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Now that the 2009 Academy Awards have been presented, I’d like to call your attention to the best science fiction film of 2009 you probably never heard of. With Avatar and District 9 getting all the attention, Moon—starring Sam Rockwell and featuring the voice of Kevin Spacey—has been virtually invisible. It is now available on DVD, and well worth a look.
Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a lone human employee of Lunar Industries working at a base on the Moon harvesting helium-3 (He-3) to be sent back to Earth. Sam is assisted by a sentient computer/robot named GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey. Sam is nearing the end of a three-year contract and preparing to return home to see his wife and young daughter when he becomes ill and starts to experience hallucinations. While driving a lunar rover out to an He-3 harvester, Sam thinks he sees a young woman on the Moon’s surface and crashes into the harvester. When he wakes up, he finds himself back in the base, with GERTY telling him he had an accident. At this point, further plot summary would take away the fun of the rest of the film.
He-3 is a helium isotope that has only one neutron and two protons (ordinary helium, He-4, has two neutrons and two protons). He-3 is very rare, with only about 10 He-3 atoms for every million He-4 in a typical sample of helium. (The element is generally difficult to find on Earth, and was discovered to be abundant on the Sun before it was extracted from natural gas on Earth.) Scientists working on fusion power have proposed using He-3, but are hampered by the very small amounts available on Earth. The isotope is relatively abundant on the Moon’s surface, so the idea of mining He-3 on the Moon is a reasonable premise for this film. In fact, India sent a probe to the Moon in 2008, which may have done preliminary work on He-3 mining in addition to looking for water on the surface. The idea behind Moon is so firmly grounded in science, the film was shown to an auditorium filled with scientists at NASA’s Space Center Houston. The question-and-answer session with director Duncan Jones is included in the DVD’s extras, and I recommend taking the time to watch this, but only after you have seen the film.
Sam Rockwell in Moon (2009).
The special effects look very good, particularly noteworthy as this is a relatively low-budget film. In the Q&A, Jones explains the film uses model miniatures in part because he grew up watching science fiction films made with models (before computer graphics were sophisticated enough to be used as they are today.) When Sam is outside the station, he moves gracefully and objects fall slowly, as they should under the influence of the Moon’s weak gravity. Objects on Earth accelerate at about 9.8 meters per second squared (m/s2) when dropped, while on the Moon, they will accelerate at only one-sixth of that rate. An object weighing 180 pounds on Earth would weigh 30 pounds on the Moon, though the mass of the object would not change. I was frustrated the film contained no evidence of the lesser gravity when Sam was inside the station. His walking gait should have looked different, and light objects should have been very light.
Regular readers of this column may recall that I pay close attention to how filmmakers deal with sound transmission in space, where no atmosphere exists. Star Trek handled the issue well in some instances, but still had ships whooshing through space in others. The title character in Wall-E was all too audible when outside the ship. In Moon, sounds are greatly attenuated whenever Sam is outside the station, and that works for me. Some vibrations could certainly be transmitted through the ground, and those would likely be low frequency (low pitch) sounds.
I cannot explain why this happened without giving away too much of the plot, but when I finished watching Moon, I was reminded of a classic short story by Ursula LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” This story appears in many anthologies, and it is often taught in high school and college literature courses. Science teachers might consider developing a unit in collaboration with an English teacher to discuss ethical choices brought up by science, and have students read this short story as part of the unit. Moon is also an excellent example of making a compelling story by taking current science just one step into the future, rather than leaping ahead to a time when science looks like magic.
Note: Moon is rated R for language. Teachers should review their school’s policies about showing segments of R-rated films before using this movie in their classroom.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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