A film review by Craig J. Koban August 26, 2009

Rank:  #25

MOON  jjj
½ 

2009, R, 97 mins.

 

Sam Bell: Sam Rockwell / Voice of Gerty: Kevin Spacey

Directed by Duncan Jones / Written by Nathan Parker, from a story by Jones.

When I was a younger moviegoer I was more impressed with sci-fi films that wowed me with sumptuous production values and eye-catchy visual intrigue.  As I matured and my film tastes equally advanced I found that I was responding more favorably to sci-fi entries that contained provocative themes, characters, and stories.  Those subtle attributes are what so many weakly assembled sci-fi films mournfully lack these days: a reliance on making viewer think first and respond to all of the visual delights a distant second.  Sometimes, there is no other larger truism for a successful film than this: All of the colorful, vibrant, and histrionic eye candy thrown on screen in the world is nothing unless there is a decent narrative to back it all up. 

Duncan Jones' brilliantly executed and frequently haunting debut film, MOON, obviously understands this truism through and through.  With a remarkably scant $5million dollar budget – absolute peanuts compared to the smorgasbord of other bloated summer blockbusters – Jones' indie gem achieves a minor movie miracle: he creates impressive visual sights and a sense of startling atmosphere that in no way hints at the film’s meager financing and he combines this with an utterly powerful and stimulating expose on the nature of loneliness, despair, and escalating paranoia that comes with prolonged isolation.  Even better, MOON is sci-fi of a low-key, decidedly eerie vibe, which places more stock in its performances and the atmosphere it creates.  In many ways, Jones’ effort successfully harkens back to the last Golden Age of sci-fi (the late 60’s and early 70’s) when the canon of those films explored intriguing concepts.  The echoes of films as far ranging as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the original SOLARIS, and SILENT RUNNING reverberates through MOON…which is not bad company, indeed. 

MOON’S finest achievement is how it tells an idea-centric story within the outer façade of its otherworldly environments of outer space and our lone lunar body.  The motifs of the film certainly have a familiarity to anyone that professes to follow sci-fi, but Jones is cagey and resourceful for how he deals with them.  The reliance and trustworthiness of Artificial Computer Intelligence, how space exploration and the isolation of people in space affects one’s sanity, and the nature of the concept of the soul and personal identity….these are proverbial sci-fi motifs, but nevertheless are meditative and involving. 

Jones’ effort – based on his original story treatment – is a small masterpiece of narrative economy; it’s also told at a deliberately leisurely and patient pacing, which is refreshing during a relative age of similar genre films that rush right out of the gates.  Sam Bell (in another tour de force turn by the dreadfully underrated Sam Rockwell) is the soul human entity on a massive mining station that resides on the Moon.  The substance in question that is mined is helium-3, which, in the unspecified time in the future, will become the Earth’s primary source of energy.  The company which heads up Sam’s lunar mission is a vast and powerful corporation that, oddly enough, insists that their only be one human stationed on the moon for the excavation of helium-3 at all times, with shifts lasting an unthinkable three years.  Unfortunately for Sam, a chronic communications fubar severely limits live communications with loved ones back on Earth; all he can do is record messages to beam back home, such as heartfelt videos to his wife and his infant child.  Beyond sending and receiving video blogs, Sam is all alone...and it's starting to seriously get to him.   

Well…actually…he’s not completely alone.  He has one loyal friend and confident in the form of GERTY, a super sophisticated, A.I.-infused computer assistant (voiced nicely by the calm inflections of Kevin Spacey) who tends to Sam’s every need, whether it be in the form of food preparation, first aid, mission parameters, or even grooming.  Even though GERTY is the closet thing to a human-like friend that Sam has aboard the station, he still clamors for the opportunity to get off the Moon and return to Earth and his family (he is on the last few weeks of his hellish 36 month tour of duty).  He certainly sees the final few weeks as a bit tortuous, seeing as he cannot have live chats with his family anymore, but he still remains enthusiastic and hopeful. 

Thinks start to go wrong and quickly snowball from there:  Firstly, Sam’s overall health seems to be oddly deteriorating, despite the fact that he exercises daily to maintain it and has proper nourishment.  Then, he becomes deeply suspicious when he secretly overhears GERTY having a live conversation with Lunar Industry headquarters, which deeply bothers him since he was under the assumption that no live communications were possible.  Unfortunately, GERTY has sworn never to reveal specific mission parameters to Sam that the industry does not want revealed.  As far as Sam is told, the communications satellite is damaged on the exterior of the station, but GERTY is ordered not to let him back outside.  In a sly and bold move, Sam fakes a meteor impact on the station to trick GERTY into letting him voyage outside to investigate.  While outside he makes a detour and ends up at a lunar harvester and makes an alarming and ghastly discovering: 

He finds himself unconscious in it. 

I think that I will abruptly stop here with revealing more regarding MOON’s plot, other than to say that Jones’ story never takes the road-most-traveled approach with the underlining premise.  What it does is tantalize viewers into postulating the reality of Sam’s situation.  Is he so secluded and paranoid that he is slowly going crazy and seeing things?  Is this duplicate of himself actually another version – or clone – of himself, or is it just a warped figment of his delusional imagination?  Or, if the person is indeed…another version of himself…then which one is the real Sam?  Is it the copy he found or is he the copy and the found Sam the original Sam?  All I will say concretely is that, yes, MOON definitively answers this profound conundrum in manners that will surprise and challenge you.  And when Sam confronts his doppelganger they interact and talk in a way that seems entirely believable.  Sam asks his duplicate, and vice versa, precisely what we most likely would ask of our own copies.  If anything, MOON dives headstrong into its humanistic themes of the nature of being human and the concept of individuality with wiliness and intelligence. 

The other marvels of the film are its phenomenally lavish, but cheap-costing, production design.  By keeping the cast to a bare minimal, Jones has been able to keep costs down while still maintaining a distinct vision for the film.  With the assistance of veteran Bill Pearson (who supervised model effects on ALIEN), Jones breaks away from a reliance on CGI tricky and more satisfyingly opts to create MOON using old staple, sleight of hand tricks like models and miniatures.  The harvester machines, Moon bases, and GERTY itself are all practical physical elements in the film, which gives it both a sense of tangibility and a bit of nostalgic flavor for the past films it’s emulating.  For the more elaborate visual effects, Cinesite was utilized and the results are uniformly decent: MOON rarely feels – even if you consider its monetary limitations – like an inexpensive B-grade film; it looks often as polished as ones ten times costlier. 

Jones’ film is also a bravura execution of pitch perfect tone and mood.  The sets themselves of the lunar station are white, oppressively claustrophobic, and sterile, which heightens the seclusion of the environment.  The machinery and computers all have a rough, grungy, lived-in look; even GERTY itself is a fairly archaic looking robot if you consider the lexicon of thinking machines of the movies (it's essentially a large, box-like structure with several independent motorized arms). Jones does one thing that is devilishly clever: he gives GERTY a small LCD screen that uses various happy-face icons to suggest its emotional state (it changes in conjunction with its moods).  Even more intriguing is how Jones makes space itself in MOON feel desolate, dark, and foreboding: the film belongs on a short list of sci-fi works where space does not feel like a warm and inviting final frontier. 

Special consideration needs to be giving, of course, to the thanklessly empowered performance by the always assured Rockwell, who manages the impossible by playing so well off of…himself…for nearly 90 minutes.  The actor has always had a field day playing under-cranked, disturbing and troubled personalities (see SNOW ANGELS and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, the latter being one of the most criminally overlooked films of the 2000’s).  Yet, on the other hand, he always has an agreeable level of shaggy and unsophisticated charm even while playing unrefined roles.  The enormity of MOON’s themes is directly hinged on Rockwell plausibly grounding the psychological mood of the character (or…characters) as one that is slowly losing his grip on sanity.  The sheer apathy, escalating fear, compulsion, and disillusionment that Sam feels about his highly unusual circumstances are always echoed by Rockwell’s soulful and believable work: this is his most challenging and accomplished performance. 

Not all of MOON is daringly inventive: Even though it is trying to compliment the sci-fi classics of the past, there is still much of the film that feels derivative: Spacey’s calm-spoken voice work of GERTY is, let's face it, a poor man’s HAL-9000, minus the homicidal tendencies, and some of the interior design - although well realized - also feels borrowed from 2001 and SOLARIS.  Yet, those are just nitpicky faults, because the rest of what I saw from Jones (the English-born son of David Bowie, FYI) was memorable and endlessly fascinating.  Very high on ideas and very low on monetary resources, Jones’ auspicious debut showcases a developing directorial mind that keenly understands that dwelling on potent and emotionally taxing themes while honing in on thoughtful performances is always more mesmerizing for this genre.  Very few low budget films are as ingeniously clever, intrepidly resourceful, and as evocative as this one.  Coming out of such attention deficit-disordered and grotesque spectacles like TRANSFORMERS 2 I began to think that sophisticated and meditative sci-fi was all but extinct.  MOON, thankfully, has made me a believer again.

  H O M E