Moon is one of those films that has so much going for it. Most people focus on Sam Rockwell and Duncan Jones as the major drivers of its success. Jones certainly did his homework (especially considering that NASA had him do a Q&A with them in response to the film), and Rockwell is… well, he’s Sam Rockwell. The world be be a far happier place if we could all dance like him. However, just summarizing the film’s effectiveness with Jones and Rockwell’s contributions completely overlooks another driving factor: the score of Clint Mansell. The delicate arrangements manage to take a good film and elevate it to another level. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Mansell effectively becomes one-third of the driving force of this piece: the man behind the curtain, if you will, that manipulates the audience to feel more deeply than Jones and Rockwell initially present.
|I really can’t be a smart ass for this one.|
The film begins with the main piano hook that will resonate throughout the film: a series of notes that gets translated and re-purposed throughout the duration of the film to both keep us with the story and help move it along. Depending upon the instruments accompanying the main riff, your mood will shift. If you’re not paying attention, you won’t realize that this piece begins to toy with you in this fashion. At the film’s inception, the main piano thread serves as a curious introduction to the character Sam running on a treadmill (hello there, symbolism), which then brings us closer toward expectation and discovery once the percussion elements are added. We get a slightly faster tempo when Sam first has the hallucination of the girl in the chair, and it repeats itself again when he sees the girl prior to crashing the rover.
In keeping with the piano-as-manipulator motif, we get several instances of tone and tempo that help us feel a bit more deeply. Deep, low piano notes (singular at first, then building into multiple sounds) when Sam 2 finds Sam 1 give us a sense of foreboding; we can feel the confusion more acutely because the music is appropriate. Soft, sad, lighter notes shape the scene when GERTY informs Sam 1 of the waking procedures; we can feel Sam’s pain more so because the piano is making an effort to be kinder and gentler, as though Mansell is helping break the bad news to us. Toward the end of the film, as Sam 2 has made the decision to sabotage part of the base and make a run for it, we get a more dominant piano – at this point, this is where the piano theme became a metaphor for all versions of Sam. We’ve seen both of them through pain, frustration, anger, illness and mourning for a life they’ll never have, and we finally arrive at a decisive moment where a course of action is locked in. That the piano motif follows both instances of Sam in this fashion effectively translates into the music becoming Sam in both forms: a changing, feeling entity all by itself. We get multiple facets of something that has the same DNA that’s as simultaneously complex and beautifully simple as the clones themselves.
To pin all feeling on the piano employed in this film does a disservice to the mood that the other components of the score includes. For instance, the string section goes many places to help assist the plot. Strings accompany Sam 1 as he works on his model town; they’re with him while he fantasizes about his wife; they build tension as Sam 2 searches for the truth. The strings are almost a type of comfort to Sam 1, for they are with him throughout his tale, a less showy companion to his piano-set theme. That Mansell only has to break out the full-on guitars and bass on few occasions – including the scene when GERTY enters the password for Sam 2 to view the fates of the other Sams – says that he knew what he was doing with keeping his moods in step with what Jones and Rockwell were showing us. Likewise, the inclusion of the light percussion (or, as I call them, the music box sounds), though occasional, creates a haunting, lullaby-like tone. That it plays when the stash of reserve clones are found, and again as Sam 1 is dying in the rover, evokes a tone of sacrifice and innocence, and redirects our feelings. It made the scenes in which it was employed powerful: we’re not angry at the batch of clones, as an electric guitar would have steered us – we’re saddened by someone facing a shocking truth. Combined with the expressions of Rockwell and the unflinching direction of Jones, the music doesn’t make us feel angry at their situation – we feel sorrow, we want to hold both Sams, we want to comfort them. It moves us. Just as moving? The drones and hums that Mansell crafted to build tension. For the life of me, my ears had trouble identifying which instruments were in which key to do this (former bass player here, though out of practice, so I listen for that sort of thing and yes, it does keep me up at night). The low hums and drags of the notes manufactured something eerie and lent a terrified loneliness to the space setting. It was perfect and influenced my mood without having me question it once.
|Would not have been as effective without the score.|
That’s not to say that every second of this film requires music to help move it along, though its absence created a neat trick with my expectations. Jones does his best to make sure that we’re never left in complete silence. When we don’t have the score, we’re treated to the ventilation system, heavy breathing, footsteps and the sounds of rock being crushed by the rover. When we do get silence, it’s unnerving. The music becomes something expected, and without it, we grow uncomfortable. Case in point: when Sam 1 is checking the status of the machines, and he notices that the video cuts out. Blame it on me being a horror movie fan, but I was expecting something horrible to happen, and the silence did not help any. I didn’t have the score to tell me what was about to happen, and it made me nervous; most films would have placed a sharp string note there. Mansell knew when to give us silence, which was quite clever.
While Rockwell’s performance was criminally underrated (seriously, Academy, fuck you and the gelding mare you rode in on for this one) and Jones did an amazing job with directing something that easily could have turned into a clusterfuck (as the alone-in-space films tend to lose steam once their novelty wears off), it’s just as great a disservice to omit Mansell’s contribution to this film. The enhancements of his score helped solidify metaphor, make the characters more human (including the A.I.), and carried the threads of the story to knit a broader picture. At the end of Moon, the main piano theme plays as we hear the aftermath of Sam 2’s journey to Earth, only swelled and a bit richer. We somehow get the sense that something just will come of this tale. We don’t have to see an epilogue or hear a voice over from Rockwell as to the fate of his character; the music lets us know that it will be okay. We trust what Mansell is telling us. The score thus becomes the chorus that is taken for granted: always keeping us on track, orbiting the film like a dutiful satellite that controls the ebb and flow of emotion. Our moon.
(Author’s addendum: Mr. Mansell pointed out the contributions of Nathan Parker, who developed the script with Duncan Jones. And rightly so. I would be a complete ass if I didn’t say that it wasn’t well-scripted. Beautifully made all-around. We need to get these guys back together — reassemble the band! — and see what else they can come up with. Why can’t we get more cinema like this?!)