A film review by Craig J. Koban August 26, 2009
2009, R, 97 mins.
2009, R, 97 mins.
Sam Bell: Sam Rockwell / Voice of Gerty: Kevin Spacey
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.