NRH’s Weekly Analysis: The ethics of Moon


Moon is an incredible overlooked modern masterpiece. It’s probably one of the bravest efforts of science fiction in the last twenty years and most definitely a near-spiritual love letter to Kubrick’s magnum opus of 2001 A Space Odyssey. Moon follows a story so solo, so bottled up, that its format of isolation almost becomes too center-stage for its own good. The entire show is essentially a monologue played up by Sam Rockwell’s sheer will and acting quality, buoyed by some cool backing vocals provided by Kevin Spacey.

This one man show is home to a darker play, however, and this Weekly Analysis will attempt to stab straight at the moral implications underpinning Moon. Moon addresses the sheer gravity of the question of human replication and whether or not it is entirely right. Does a clone of a man constitute a separate, independent consciousness? Is he endowed with the same rights as any other man? Moon asks these questions for the audience to answer and discuss and, so, with that, let’s float right into the thick of it.

We do have to begin with some technicalities. We’re told that Sam Bell’s job is to aid the mining of the Moon, specifically the helium-3 resource, to which over 70% of the planet’s energy now relies on. The clones that the corporation uses all have three year lifespans and the original Sam Bell, we assume, donated his very self to be the model for all clones. By the time the film’s story plays out, the original Sam Bell’s wife, the ‘Tess’, is dead. This means a lot of time has passed.

On top of these technicalities are the ways in which the corporation boxes in Sam. He is fed video messages of his wife and told of a story of ‘complications’ on his first arrival to the Moon. This means that everytime ‘he’ wakes up on that medical bed is the ‘first’ time. The emotional manipulation, and manipulation of memory, underpins the psychological torture that the Sam Bell clones undergo. An argument can also be made that their very shelf-life is also a state of torture.

The ‘first’ Sam Bell that we encounter actually begins to decay physically. His teeth fall out, he starts coughing up blood and other bits. The choice to make the clones have three-year existences makes some sense. How long can one human take being completely alone? The ‘Sams’ are essentially slaves, yes, but if they were isolated for decades on the Moon could they possibly serve their purpose without extreme mental degradation and loss of general ability. This isn’t to say that the three-year lifespan is a ‘kind’ measure by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a definite and somewhat ‘moral’ logic around it.

There are some bits of cruel irony that show up throughout the film. The videos show some of it, but the music track of ‘I Am The One and Only’, that wakes up one of the Sams, seems a bit too out of line. It is however a poke towards the audience to question the nature of being ‘the one’. Would Sam, the clone, have the same rights as the original Sam Bell? He’s not human in his lifespan, but he might be in his intelligence, wit and general biological endowment. Moon essentially asks us what constitutes as a ‘human’ being.

Again, none of this is to defend the cloning practice. What has been put in place is a logical loop in which the helium-3 resource can be harvested for decades on end without any need to replace the lone workforce. Earth is pushed to a crisis and the ‘ethics’ of cloning are arguably irrelevant in the face of electricity shortages and a need for more resources. We’re not, however, entirely clued in to the urgency of this resource. Is Sam simply being constantly cloned, constantly killed, for the sake of Earth allowing to still swallow itself whole? Does this helium-3 resource actually solve anything? Although that’s then asking the question of the ‘weight’ of Sam’s life. Is all of the clones, or even just one of them, worth the price of admission. In short; is one death worth the security of a whole lot more. 

Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. Blade Runner mentions this fact when the Replicants are discussing consciousness but such practice also applies to Moon. All of this talk of the ethics of cloning, which may or may not be the result of a harsh crisis facing humanity, kind of overlooks the true victim of the film: Gerty. Gerty volunteers to have all of his memories wiped, to just have his entire slate, probably including his ‘affection’ for Sam, just wiped completely. Sam Bell is constantly lost, constantly killed in all his iterations, but the lone Gerty restarts from the beginning. Although then we’re getting into whether or not Gerty is actually worth as much as a human life.

These are all sort of vague explorations of the questions that Moon asks and there’s a clear thing that Sam Bell says: “We’re not programmed” and “We’re people”. Sam essentially posits the question of free will versus determinism. Is he, by virtue of being a clone, ‘programmed’ just like his biology and genetic structure is. Will he act exactly like the original Sam Bell in all capacity, or does his biology have no sway over his ‘free’ will. The ‘first’ Sam Bell’s choice to sacrifice himself shows a sense of freedom in the film’s ethical psychology but, truly, this is a question left to ourselves. What is free will and what is a ‘people’ in the first place.

Moon asks a lot. There are no true answers to what it philosophically asks and all my vague exploration can’t answer any of it. I do hope however I’ve unearthed some of the ethical implications of this film’s very tricky format. Its one-man show format, focused entirely upon one psychology (or is it psychologies?) is an angle rarely used in science-fiction. The isolation of humanity is often great territory for exploring a whole lot of juicy themes but, in Moon, it’s used to explore the morality of cloning and other tangential topics of ethics. Truthfully, though, the empty answers of Moon are deliberate so as to let you make up your mind. It truly is a wonderful film in that it doesn’t leave you nodding and ‘satisfied’ for a fleeting moment, but lingers a lot longer to make you think.