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Duncan Jones Talks About 'Moon' and the State of Science-Fiction Cinema

Duncan Jones wasn’t pleased with the state of contemporary science-fiction cinema. So he did something about it.

Best known as the son of music icon David Bowie, Jones, 38 – a.k.a. Zowie Bowie – has established himself as a director of high-concept commercials and low-budget music videos. Now, the College of Wooster graduate, who grew up filming Star Wars-inspired one-stop animation movies on an eight-millimeter camera with his father, has moved to the big screen with his impressively cerebral feature-length debut, Moon.

The tale of a solitary man employed on the moon, played by Frost/Nixon’s Sam Rockwell, whose mission to solve earth’s energy crisis with Helium 3 extracted from the lunar surface is compromised by his swiftly deteriorating health, Jones’ movie was bound to raise eyebrows around Hollywood for its modest $5 million budget. Yet to the director, Moon represents something more than an economical foray into the sci-fi landscape. It represents a return to the genre’s serious-minded roots.

Jones, who cites Alien, Blade Runner and the Sean Connery vehicle Outland as inspirations, regards hard science-fiction as an endangered species. But if the success of Moon is any indication – it won the top prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival, as well as critical raves at Sundance and Tribeca – he might just be in a position to save it.

On the state of contemporary sci-fi:
“In my mind, the golden age of science-fiction cinema was the '70s and early '80s, when films like Silent Running, Alien, Blade Runner and Outland told human stories in future environments. I’ve always wanted to make a film that felt like it could fit into that canon.

“There are unquestionably less of those kind of sci-fi films these days. I don’t know why. I have a theory, though. I think over the last couple decades filmmakers have allowed themselves to become a bit embarrassed by sci-fi’s philosophical side. It’s OK to ‘geek out’ at the cool effects and ‘oooh’ and ‘ahh’ at amazing vistas, but we’re never supposed to take it too seriously. We’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that sci-fi should be frivolous, for teenage boys. We’re told that the old films, the Outlands and Silent Runnings, were too plaintive, too whiney.

“I think that’s ridiculous. People who appreciate science fiction want the best for the world, but they understand that there is an education to be had by investigating the worst of what might happen. That’s why Blade Runner was so brilliant – it used the future to make us look at basic human qualities from a fresh perspective. Empathy. Humanity. How do you define these things? I wanted to address those questions.”

On the lack of indie sci-fi fare:
“There is a reason why ‘indie’ and ‘science fiction’ are rarely seen together in the same sentence. Sci-fi by its very nature often demands the biggest production values, and, as you can imagine, that’s the hardest thing to achieve with an indie budget. So putting Moon together was an intricate puzzle. We wanted to tell a story that was both intimately human but universal in appeal, and we wanted to keep our cast small and our shooting environment completely controllable. We also wanted to get every last drop of screen value out of our visual effects.

“It was hugely ambitious, but it paid off – we made an honest-to-goodness science-fiction film with an intense story, an amazing performance by an extraordinary actor, gorgeous special effects, and we did it in 33 days and on a small budget.”

On Rockwell, the star for whom Moon was specifically written:
“I’d met with Sam about a year before making Moon to talk to him about another project. It didn’t work out, but it came up that Sam was into sci-fi and that if I had something in that genre, he would love to see it. As soon as the meeting was over, I got to work. I needed to write a sci-fi film starring Sam Rockwell!

“It is not far fetched to say that the technical responsibilities put on Sam's shoulders were some of the most demanding an actor has been asked to deal with in recent years. Other films in the past have had an actor perform with himself, but never to the degree that Sam did in Moon. His phenomenal skill and near infinite patience made Moon not only possible, but pushed back the boundaries on this very tricky and unforgiving effect. When you do it wrong, it’s very obvious, and when you do it right, it’s invisible. Films like [David] Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation previously wore the crown and were inspirations to us. Now I hope people will look to Moon to see how it’s done.”

On the inspiration for Moon, which he co-wrote with newcomer Nathan Parker:
“Quite a few years ago I read Entering Space by the renowned astronautical engineer, Robert Zubrin. Zubrin put forward a wholly scientific and engaging case for why and how humanity should be colonizing our solar system. It was a nuts-and-bolts approach to space exploration, and took into account the fiscal appetites that would make space colonization attractive in our capitalist world.

“The book made a real impression on me. I couldn’t help thinking that that first step into space habitation, a step that would be made for profit rather than purely scientific reasons, was a fascinating conflict of interests. Companies by their very nature would seek to extract the maximum amount of raw materials from any endeavor, for a minimum outlay of costs. That’s just good business. But without any locals, without human rights groups or oversight to keep an eye on things, what might a company try to get away with? What might even the most benign, “green” corporation be willing to do? What would they do to a lone, blue-collar caretaker on a base on the far side of the moon?

“These are some of the basic ideas that informed the science fiction setting of Moon, but this belies the root of the film: its human element. Moon is about alienation. It’s about how we anthropomorphize technology, it’s about the paranoia that strikes you when you are in a long-distance relationship, and it’s about learning to accept yourself.  A lot to take on for a little indie film, but maybe that was the best place to try. It is ‘only science fiction,’ after all.”

Moon is now playing at the Century San Francisco Centre 9, the Stonestown Twin 2 and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. For showtimes, click here.