Friday, September 2, 2011

Overlooked Gems #4: Moon

Grade: 87 (A-)

David Bowie’s classic song “Space Oddity” fostered many a young man’s fascination with space-travel and science-fiction. It’s fitting then that his son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, made his directorial debut with Moon, a moody sci-fi thriller that echoes, among other sci-fi classics, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moon was released in the summer of 2009 at the same time as Michael Bay’s enormously successful but universally derided Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s not surprising that Jones’ slower, less juvenile film was far less expensive and less successful than Bay’s film. It is also far too easy to compare and contrast the two. Bay is an easy target with no delusions that he’s made an intelligent film, and his film is filled with sexism, racism, relentless noise and incoherent action. Jones’ film has far more ambition. Easy and pretentious as the comparison may seem, it is still heartening to see that intelligent sci-fi can still be made. It’s doubly encouraging that Jones’ talent was noticed, as his next film, the solid Source Code, successfully applied Jones’ interest in complex sci-fi to the blockbuster model. Moon is gradually building a cult audience that will no doubt grow as Jones’ profile becomes more pronounced, but it’s still early enough in the film’s lifespan that it qualifies as an overlooked gem.

Moon begins with Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). Sam is almost alone on the moon, where an energy source was found ages ago to solve the earth’s energy crisis. Sam is the employee of Lunar Industries, which harvests this energy and sends it back to earth. He has a contract with the company for 3 years, after which his replacement will arrive and he can go home to his wife and daughter. His only companion is Gerdy (Kevin Spacey), a HAL 9000-esque robotic system that keeps Sam sane and up to date. Sam can receive transmissions from home, but the delay between the sent messages and their arrival on the moon prevents him from having actual conversations with his family. It is nearing the end of Sam’s agreed term on the moon. He’s tired, he has become irritable, he’s frequently talking to himself, he has grown long-hair and an unsightly beard, and he’s starting to see things. He’s ready to go home. Of course, things are about to get complicated.

At this point, it’s difficult to discuss Moon’s mind-boggling plot without giving away the surprises the film has in store. Needless to say, Moon doesn’t go in to expected places. The film doesn’t have action set-pieces or graphic violence, more people don’t come to attack Sam or have arguments with him. Aside from Kevin Spacey’s voice as a friendly companion this is largely a one-man show for Rockwell, who gives an astounding performance. Rockwell had previously acquitted himself nicely in restrained supporting roles such as Charlie Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but had also done manic, irritating work in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Green Mile, where the directors seemingly let Rockwell run amok with every tic and spasm he could conjure. Rockwell’s increasingly more frantic and paranoid performance could have been a disaster, and yet Rockwell never goes into over-the-top cartoonishness the way he had in other “crazy” roles. He is a strong anchor for this film. Also good is Spacey in perhaps his most interesting role since American Beauty (clearly showing how lackluster his post-Oscar career has been otherwise). His character is highly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL-9000, and yet the Gerdy isn’t a repeat; he’s far warmer towards Sam than HAL ultimately could be in the Kurbick film.

And here is where the SPOILERS set it, so anyone who hasn’t seen Moon and would like to go in knowing as little as possible may want to stop reading.

Much has been made of how Moon feels like a homage to classic sci-fi of its time aside from 2001. There are eerie spectral visions similar to that of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the film’s low-budget has been compared to John Carpenter’s Dark Star, space is seen as a job with menial tasks as in Ridley Scott’s Alien, and Scott’s Blade Runner influences how the film turns out. Yet Jones’ voice is heard throughout the film. He establishes a mood of loneliness and longing early in the film that is perfectly complimented by Clint Mansell’s score. The film is not a masterpiece on the same level as 2001, Alien, or Blade Runner. Moon feels in some ways like a warm-up for greater films to come. But with this and Source Code a major filmmaker has already explored themes that will no doubt be repeated throughout his filmography: untrustworthy companies and the protagonists they manipulate, mind-bending sci-fi concepts, protagonists with regret for the decisions they’ve made, and focus on what makes us human and where our rights come in. That’s more than enough to make it worth the while.

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