Ask any movie geek what their favorite horror movie is, and there’s a good chance they might say Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ask them what their favorite war movie is, and there’s a good chance they might say Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick is just that kind of director. Perhaps his most beloved movie ever though is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ask any movie geek what their favorite sci-fi film is, and it’s very likely they’re going to name drop this tale of evolved apes, space ships, murderous computers, and space babies. It’s got very deliberate, very beautiful photography, it’s long and slow paced, and it contains plenty of subtext that’s ripe for dissection. This movie is basically movie geek catnip, and it’s become so popular over the years that even regular folk who don’t know much about movies are aware that it’s considered to be one of the top “classics” of all-time.
A similar movie that was much-loved by film geeks but that hasn’t broken through to having mainstream recognition among regular folk is Duncan Jones’ directorial debut from 2009, Moon. Here’s a movie that has quite a bit in common with 2001 as far as look, feel, and thematics go, but that combines all of the good stuff from Kubrick’s art film with a human story that’s so much easier to follow and relate to. And yet, Moon is also a movie that came and went without causing so much as a ripple outside of the insular world of people who regularly concern themselves with film.
Probably that should change, because there’s a lot to like in this one, even for general audiences, and it might even work well as a gateway drug for people who have given 2001 a try before and found it to be unpalatable.
What do they have in common?
Though 2001 mostly takes place on an expedition to Jupiter, and Moon takes place completely in a base on the moon, both films feature characters who are in space. And, more than that, they feature actors who are working in sets that share very similar production design. The environments in these movies are stark and minimal and utilize lots of whites. They accentuate the characters’ cold, isolated existences, and both films break that isolation with interactions between the protagonists and disembodied computer assistants. 2001’s space traveler, Dave (Keir Dullea), spends his time interacting with the HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain), and Moon’s lunar miner, Sam (Sam Rockwell), has a personal assistant called GERTY (Kevin Spacey).
Why is 2001: A Space Odyssey overrated?
While it’s true that if you make the effort to get into the rhythms of 2001: A Space Odyssey and let it tell its story at its own pace there are rewards that you will eventually reap, it still doesn’t seem like it’s necessary for it to be this dang boring. It’s got long sequences where you watch a ship coming in for a landing, long sequences where you watch an airline attendant serve food—you get fifty-seven minutes into the thing before you even get a glimpse of the antagonist. And it’s forty-five minutes after that before any conflict gets introduced. Do we really need to spend so much time with the men in monkey suits at the beginning of the film to understand what’s going on there? Does Dave’s first-person journey leading into the finale really have to go on for so long? 2001 is the baseball game of cinema: perfectly pleasant to watch, but you can take several naps and not really miss anything.
The production design here has always bothered me as well. The sets of these spacecraft are striking and inventive. Their stark white interiors are certainly memorable. But they’re not the sort of environments that any human being could believably live in. They’re abrasively bright, punishingly bare, and they serve as a great visual representation of how Kubrick was making a movie about ideas and not a movie about people. 2001 is the sort of thing you can sit back and appreciate on an intellectual level, but it’s just not the sort of thing that’s going to grab you by the collar and shake you into having an emotional response.
Just think about our de facto protagonist, Dave. Who is he? Why is he doing what he’s doing? What is he hoping to get out of this expedition? What are the stakes for him here? Why should we care about what happens to him? What is his favorite color? He’s a blank page, a cypher. He exists just as the human to be pitted against the machine. For a movie that’s largely concerned with the origins of intelligent life on our planet, or at least the development of intelligent thought in the universe, there’s no humanity in 2001 whatsoever.
Why is Moon underpraised?
Here’s a movie that clearly wears its 2001 inspirations on its sleeve, but that manages to do enough interesting things with homage, and that adds unique enough wrinkles to the formula to make questions of what came first or who the originator is pretty moot. This movie explores the same questions of what it means to be human, what the dividing line between artificial intelligence and real intelligence are, but it explores these questions in a story that’s much more engaging and relatable than what Kubrick gives us. Three minutes into this thing alarms are going off and the music is quickening, which makes it seem like it might be more of an empty bit of entertainment than what Kubrick is serving up, but by the time the end credits role you’re left with the same level of contemplation as far as your place in the universe goes, and you get a handful of harrowing movie moments to make it all go down smoother as well.
While it might be sacrilegious in some circles to make the claim that Moon is an overall better movie than 2001, one place where it’s definitely superior is in its sets. Sure, they borrow a lot of design language from the work Kubrick and his people did on 2001, what with the minimalism, white color scheme, and throwback typefaces, but they also take that extra step that makes them feel not only livable, but lived in. The base that Sam occupies is scuffed up, tactile, and it’s clear what every aspect of it is used for. You can instantly see that someone has been living here for a very long time, and you could imagine yourself making the best of living there as well. 2001 gets points for imagination and originality, but this one has to be praised for the intricacy of its work and how it makes old-fashioned, practical set design and model work not only look acceptable in a world of rich, CG environments, but look even better than all that overdone trash.
All of this points to one of Moon’s huge plusses: it begs you to put yourself in its protagonist’s shoes and figure out how you would feel if you experienced the same things he’s going through. If there’s one trick this movie has up its sleeve that 2001 unquestioningly cannot match, it’s the performance of Sam Rockwell. He’s playing a character who we meet in various periods of his development that are so different he initially feels like a couple different characters, but he still manages to combine them into a coherent, relatable human. By the time Moon is over you get very in tune with Sam’s personality, his struggles, and his desires. He feels like someone you know, someone whose fate you care about—which is pretty much the polar opposite of how you react to the characters in 2001.
Evening the Odds
If you want the best indication of how Moon is a more appealing watch than 2001, look no further than the artificially intelligent computers they serve up as main characters. Both have been programmed to have their own personalities and even to feel emotions (or at least, to display reasonable facsimiles of emotions) so that the people they’re serving will be more comfortable interacting with them, but while 2001’s HAL 9000 is a cold and calculating presence who seems to be defined by his narcissism and insecurities, Moon’s GERTY develops a real compassion for the moon miner who’s been left in his care. He bends the rules for him, he’s willing to have his memory erased in order to protect him. Compare that to how HAL reacts when Dave and his partner start becoming a pain in his virtual ass. Who would you want watching your back if you were on a long space mission?