Moon and Avatar

Adam Roberts has this theory (Adam forgive me if I misrepresent you in précis) – SF has become a genre whose meaning is conveyed most powerfully in its imagery. By which, for the sake of this piece, and for better or worse, we mean cinema (and yes I know TV gave us Battlestar Galactica, X-Files, Next Generation etc etc). SF has become one of the most dominant forces, or at least references, in mainstream cinema during the last 30 years or so. Anyone could arrive at a list of 10 massive, ostensibly SFnal (those qualifications entirely meant) films from that period and have loads of people say ‘Hang on what about . . .’. So here goes, off the top of my head, and without reference to IMDB or Wikipedia (a dangerous tactic I intend to stick to for the rest of this blog piece), ten big box office ’SF’ movies, in no particular order and not because I necessarily rate them: The Day After Tomorrow, Terminator II, Men in Black, Avatar, Independence Day, The Phantom Menace, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Deep Impact, Star Trek, Jurassic Park. Oops that’s eleven. Let’s take out Phantom Menace. Why? Because. I. Can.

I watched two SF movies recently. One from that list, one not. James Cameron’s Avatar and Duncan Jones’ Moon. That one is on that list of blockbusters and one isn’t (and wouldn’t be on anyone else’s either – remember we’re talking blockbusters) is, I think, pertinent to the argument that I am making up as I go along. Which is:

Moon is much more like an SF novel than it is a film. And Avatar is much more like an SF(ish) film than it is like a SF novel. Well ‘Duh!’ you might say, especially to the second part of that statement, but bear with me.

Avatar was MASSIVE! It was the most blockbustery of blockbusters and for 99% of its audience it was SF (SF in big, shouty 3D letters). Of course a lot of SF fans looked at the science in Avatar, at its re-running of familiar tropes from within (and without) the genre, at it’s broad-brush and obvious plotting and its black and white characterization and got a bit hot under the geek-collar. As Avatar swept regally through town draped in its SF finery, SF fans were running along behind the crowd shouting out that the Emperor’s SF clothes simply didn’t exist. And NO ONE listened.

But hang on a minute. Let’s pull on our 3D Adam Roberts perspective glasses and take another look at Avatar. Avatar was gorgeous to look at (yes I know it was CGI and if you’ve read my Loving the Aliens blog then you know how I feel about that). And it was gorgeous to look at for extremely SFnal reasons. That opening shot of the long, delicate, dragonflyesque ship, all glowy blue (and presumably insanely dangerous) drive engines up one end, slowly rotating crew modules in the middle and, (this is the wow bit) that glorious blue planet reflected brilliantly in its solar sail. That! THAT! That’s SF that is! That’s how SF works! That stunning image that makes your heart sing with the beauty and the ambition and the silence and the grace and the, oooh I don’t know, just the blindingly wonderful out-thereness of it. If that image didn’t unite everyone, SF fan and unbeliever alike in a moment of delirious ‘WOAH!’ then I’m the proverbial Dutchman. And I’m really not.

And it didn’t stop there. The floating mountains! (Yes you could quibble that floating mountains are entirely fantasy but the image? Come on! It was an SF image, you know it was). The shuttle; landing, hazing the air with its jet-wash, surrounded by its tiny wasp-like escorts? SF! The mechs; marching along self importantly and lugging frigging ginormous guns? SF! The epically enormous diggers and spirit-tree grubbers and logging machines; painted yellow in case, you know, you missed them, chewing up Pandora? SF! The ‘this’ll look cool in 3D’ holographic computer displays? SF! The whole (really quite magical) glow in the dark, touchy feely ecology of Pandora? SF! SF! All of it!

These are the modern echoes of the things that excited us about SF when we first got into it. They are the modern equivalent of the needle that injected us with the SF infection. And there they are, up on the screen for millions upon millions of people who have never and probably will never read an SF book, to go ‘Wow! That’s awesome!’ over. Thank you James Cameron, thank from the geekiest corner of my heart. For that, you rock.

Duncan Jones’ MOON was seen by many fewer millions of people. More millions than read SF regularly but many fewer millions than sucked up all the SF prettiness in Avatar. What a film Moon was. A lovingly constructed, carefully thought, profoundly SFnal, delightfully old-fashioned (those models! Space 1999 eat your heart out!), Philip K. Dickesque hymn to future unease and paranoia. A slow moving, quiet, contemplative SF story. It looked faintly embarrassed to be up there on the big screen. Like it might be more at home on the TV. Or in the pages of a novel.

Moon is wonderful SF movie. And it’s an SF movie because it has all the qualities of a great SF novel. Moon might be more likely than Avatar to turn you into an SF reader. But then you’re more likely to have watched Moon if you were an SF reader already. Let’s not compare Moon and Avatar and measure them on the ‘Is it really SF?’ scale. Let’s take them both for what they are, talk about them in relation to SF to people prepared to listen and glory in the fact that both, in their very different ways, have taken SF out there. Which is, let’s face it, where it should be.