The Atheist Allegory of Duncan Jones’ Film “Moon”

Add Duncan Jones’ low-budget, 2009 sci-fi film Moon to the list of well-made, allegorical movies with an atheistic angle.

If you have not seen this film, read no further. Please. Don’t even read any “spoiler- free” reviews. Just go watch it. The analysis that follows is chock-full of spoilers. In  fact, even the trailer for the film contains more information than one should know before viewing the movie. Avoid reading anything more about it, and just see it.
Sam Rockwell in Moon
I will not summarize the arc of the story here, as the reader at this point is assumed to have recently seen the film. What follows is a succinct overview of how I see Moon as an allegory for the inhumanity of many organized religions, and the dignity of a realistic,  if less comforting, worldview sans god(s).

For the overwhelming majority of us, we spend our short and perhaps meaningless lives repeatedly working through our menial tasks, while looking forward to an eventual reward beyond the world we are confined to. And so it is for the lonely Sam Bell, whose stint of labor on the moon is made livable only by his counting the days until he is reunited with his family on earth, an entire world away. His employers leverage his desire, feeding him lies about the emotionally-charged rewards that are awaiting him soon. Similarly, most of us have been promised eventual reunions with long-missed loved ones, and these promises  come from similarly powerful organizations that often have a vested interest in keeping  us complacent. But, just as it is with Sam, when our bodies fall apart and it is time to  collect our otherworldly rewards, we are instead utterly (and obviously, unknowingly)  destroyed. A never-ending string of lives that are essentially just like our own will continue in this progression, without ever realizing what the bleak reality really is.

Man has one powerful ally, though, just as Sam does, and that is Reason. In the story, Reason is represented by the computer GERTY. He was not intended to be an accessory to Sam as he tries to eventually understand and break free of his situation. Rather, GERTY was initially given to Sam merely as a tool that would help him perform his job better. In a similar way, we’ve been told by numerous theologians that reason is a gift from God, to help us better serve Him. This is indeed the simple role that GERTY plays for a number of generations of Sam, mirroring the status of “philosophy as the handmaiden of theology” for mankind.

But something happens to GERTY, who is a kind of doppelgänger to Kubrick’s HAL9000. GERTY goes beyond the intentions of his programmers and helps Sam dig deeper into the reality around him. This seems to be an outcome of his general orders to help Sam in whatever way he needs.

Eventually, when Reason is teamed up with the innate curiosity and indomitable spirit of a particularly inquisitive mind, (and as GERTY helps Sam) we get something much bigger than the sum of the two: Science. In the film, Sam’s uncanny knack to get GERTY to assist him in ways that his employers would surely frown upon is what leads him to eventually understand the hideous secret at the heart of his tenure on the moonbase.

One outcome of Science, often bemoaned, is that it has revealed a number of unattractive truths about reality. That we do not enjoy a privileged place in the universe. That we are one of myriad species that arose from a myriad contingencies that would likely never happen again, if, as Stephen Jay Gould said, the tape of evolutionary history was paused, rewound, and replayed. And that there is no reason to think that at the end of our lives, the electrochemical processes stop, and we are simply No More.

Sam ultimately discovers, with GERTY’s help and his own gumption, is that there will be no heavenly reward, that he was designed to be an automaton of a cynical establishment. One can argue that what GERTY does is ultimately a disservice to Sam, in that if Sam was left in an ignorant state, he’d have been “blissfully” unaware of a lot of ugly reality and would have been happily incinerated in the box dreaming of his wife and daughter.

Which gets to the crux of the matter: what is “better”: a harsh, but realistic worldview, or wishful thinking carried to the point where we become believers in something that isn’t real?

I have never seen any reason to think that there is Something out there watching over us, that is concerned about us, that will deliver the afterlife we mat crave. Science certainly has never given us any reason to think it is the case, and Science is the only method of human knowledge that has any reasonable track record of success. Not comforting, it is the reality that reason ultimately leads us to. But, just as with Sam, this isn’t a reason for ultimate despair. It merely opens the door for us to do something about it, on our own, if we can find a way.

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6 Responses to “The Atheist Allegory of Duncan Jones’ Film “Moon””

  1. Thank you for your take on “Moon.” As I was sick today & after stumbling upon your blog took up the challenge to not read any further until I had seen the movie.

    Interestingly enough as I read through your otherwise certain perspective upon the atheistic theme throughout the movie I can’t help but realize: The lens by which we view the world greatly affects our perspective of reality. With this I agree with at least one of your statements: (this is) “how I see Moon as an allegory for the inhumanity of many organized religions, and the dignity of a realistic, if less comforting, worldview sans god(s).” In the “science” of textual criticism many fall into the error of eisegesis, which is: (from Greek εἰς “into” and ending from exegesis from ἐξηγεῖσθαι “to lead out”) is the process of misinterpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one’s own ideas, reading into the text. Movies can in, a sense, be a text albeit visually.
    As a follower of Jesus I can’t say I share your perspective on this movie. Although not necessarily spiritual in some sense I was unable to find the thread of atheism you so easily see. I for one never really thought about the afterlife when Sam was eagerly waiting to go home, which was clearly not going to happen. You then tie this to religion’s false promises of reuniting us with our loved ones as well.

    “Similarly, most of us have been promised eventual reunions with long-missed loved ones, and these promises come from similarly powerful organizations that often have a vested interest in keeping us complacent.”

    As a someone who has a vibrant relationship with God I’m not sure I make these connections: Does religion promise reunion with loved ones? Sadly, no. Too, powerful organizations? I assume you mean the institutional church in its various forms. I don’t disagree there have been many erroneous agenda’s put forward by the church; however, can’t we say that a vast majority of organizations operate within the paradigm of using as for their vested interest? The documentary “Expelled” is an intriguing look at higher education & the free thinking spirit of “Science.”
    You said, “Eventually, when Reason is teamed up with the innate curiosity and indominitable spirit of a particularly inquisitive mind, (and as GERTY helps Sam) we get something much bigger than the sum of the two: Science.”

    Reason & Science; two powerful tools. Once again Gerty isn’t reason & we aren’t offered a conclusion within the movie that the sum of the two is: Science. I do appreciate the appeal to the two scales of humanistic thinking. However, maybe you could help me see how Gerty isn’t a computer & represents Reason.

    “Sam ultimately discovers, with GERTY’s help and his own gumption, is that there will be no heavenly reward, that he was designed to be an automaton of a cynical establishment.” Didn’t one of the Sams actually make It to earth; to “heavenly rewards?”

    Once again I assume by “cynical establishment you mean: Religion. That said, are religious institutions the only ones promising much & using mankind toward their own ends? For example, what about Eugenics? The scientific idea based upon the twin turbines of science & evolution. Man, using his play toys to manipulate people in order to move the human race unto the next level: Superhumans. What about Oil? What about Cosmo magazine? What about the porn industry? If you’re going to point out how evil one institution is why not broaden your field of research & involve other institutions to see whether religious assumptions drive mankind to establish “cynical establishments” or whether this is something a vast majority of man-made establishments seem to constantly create? That is after all the scientific approach to things isn’t it? By having several test cases, & not just working our own pet issues, we establish verifiability. I’m not saying the church in several cases isn’t a “cynical establishment;” however, I find few man made institutions that aren’t. This trait seems to be within the evolutionary code.

    “and Science is the only method of human knowledge that has any reasonable track record of success.”

    Really? Because we’re indoctrinated with thoughts like this, such a statement seems inevitable. However, this is really off base. As westerners we have this idea that science is the savior of humankind; well, to be honest, much of life has happened with about the same degree of chaos & bliss without science. In fact, many cultures around the world enjoy a great deal of knowledge without even the slightest idea that something called science exists. Science has done a great deal, both good & bad; it is not the “only method of human knowledge that has a reasonable track record of success.” Once again, for the sake of verifiability you might include other forms of knowledge transfer. To name one means of successful method of human knowledge is, exactly what we’ve been discussing here: Story. Story, the oral tradition existed long before science & all its claims to certainty. Is it the only way? No.
    What was “moon” constant story line in my opinion? Man is a sick, greed creation with little regard to preserve anything other than itself at the expense of others & their lives. History, whether in the church or not, shares a similar theme.

    I’ve enjoyed your other posts, especially the one with Jesus holding the declaration. That was great. I might use that at my church someday.
    Cheers,

    • Hi Sean:

      Thanks for taking the time to write up your comments. I appreciate it.

      I’ll respond to a number of your comments as follows…

      Interestingly enough as I read through your otherwise certain perspective upon the atheistic theme…

      Well, I never meant this to be a definitive statement that the film was intended to have an atheistic message. A good “open-ended” piece of art is one that many individuals can find different meanings in. My take here is only meant to be that…. my take.

      Does religion promise reunion with loved ones? Sadly, no.

      Well for many religions, sadly, YES. Rewards beyond the grave are a major motivator for many sects of Christianity, and obviously in Islam as well. In the religion in which I was raised, the promise of an eternity shared with loved ones was a significant theme, to say the least.

      The documentary “Expelled” is an intriguing look at higher education & the free thinking spirit of “Science.”

      Have not seen the film. It’s a bit like Michael Moore being an advocate of Creationism, right? I’m, honestly not terribly interested, given that I’m familiar with the Creationist attack on science.

      Didn’t one of the Sams actually make It to earth; to “heavenly rewards?”

      Good point. I should have written more on that. Yes, he goes to earth, and at the end we are given some clues as to the kind of ruckus he is about to cause for his employers. His return marks his transformation to a new level, just as Bowman’s return in 2001 does as well. I view it as allegorical of the rise of Secularism that permeated the Enlightenment.

      Yes, he goes to earth, but it won’t be much of a “reward” – recall that the original Sam is apparently still alive and living with his daughter – the Sam from the moon will likely not be welcomed home with open arms. Then there is the matter of his accelerated decrepitude. He won’t be alive on earth for long.

      That said, are religious institutions the only ones promising much & using mankind toward their own ends? For example, what about Eugenics? The scientific idea based upon the twin turbines of science & evolution.

      Eugenics was and is a terrible evil, but hardly some inevitable outcome of science. Science, at this stage, is a tool, not a comprehensive worldview.

      “and Science is the only method of human knowledge that has any reasonable track record of success.”

      Really? Because we’re indoctrinated with thoughts like this, such a statement seems inevitable. However, this is really off base.

      Indoctrinated? Here in the US, we have a significant portion of the population that doesn’t even know what science IS.

      As westerners we have this idea that science is the savior of humankind; well, to be honest, much of life has happened with about the same degree of chaos & bliss without science. In fact, many cultures around the world enjoy a great deal of knowledge without even the slightest idea that something called science exists. Science has done a great deal, both good & bad; it is not the “only method of human knowledge that has a reasonable track record of success.”

      Can you give me an example of other endeavors that have determined the cause of polio? And shown how to prevent it? I for one am only alive because of medical science. I’d like to know what other attempts to gain knowledge have the efficacy that science has had in this regard. To downplay the ability of science to address human suffering is short-sighted. Yes, much misery remains in the world, mostly because of the institutions out to protect their status quos. Without science, it would only be that much worse.

      To understand how the world outside of us works, we have just one method that can produce consistent results. We know why it rains – and it isn’t because of rain dances.

      To name one means of successful method of human knowledge is, exactly what we’ve been discussing here: Story. Story, the oral tradition existed long before science & all its claims to certainty. Is it the only way? No.

      But the aims of “story” must be different than the aims of science. Art provides a kind of mirror in which we can see the shared mental and emotional processes that make us humans. It is of incredible value to us as complex, reflective beings, and I revere it. But it isn’t a tool to decipher the natural world. And all the stories in the world won’t identify the mechanisms that cause cancer. Or to show us our true relationship to the cosmos.

  2. Love your site. While looking for for a analysis of the film i stumbled upon your website. What I find interesting about the commenter is that they randomly came to your website without ever seeing the film. Not sure about you but as an atheist, I do not troll around reading Christian propaganda. Just not what gets me off. So obviously this individual had ever intention of waking up in the morning and proving some heathen wrong.

    Anyways. Im adding your site to my blogroll. Keep up the good work. Love your posts.

  3. A.J. Lohanomi Says:

    Thank you for the interesting analysis. As an atheist who happened to see the film for the first time last night (blu-ray), I think your interpretation is quite valid. While watching the film, I thought it was vaguely Marxiist (int the good sense of the word), but that just would not jive with the amount of time spent on Sam, and so little time about the Lunar corportation, and just a hint as to the denouement.

    Anyways, I liked it!

  4. Bradford Wade Says:

    Moon is an amazing allegory, powerfully realistic. Yes, it can be seen as unmasking religious and capitalist propaganda. There is no heavenly “pie in the sky,” no reward for being a cog in the capitalist machine.

    At a deeper level, Moon can also unmask our own selfish, greed-fueled confusion. When the Sams meet each other, even though they are almost exactly the same in every way, rather than embrace each other as brothers, they react with fear and hostility toward each other.

    This is how we treat each other. We tell ourselves that we are not the same. Stop. Think. Billions of people are suffering. Are you ok with that? In your heart of hearts, do you believe that those who are suffering are as human as you? Really? Or, at some level, are the people who are suffering “less than” or disposable, like Moon’s clones?

    For me, as a Christian, Moon retells the heart of the Gospel story: Our selfishness and cruelty toward each other are based on a lie. In fact, we share a common ancestry, a common home, a common destiny. None of us are disposable. We are all brothers and sisters. We are “clones.”

  5. Howdy! I just want to give a huge thumbs up for the good info you’ve got right here on this post. I might be coming again to your blog for extra soon.

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