So, the Moon has been on my radar lately. Our lonely, pock-marked orbiter is pretty cool…even just to stare at. And I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so. The X-Change Files has already seen a couple of posts here on the subject. At the risk of posting redundancy, I wanted to get my blog in edgewise. 

I recently saw Duncan Jones’ new feature, Moon. It’s clear to me that there must have been some serious cooperation between scientists and the creatives behind the film. The setting both inside the station and out in the cold, vast lunar surface is as compelling as it is realistic. As someone who watches television and film with an eye towards production, constantly considering “how’d they pull that off,” thoughts of miniature models and CGI didn’t enter my mind. It was like they actually got the permits and shot there. On the Moon. And that’s what makes the Moon such a great setting for storytelling. It’s another world entirely, but one within our reach. There are folks walking the earth today, nine of them to be exact, who have traipsed across the distant lunar surface. The Moon is a natural bridge between sci-fi fantasy and scientific reality. 

Watching Moon, I couldn’t help but focus on the exterior establishing shots. Staid, placid, perfect for the lifeless, monochromatic setting. The perceived authenticity of these shots is one key element where the believability of this film could live or die. A word on the establishing shot (probably unnecessary, but humor me). Film and television rely on these shots to establish settings. For the CSI series, they’ve become a hallmark of the franchise. These flyovers open each episode and each act after a commercial, set the mood and convey the passage of time. On CSI: Miami, we send a helicopter up over the city to capture ski-doos skimming by beaches, glass towers reflecting sunlight or the occasional gator darting for brackish water. If we were to set a series on the Moon, what would be the equivalent of this type of dynamic establishing shot? And more importantly, if we had to produce it from thin air (pardon the pun), how might we make it believable? It occurred to me that we already have some pretty remarkable flyover footage from the Apollo Space Missions, though it is on the grainy, dated side. 

And then I came across SELENE, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Selenological and Engineering Explorer. A spacecraft launched in September of 2007. Nicknamed “Kaguya” by the public, after a popular character in a Japanese folktale, the orbiter went equipped with a high-definition camera, complete with telephoto lens, as well as terrain cameras capable of capturing 3-D stereo imagery of the lunar surface. Since early 2009, Kaguya has been orbiting the Moon, capturing the most amazing, hi-def and 3-D footage of any lunar orbiter before it. Every nook, cranny and crater can be witnessed in striking detail and clarity, like you’re flying over it yourself. So close, you could reach out and run your hand through the grey powdery surface. CGI and miniature models are now totally unnecessary. Sure, rights may need to be secured, but we actually have broadcast-quality flyovers of the Moon!

I scoured the Internet for videos from Kaguya and found inspiration in one in particular. The footage is desolate and haunting. Lonely. And it’s made even more chilling by what it depicts. On June 11, Kaguya’s orbit terminated in a controlled impact on the lunar surface. Its poignant fate was caught on camera, so to speak, as Kaguya transmitted to the end. I know I’m anthropomorphizing Kaguya, but there’s something sad about witnessing this little orbiter’s final moments. Watching the minute-long video, I find myself on the edge of my seat, holding my breath as its view of the terrain fills the frame. As it glides closer and closer, just missing the peaks of craters. Dropping further, toward the dusty surface. No ski-doos, no gators, no bustling cityscapes. Just rocks, mysterious shadows and loneliness. And in that final moment before the transmission is lost, as Kaguya descends into a shaded area of the Moon and it becomes too dark to capture an image, the landscape just drops off to nothing. Black. A void. Scientifically speaking, simply the absence of data. For me though, watching this moment, science is more gut-wrenching than any feature or television show.

In that instance, I forget that I’m watching an incredible scientific achievement and think only about Clint Mansell’s eerie score to Moon, the sad little robot eyes of Wall-E and the millions of earthlings back here at home watching as that final lunar establishing shot came to an end.