Moon (United Kingdom, 2009)

July 01, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Moon Poster

Moon illustrates a truism forgotten by Hollywood: the best science fiction films are about something. This film does not feature explosions. It does not contain endless, mind-numbing chase sequences. Instead, it's a simple idea-rich storyline that explores areas science fiction fans will find familiar: the concept of artificial intelligence, whether prolonged isolation can lead to psychosis, and where bioethics is headed. The screenplay, tightly scribed by Nathan Parker from a story by director Duncan Jones, plugs every seeming gap in logic and develops a story that is both deceptively simple and devilishly clever. After the chaos of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it's refreshing to encounter a science fiction film that respects the intelligence and attention span of an adult.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the human component in the operation of a lunar mining station. Aided only by his "assistant," the computer GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey), Sam is the lone non-mechanized cog in a process that provides energy to 70% of Earth. When the film opens, he has two weeks left in a three-year contract. Sat-com has failed, meaning he can no longer talk directly to Earth; he can only receive and send recorded messages. The latest one from his wife expresses eagerness about Sam's return. It's good he's leaving - he is beginning to see things and his health is deteriorating despite his maintaining a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Being alone for three years with only a robot as a companion can cause the mind to function in strange ways.

Although Moon boasts a slow, deliberate pace, it also incorporates thriller elements into what is predominantly a character and idea-based piece. There is a sense of menace in the antiseptic, empty rooms and lonely exteriors. As the story progresses, the ways in which some events are presented raise questions about whether we're seeing a chronology through the eyes of an unreliable narrator or whether something more sinister is transpiring. When the truth is revealed, it fits perfectly with the clues that have been laid out in a generally subtle manner.

Moon shows a clear and present influence by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (which has been filmed twice - once in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky and once in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh). While some thematic elements recall the latter film, the nods to 2001 are frequent and uncamouflaged. Certain shots recall those employed by Kubrick and there's an effects sequence set to a piece of classical music. Then there's GERTY, who is represented almost as a HAL clone. The inflections and intonations in Kevin Spacey's vocal performance make it evident he studied Douglas Rain's voicework for 2001 before providing his contribution to Moon. It's an effective and reasoned choice, and the decision to link GERTY to HAL in viewers' minds establishes expectations that work well for the development of the story.

Moon's success hinges as much on Sam Rockwell's performance as it does on the claustrophobic atmosphere and creeping sense of dread. This is Rockwell's show - he's the only actor to have significant screen time and, in one capacity or another, he's in front of the camera for about 90 of the film's 97 minutes. His role also requires range - at times, his character shows confusion, anger, pain, and a Keir Dullea-inspired detachment. Making the task more difficult is the lack of other performers for Rockwell to appear opposite. Rockwell not only holds our attention but wins our sympathy.

This is director Duncan Jones' feature debut and, as such, it may seem to be a surprisingly ambitious effort. After all, serious science fiction is rarely the province of neophyte filmmakers who enter projects armed without huge budgets and studio backing. However, by making the subject matter intimate and keeping the setting mostly within the confines of the moonbase, Jones is freed from some of the warped conventions that typically define the modern concept of what defines "science fiction." This is not a Star Wars-inspired space opera (although it is worth mentioning that the effects, such as shots of a rover cruising the moon's surface or a mining vehicle trundling forward, are expertly done); it is intelligent, thought-provoking material. And it takes the element of "science" in "science fiction" seriously - Duncan is determined that his view of the future be believable.

I have nothing against movies like Star Trek; they're good fun and escapist entertainment. But calling them "science fiction" is misnaming them, although I'm as guilty of the infraction as anyone else. Moon is closer to what die-hards expect when they hear the term "sci-fi," and its existence reminds us that serious movies within this genre are not dead - they're just hiding.

Moon (United Kingdom, 2009)

Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice)
Screenplay: Nathan Parker
Cinematography: Gary Shaw
Music: Clint Mansell
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2009-06-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1