Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Kaya Scodelario
Running Time: 97 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Immediately after experiencing the impenetrable sci-fi thriller Moon, I did something I don't remember ever doing before...at least not so quickly. I watched it again. I'd have to re-watch it eventually so I figured I may as well just get it out of the way right then and there. Three or four viewings would have probably been more helpful. It isn't exactly an easy film to follow, not does it feel like the type of entertainment we're used to getting, especially in this era of CGI, 3-D and overblown special effects. Anyone who thinks 2009 wasn't a good year for movies is entitled to their opinion....even if they happen to be completely wrong. It's just that very few of these great films are the ones being rolled out for Academy Award consideration these past few months. This joins those that were unfairly ignored and it contains more emotion and ideas than any of those Oscar friendly efforts dealing with "important" topics.
It joins The Box as one of two releases this year that could be classified as hard Sci-fi. Very hard. It deals only in complex concepts and huge ideas and fans of this particular type of film (the number of which seem to be shrinking by the day) will have to pinch themselves that something like this was even released at all. The most obvious aesthetic influence on the film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if its theme and consequences more closely parallel Solaris. But in reality it's nothing like either, sucking the viewer into a hypnotic vortex of confusion that mirrors the plight of the main character(s). It's appropriate I re-watched the film right after it ended because the entire experience of watching the film is re-watching it as the narrative travels in circles before shocking us, then arriving at its mind numbing conclusion. Many won't care for it, but the kind of cerebral filmmaking on display here is something we rarely see anymore, as deserving of recognition as the compelling, career defining performance that carries it.
Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is just two weeks away from completing his three-year contract to a company that hired him to serve as the sole crew member in extracting helium-3 from the lunar surface needed to provide clean energy back on Earth. His only companion on the journey is a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and the limited communication he has with his family come via recorded video transmissions that rarely work because of satellite failure. While looking forward to returning home soon, he's so mentally spent that he begins suffering from hallucinations, one of which leads to him accidentally crashing his rover during an excursion and landing in the infirmary. Against GERTY's wishes he goes back out to investigate and discovers another astronaut barely alive in the rover. Himself. Then things start to get really crazy. Revealing anymore would reveal too much.
I had a few reasonable theories in my mind as to how there could possibly be two Sams on the station. All of them were wrong. The majority of the film concerns Sam dealing with and trying to co-exist with this visitor who is him...but isn't. This is a challenging dual role for Rockwell and could be considered dramatically comparable to Nicolas Cage's twin turn in Adaptation (albeit more physically and emotionally taxing) because both Sams have very different and distinct personalities that are constantly clashing. One Sam's grip on reality is slipping while the other seems to be playing with a full deck, but is arrogant and has a short fuse. They'll have to learn to work with one another whether they want to or not. I've heard a lot about Rockwell's performance going in but nothing could have prepared me for what he pulls off. He literally has to act alone for the entire 97 minute running time of the picture, reacting only to a computer and the other performance he's giving as a bizarro version of the protagonist.
Rockwell is one of those frequently recognizable actors who despite showing up in smaller supporting roles in big budget blockbusters like Galaxy Quest and Charlie's Angels and giving a series of brilliant lead performances in little seen independent films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Choke and Snow Angels is still generally unknown to most of the moviegoing public. It's his ability to so fully and unrecognizably disappear into a role that can partially account for why he's still considered more of a character actor than a movie star, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But this should have changed all that and it's a shame that a grassroots internet campaign had to be launched in attempt to convince the Academy to nominate a performance they should need no needling to see is among the best of this or any recent year. Rockwell is once again a victim of being almost too invisibly good and subtly complex that his work in eccentric films that fly under the radar is taken for granted. It's easy to understand why this movie didn't connect with a mass audience but it's a lot more difficult to come to terms with the fact that his performance went unrecognized.
In a shout out to 2001, the computer GERTY (whose display screen is an emoticon conveying shifting moods) has information that Sam doesn't and one of Rockwell's most poignant scene comes when he's given the shocking explanation for why all this is happening. Sam may only have a three-year contract but someone didn't read the fine print. The choice of Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY is a curious one since he's a relatively big name actor with a recognizable voice. That shouldn't work but it does because it's exactly the right voice for this part--calm and objective. Would it be wrong to say that this the best role Spacey has had in years even though he never appears? Like HAL 9000 in 2001, the computer's motives are in question with the idea that it can possibly think and feel being front and center throughout and his relationship with Sam serving as the story's most important component. It's a relief that the action doesn't take a detour into space horror like Event Horizon or Alien as I feared it was headed in that direction. I have nothing against those films because that approach worked for them but it would be a disappointment for this one which proves to be more interested in dealing with more philosophical issues like the nature of human existence and family.
This marks the feature directorial debut of Duncan Jones, who's David Bowie's son, a detail that's either widely publicized or little known depending on the sources you read. It's also not very relevant until you consider Bowie's biggest hit and the fact that he probably grew up watching many of the science fiction films of the '60's, '70's and '80's that seem to have heavily influenced this one. It doesn't feel like an imitation as much as an homage or a throwback, right down to Clint Mansell's sinister musical score and the very welcome return of models and replicas rather than computer effects to create this claustrophobic space environment. Needless to say, it puts most CGI to shame because it actually looks and feels REAL.
Going in it helps to know that this is a movie driven by the psychology of human behavior, not special effects. It's slow moving but suspenseful, requiring a lot from audiences who choose to watch it. Moon isn't for everyone but contains enough mystery and action that those outside the regular hardcore sci-fi fan base could find a lot to appreciate in it if they're willing to surrender to its trippy narrative. And for those longtime fans of the genre like myself, this is the film we've been waiting for but didn't think we'd be lucky enough to get.