Director : Duncan Jones
Screenplay : Nathan Parker (story by Duncan Jones)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell), Kevin Spacey (GERTY), Matt Berry (Overmeyers), Robin Chalk (Sam), Dominique McElligott (Tess Bell), Kaya Scodelario (Eve Bell), Malcolm Stewart (The Technician), Benedict Wong (Thompson)
From a thematic perspective, Moon, an existential space oddity that marks the feature directorial debut of Duncan Jones, a British commercial director otherwise known as the son of pop legend David Bowie, is what The Island (2005) might have been like had Michael Bay not turned it into a sprawling action extravaganza in its second half. The story, which takes place in the near future when a substance called Helium-3, which is mined from the moon’s surface, is being used as a clean and efficient source of fuel on Earth. The main (and virtually only) character in the film is a man named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is at the very end of a three-year contract as the sole employee at a mining station on the dark side of the moon owned by Lunar Industries (it is fairly implausible that any corporation would entrust such a massive operation to a single person in complete isolation for that length of time, but it’s one of those things you just have to go with).
When we first meet him, Sam is ragged-looking and clearly feeling the effects of more than 1,000 days of being a million miles from all human contact except for recorded messages sent to him by his wife (Dominique McElligott) back on Earth (various technical problems restrict live communication). Sam is not completely alone, though, as he shares the lunar base with GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an artificial-intelligence computer system that has a robotic body with a screen that displays various emoticon-like faces to register its moods. As we have learned from countless sci-fi movies involving large corporations and AI computers, GERTY is probably not to be entirely trusted since his allegiance is split between “taking care of” Sam and also ensuring that operations run smoothly at the station. However, for Sam’s purposes, GERTY is pretty much all he has--well, with the exception of the small miniature village he’s been carving out of pieces of wood and the roomful of plants that he cares for and talks to.
Things take a turn for the weird when Sam starts seeing things, specifically a young woman with long dark hair. While driving a rover to check on one of the massive harvesters, he thinks he sees her and accidentally crashes. When he wakes up, he is back at the lunar station in the infirmary being take care of by GERTY. How he got back there and exactly what happened in the meantime is a mystery, as is the eventual presence of another Sam, who is in much better physical condition and accuses our Sam of being either a hallucination or a clone. Questions about time and existence and identity begin to quickly pile up, driving the rest of the film toward an unsettling third act that suggests what might happen to humankind if certain technologies were driven by corporate greed.
Because there are virtually no other characters in the film, much of Moon’s success rests on the shoulders of Sam Rockwell, a character actor who has headlined a number of quirky films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2004) and Choke (2008), but has not managed to quite break through into genuine Hollywood stardom. Rockwell certainly meets the challenge, not only keeping us engaged as the sole human on screen (much as Tom Hanks did for much of Cast Away), but giving us an impressive doppelgänger act that requires him to enact two distinctly different characters who are still fundamentally the same person. The two Sams we see are physically distinct, but essentially represent the same person at different points in the three-year isolation on the moon, with the first Sam being near the end of his rope and the second Sam being a somewhat cold, hardened personality, which helps explain his wife’s cryptic references to his “needing” to spend those three years by himself.
From a visual standpoint, the production design by Tony Noble and Hideki Arichi creates a convincing sense of life on the desolation of the lunar surface. Sam’s living quarters have the kind of rounded, futuristic design that is familiar from many previous films (especially Kubrick’s ever-influential 2001), but it also has a realistic, lived-in quality that works (notice, for example, how dirty GERTY is, and how the spaces that Sam inhabits most frequently seem worn). Cinematographer Gary Shaw, who is also making his feature debut, gives us some genuinely beautiful and haunting images when Sam is outside the safety of the station, although some of the digital effects used to depict the mining operation are a bit two-dimensional (it should be noted, though, that the effects that allow Rockwell to interact with himself are seamless). However, Moon is not a film about its images, but rather about its underlying questions: who we are and what we’re willing to do to continue our lives as we know them. The film’s conclusion is perhaps a bit too tidy, but it works well enough to give the story a sense of narrative resolution while also suggesting that the larger issues are a long, long way from being resolved.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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