planetes. It started life as a wonderful manga about outer-space salvage by Makoto Yukimura, and was adapted into a very good animated series, though unlike many comic-to-animation series in Japan, the animators change the structure a lot, introducing some characters earlier, others not at all, and adding new ones, to make it feel more like a TV series. The credits mention HD work, so I hope it gets a Blu-ray release. I'll happily buy it again.

Anyway, the film which got me on this line of thought is Moon. It's pretty great; hopefully Sony Pictures Classics gives it a good push in June. I think they will; Sony does seem to be pretty good about not sitting on the films they acquire, and even pushing them into more mainstream theaters when they can, although summer is competitive.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

I will not lie to you; as soon as I read the description of Moon, I had mentally anointed it my favorite film of the festival, to the point where not only would another film have to blow me away, but this one would have to screw up. I like Sam Rockwell, good acting, nifty visuals, and I have a particular fondness for this particular, underappreciated part of future history (the "interplanetary era"). Well, as it turns out, a film or two did impress me a lot, but this one not only didn't screw up, but it wound up being one of the smartest, most well-rounded science fiction films in recent memory.

In the future, the energy crisis has been averted by cheap fusion, fueled by Helium-3. Lunar Industries maintains a mostly-automated base on the dark side of the moon to collect it, with astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) and base computer GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey) monitoring the four rolling drone refineries. He's nearing the end of his three-year tour, and it's a good thing; the isolation is starting to make him peculiar; it doesn't help that the relay satellite that would allow him to communicate with Earth in real time is busted. Days before his return trip, there's an accident when he takes his buggy out to retrieve the contents of one of the rovers; fortunately, there are failsafes in place and he wakes up back in the base. Something seems amiss, though; is GERTY hiding something?

There's a mystery at the center of Moon, of course, one that it would be terribly wrong of me to spoil. Thankfully, filmmaker Duncan Jones (director, author of the original story) and screenwriter Nathan Parker do not feel the need to keep things from the audience past the point where keeping secrets creates more plot holes than it does suspense. The keystone revelation comes fairly early, and though there is a surprise or three after that, nearly all of them fall under the heading of details. When Jones turns things on their head, he makes sure that both Sam and the audience has a chance to consider and react to it.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: