Philosophy at the Movies (repost)

Reposting because I just saw Moon again and I'm back to thinking about its connection to the issue of personal identity. Terrific movie!

Last night I watched Moon (2009), the movie Duncan Jones made before Source Code (2011).   Duncan Jones went to graduate school in philosophy for a while, before fleeing to film school, and yes indeed, both movies deal with philosophical issues--in fact, the same issues.

Source Code: a soldier (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) seems to be in a capsule at a military base, but can enter the mind and perspective of a man on a train that blew up the day before (?).  His mission is to find out who planted the bomb so the guy's next terrorist attack can be prevented.  Back the solider goes, again and again, Groundhog Day style, and gradually he learns what he needs to know--and falls in love, too.  But it's not really "back", we are told.  This isn't time travel. It's... it's something-or-other. All the while, Jake longs to get out of the capsule, get back to reality, and make contact with his father. 

Moon: in the far distant future, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is stationed for three years on the moon, where helium-3 is being harvested for use in fusion reactors on earth. He's all alone, except for a robot named Gerty, and something is not right.  Sam longs to get back to earth to see his wife and child.  And then things ... happen ...

Now's where the spoilers begin, so you might want to stop reading!


I warned you!

Looking at these movies from a philosophical angle, they're both about personal identity.  Jake Gyllenhaal escapes the capsule at the end of the movie because his final "trip" turns out to be time travel.  He's become that man on the train.  Now--how's that?  His brain doesn't make the journey, so could he really be the man on the train? Etc. etc.

Sam Bell makes it off the moon courtesy of the fact that the Lunar Corporation has equipped the moon station with a whole series of Sam Bells, a huge set of clones.  At one point, three of them are alive.  Sam1 dies, Sam2 gets back to earth, and Sam3 stays on the moon.  We are invited to think Sam1 actually survives, because the real Sam is the whole collection.  (This is a view of personal identity championed by Mark Johnston in Surviving Death; he uses it to explain how there can be an afterlife without there being heaven or soul).

So--are these moves supremely philosophical explorations of personal identity?  Well, no, I have to say. In the "extras" on the Moon DVD, there's an interview in which Duncan Jones is asked whether his philosophical background influenced the movie.  He instantly says no, "there's nothing academic." (Or something close.)  He says Moon is about long distance relationships!  (Hey, I thought, what about that cool group theory of personal identity?!)

Likewise, I have to say, Source Code doesn't come across as really being about the time travel, personal identity, or philosophy of mind issues it raises. It's about the feeling of being trapped in that capsule, and trying to get back to reality.  It's about Jake's desire to reconnect with his father, to go back to the girl on the train.  It's also about the sheer excitement of trying to avert a terrorist attack, and the cool way that he learns more by going back to the beginning of the 8 minutes so many times. 

In fact (aha!), Moon especially, but Source Code too, evokes exactly the mood of Duncan Jones' father David Bowie's song Space Oddity.  Far away, alienated, can't get back to the one I love (stuck in a Scottish boarding school, far from mom and dad?).

It's not very often that movies with philosophical themes are really primarily about those themes (The Adjustment Bureau, reviewed by Dana Nelkin and Sam Rickless in the new issue of The Philosophers' Magazine is one.)  Next stop:  The Tree of LifeMy hope is that this will be the subject of my next column in TPM, and that it will make sense to call the column "Texastentialism," since the movie is set in Texas and I hear it's about the meaning of life.  Who knows, though, it might really be about something else.


Update:  Saw The Tree of Life.  A dozen people walked out in the first half hour and the movie induced incontinence in many others--as in, frequent bathroom breaks.  My review, short version:  GOD!!!!  (Sadly enough, I'm going to have to save the title 'Texastentialism" for another occasion.)


crystal said...

I've just seen Moon so far. Liked it. It reminded me a little of Silent Running.

Torquil Macneil said...

Are we going to get a long version review of Tree of Life? I agree it is goddy, but much more interesting that most cinema, no?