This excellent little science fiction film is a welcome throwback to an earlier era, when filmmakers used the canvas afforded by outer space and/or the future to explore ideas about the human condition. With allusions and references to everything from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to SILENT RUNNING to SOLARIS, debut director Duncan Jones has crafted a thoughtful and engaging low-budget sleeper that fills the intellectual void left by Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters. He is not afraid – in fact, he is eager – to wrestle with serious subject matter in the context of a scientifically believable piece of fiction that conspicuously avoids the easy excitement of laser battles, aliens, and mutants. The mini-miracle of this approach is that MOON is never self-important or pretentious; it remains entertaining from start to finish, and even if there is a dour, fatalistic turn to the storyline, the film is never a downer – it somehow subtly inspires an uplifting sense of wonder without singing any hokey paeans to the “triumph of the human spirit,” allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions.
The screenplay by Nathan Parker (from a story by Duncan Jones) follows astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who has been working on the far side of the moon for three years, accompanied only by computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Sam is lonely, yearing for the day when he can reunite with his family back on Earth. Communication is dodgy – the signal must bounce off Jupiter and return to the Moon, creating long delay that prevents live communication, forcing Sam to subsist emotionally on recorded greetings from his wife. One day while retrieving material from a roving automated machine on the lunar surface (a mineral that his company refines for energy back home), Sam gets in an accident. Later, Sam wakes up in the moon-base’s sickbay with no memory of what happened. Noticing that one of the machines on the lunar surface is not working (we know it was the one involved in the accident, even if he does not), he goes to investigate and makes a disturbing discovery, coming face to face with literally the last person he ever expected to meet – on the Moon or anywhere else…
Visually, MOON suggests SPACE ODYSSEY and SILENT RUNNING, with its scruffy protagonist interacting with a talking robot, but the closest point of comparison is with Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, which also went into outer space only to stare inward upon the human soul. As in the 1970 classic (and the later, disappointing remake starring George Clooney), an astronaut on finds himself confronting an unexpected newcomer on an isolated station where visitors simply cannot show up unannounced. The search for answers and explanations to an apparently impossible situation forms the crux of the drama. Unlike SOLARIS, which maintained an illusive aura of mystery, MOON offers a concrete explanation, but the net result remains somewhat similar, forcing the protagonist to confront some unpleasant personal truths.
With most of the drama limited to the base (interrupted only by an occasional excursion on to the lunar surface), MOON is almost a small chamber piece – a character study with a very narrow focus (due to the small number of characters). Yet somehow it never feels small or constricted; it never seems to suffer from a lack of resources. The production design lends a believable impression of functionality to the base, combined with just right right lived-in feeling you would expect from a place occupied by a lone man. The special effects mostly eschews modern computer-generated imagery in favor of convincing miniature work that is both appropriate to the serious story and evocative of the older science fiction films that influenced Duncan Jones.
Sam Rockwell, who is perhaps best known for lighter roles in films like GALAXY QUEST and CHARLIE’S ANGELS aces the acting challenge here, holding viewer attention almost single-handedly for the entire running time. He engages the audience even when the character is behaving badly or irrationally; he captures the pathos of his character’s oppressive isolation and desperate desire to return home, but he adds just enough humor to prevent MOON from losing its orbit and descending into the bathetic.
As the voice of GERTY, Kevin Spacey’s vocal inflections walk a tricky tightrope. Instead of trying to avoid comparisons to 2001‘s HALL 9000, Spacey’s smooth tones invite them. The gambit pays off when GERTY turns out to be very much his own computer, his personality (for lack of a better word) enhanced with computer graphics that display virtual emotions through simply smiley-type faces.
Composer Clint Mansell layers the film in a beautifully atmospheric score that captures both the ethereal nature of the setting and the poignancy of Sam’s situation. It’s the final finishing touch on a science fiction films that strives to achieve something more than most genre efforts do today. There are many enjoyable space operas and adventure-fantasies on the screen this summer, but there is too little real ambition – a striving to use the medium to its fullest potential for not only dazzling the eye but also amazing the soul. MOON is ultimately a small film, maybe too small to be regarded as a masterpiece, but within its narrow scope it displays an impressive ambition. There is no slam-bang-pow, but there is a great story and, more important, a genuine Sense of Wonder. I won’t say it is the best science fiction film of the summer (I was too bowled over by the exuberance of STAR TREK), but strictly speaking, MOON is this season’s best filmed science fiction.