The classic science fiction drama has been all but dead for nearly a decade. Thoughtful, provocative storytelling of another place in time and space is a rarity in today’s U.S. cinema. The last one that comes to mind was Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, and it was based on the novel by prolific writer Stanislaw Lem. I, Robot was a good attempt, but like so many other modern films of this genre, it was too slick with too much CGI. I won’t even talk about Transformers. I had all but written off the experiences that made me fall in love with sci-fi and propelled my interest in film. Works like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1950). 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, A Clockwork Orange and later on, Silent Running, Blade Runner and Aliens, fulfilled the wonder and curiosity that was sparked when my sister gave me a copy of The Martian Chronicles for my 9th birthday. I know I’m being a bit harsh, as there are some contenders in A.I. Artificial Intelligence; possibly even The Sixth Sense. But these are exceptions that had to swim upstream against a raging river of special effects and tone deaf dialogue.
I moved on, accepting that yet another thing from my youth had been taken over by a new generation enamored with technology. But then I bought a ticket to Duncan Jones’ Moon. All those memories and hope that we still live in a world where they actually build sets out of raw materials and put actors in front of cameras to, well, act came rushing back. Moon is not a great film. But it is a work of ingenuity and courage and like the early pictures in the genre is more grown up.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is approaching the end of his three year contract with Lunar Industries where he lives on the moon and watches over robots mining for Helium-3. That H-3 is then shot back to earth on rockets where it provides 75% of all Earth’s energy needs. His only companion is a robot named GERTY (voice by Kevin Spacey) who is programmed to prepare meals, monitor Sam’s health and keep him safe. In between his astronaut routine, Sam works on a balsa wood model of a city, reads, tends to his plants and watches delayed video broadcasts of his wife and young daughter who are waiting for him back on Earth.
There only a few weeks to go when suddenly he becomes ill. Each day brings more symptoms from coughing up blood to having hallucinations that other people are in the Lunar station with him. While out on routine patrol in his rover he has an accident that renders him unconscious. Suddenly a younger, more energetic man appears, identical in looks to Sam. The new character brings the injured Sam back to base where they carry on an intense relationship, both searching for who the other one is and why they’re there.
At first they are at odds, but soon they join forces and together uncover the shocking truth. In the final scenes compassion and empathy take over, even GERTY joins in, assisting the two Sam’s in successfully carrying out their hastily crafted plan. It’s part revenge, part survival.
Mr. Jones pays detailed homage to the original, brainy sci-fi films. He evokes their pacing and calmness but updates them just enough to make this picture his own. His camera is not afraid to stand still and allow the audience to take in the sparse surroundings.
Mr. Rockwell has an everyman quality that invites speculation that he was probably in dire straits back on earth and that’s why he took up this lonely assignment. His physicality plays a major part in his performance. We watch Sam 1 deteriorate while Sam 2 gains in strength. Mr. Spacey is the calming robotic voice paired with smiley face emoticons that give Sam at least some feedback to help him while trapped in an emotional elevator ride.
Technical aspects are nothing special, but fit well into the visual style of the film. Clint Mansell’s score is solitary, almost muzak-like, but edgy at the same time. I do recommend this picture, but don’t go expecting a Transformer’s ride. Go because you want to slow down and observe film craft that carefully builds a story. You can visit the official Moon web site here.
Images: Sony Pictures Classics