If it weren’t for Speaker IDs, I’d have no idea what’s going on

A screenshot from Moon (2009) featuring Sam Rockwell

An analysis of one scene from Moon (2009) starring Sam Rockwell. The scene’s captions make use of Speaker IDs to identify speakers who are off-screen. But in doing so, the Speaker IDs fill in a major piece of the narrative puzzle.

[Spoiler Alert! The very first paragraph of this post contains a major spoiler about the 2009 movie Moon. Proceed at your own risk.]

Let’s face it: Movies about cloning can be confusing as hell, especially when the clones start piling up midway through the flick, challenging the viewer to keep track of characters that may be hard to distinguish visually or traveling on different timelines and trajectories.

In Moon, one of the best films of 2009 and the feature-length directorial debut for Duncan Jones, Sam Rockwell gives a heroic one-man performance as the sole human inhabitant of an almost completely automated mining operation on the Moon. Kevin Spacey lends his voice to GERTY, the space station’s all-purpose robot.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who has been living on the moon base for a three-year contract as an employee of the mining company. As the movie opens, Sam is two weeks away from completing his contract and returning to Earth again. He’s been communicating occasionally with his wife and daughter on Earth but only via recorded messages because the live comm link has been out of service. The broken comm link, as we come to discover, is just a ruse to keep Sam from learning the truth — namely, that he’s a clone of the Original Sam.

Sam has a three-year life span. Every clone does. At the beginning of the movie, Sam is hallucinating; he’s starting to get sick. He’s dying. His time is running short, but he doesn’t know it yet. While driving a rover on the moon surface, he hallucinates and crashes into a giant harvester machine. He is presumed incapacitated by GERTY, and the robot dutifully revives another clone. This new clone, as we come to learn at the end of the movie, is the sixth iteration of Sam (or “Sam 6”). This latest Sam clone finds his predecessor still alive in the rover and returns him to the moon base. The pair of clones eventually discover the awful truth about their condition. When “Sam 5” manages to establish a live comm link with Earth, we and “Sam 5” find out just how long the clones have been running the moon base. The live link communication with Earth is a pivotal scene.

When I reached this point in the DVD, I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened to the original inhabitant of the moon base (“Original Sam”). Did he only live three years and die? Is that why the clones only live three years? Does Original Sam know that the mining company cloned his DNA? Who or what is the Original Sam? The uncaptioned scene implies that Original Sam returned to Earth as scheduled. But we don’t see Original Sam as a much older character; we only hear a voice that sounds like Sam’s. (We know it’s been about fifteen years since Original Sam left Earth for the Moon because his wife was pregnant with Eve, now 15, at the time he left. The Speaker ID for “Eve” gives away Eve’s identity to caption viewers before Sam learns her identity.) Without captions, we also don’t have conclusive evidence that the person Eve refers to as Dad is in fact Original Sam and not, well, someone else (i.e. step-dad). Yes, it sure sounds like Sam, and that may be enough for hearing viewers watching without captions. But for me, the Speaker ID (“Original Sam”) provides conclusive evidence. The captioned version of the scene resolves without any lingering doubt a major piece of the narrative puzzle. Seeing the words “Original Sam” on the screen, was, for me, a breakthrough moment. It all made sense now. Without captions, I might still have been scratching my head over the relationship between the cloned Moon Sams and the Earth guy called Dad.

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S. Zdenek

Dr. Sean Zdenek is an associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


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