In a year of giant alien robots, genocidal cyborgs and timewarping space fortresses, Moon is a sigh of fresh air.
An intelligent, humane film about ideas (ethics, existentialism, isolation), it proves that science fiction shines brightest when reflecting the present, not conjuring a cartoonish glimpse of the future.
Taking his subtle cues from minimalist sci-fi (Silent Running, Alien, 2001), first-time director – and philosophy graduate – Duncan Jones plots a gentle but gripping odyssey into inner space.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the solitary human sentinel at a remote moon-base where essential mineral helium-3 is extracted and dispatched back to Earth. He’s tended by a benign, fussy robot called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey).
With two weeks of his contract to go, Sam is pining to reunite with his wife and young daughter. But, out on a routine surface mining mission, an apparent hallucination causes him to crash the lunar rover. He wakes and recovers in the base infirmary. But what prompted the collision? Why is GERTY plotting with Sam’s employers to call in an immediate ‘rescue’ mission? And, since he’s all alone on the base, who – or what – salvaged him from the crash? Jones teases and taxes, playing steady with his reveal. Is Sam losing his mind? Is GERTY friend or foe? Is this an alien thing? Something supernatural? Freaky physics?
“Moon is an indie film,” says Jones in an endearingly bashful introduction to the Sundance Festival Q&A. “It’s an indie science-fiction film, but we hope we’ve made something which is also mainstream and popcorn friendly...”
It’s certainly indie. Mostly shunning unaffordable CGI in favour of lo-fi model miniatures and stripped-back set design, Jones gives the movie a fuzzy aura of improv charm.
From the commentary track featuring Jones and producer Stuart Fenegen, we learn that the screens Sam uses to watch taped transmissions from his wife are standard embedded TVs playing the footage from pre-recorded DVDs. Chairs are borrowed from make-up, cheap walk-in sleeping bags double for space-suits… And by using only one on-screen actor (everyone else is either voice-over or pre-recorded on secondary screens) he saves on cast salary, too.
Rockwell is exceptional – playing Sam as cranky and conflicted, but always whirring with curiosity and watchful, near-paranoid intellect. As the story develops, the complexity of the role doubles and he seamlessly weaves in love, despair, pain, panic, flares of rage, shudders of melancholy... A wag at one of the Sundance Q&As wonders what it was like to work with himself. “Ah, that guy was such a diva!” laughs Rockwell. “A real pain in the ass. Always, ‘Me, me, me!’” But the humility masks a nuanced, singlehandedly, movie-carrying performance (there’s an online petition to get Rockwell Oscar-nominated – see tinyurl.com/ylmfrlt).
The makeshift vibe also makes Moon an authentic homage to those pert, plasticky films of its director’s youth. Whenever he talks about the movie, Jones seems almost tearfully gracious – as if he’s still shocked that someone has let him get away with making a feature film. But this is much more than a retro trip. Moon probes the dark side so surgically, it strays close to all-out psychological horror.
Opening the story with a mock advert from moon-mining corporation Lunar Industries, Jones riffs off a wellworn sci-fi theme: a wasteful humanity forced to plunder another planet for resources. But rather than carve out a grandstanding finger wag about an Earth picked clean by human parasites, Jones uses the idea to reach into the soul of Rockwell’s grunt, exploring how his part in the solution is riddled with broader moral problems: big business exploitation, the arrogance of exploring ‘artificial intelligence’ and, the big one – the question of whether humanity’s collective lifespan is hardwired on an evolutionary level.
We may burn up our resources and use our unique grasp of science to search for more, but just because we can doesn’t mean we should... Moon is a languid, ponderous film, but it’s never wilfully portentous.
Jones leavens the mood with satire: Sam’s alarm clock plays Chesney Hawkes’ ‘The One And Only’; the imperious GERTY rattles around the base with a ‘Kick Me’ Post-It on his back and there’s the greatest table-tennis metagag in cinema history.
So, indie? Yes, but “popcorn friendly”? Aside from the tough pitch (philosophical sci-fi with one guy living out a Kafkaesque nightmare on a featureless moon base), it’s maybe a little too mordant and minimalist to achieve the longevity of the films which inspired it.
But, like its spiritual partner, Pixar’s WALL•E, Moon is universal. It transcends the compacted setting by focusing on the plight of one: a dead-eyed drudge experiencing slow-motion epiphany; an automaton becoming self-aware, rising up and reaching for something deeper.
And there’s the tragedy. Because in space, no one can hear him dream...
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