If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a fair few (if not all, repeatedly) of the Great Science Fiction Movies. I’m not talking about your capitalist fluff like Star Wars and Star Trek*, I’m talking about the serious SF movies.
and most important of them all (at least for the purposes of this review), the now-forgotten classic Dark Star.
Duncan Jones, the son of a guy a who starred in another of the all-time great SF movies The Man Who Fell to Earth, has seen these films and many more. But I mention these particular classics not because they’re the first ones that came to mind, but because they have elements in common with each other. The first is isolation and loneliness. All of these films, the protagonist is a person isolated from the mainstream of society in one way or other, often by the vacuum of space.
The second theme is madness. The question of the sanity of either the protagonist or the antagonist is left open. In the case of Brazil or 2001, it’s left wide open.
Finally, we have a fight for one’s own (or humanity’s collective) soul. Now, to be fair, it should be said that a lot of movies have these three elements in varying degrees — but if you were to stick the aforementioned SF movies into a blender, garnish with some Space: 1999 and add a huge extra helping of Dark Star, I believe you would have something very akin to Moon, the film debut of writer/director Zowie Bowie (sorry, Joey Bowie. Sorry again, Duncan Jones).
This is not to say that Moon is unoriginal or a rip-off; I think Jones brings enough originality to the story to make it work, particularly for a generation not as deeply versed in some of the “classics” as maybe they ought to be. But if you’re like me, you will spend a lot of your time noticing little things, ideas consciously or unconsciously nicked from other films.
The main influences are clearly Dark Star, Blade Runner, 2001 and Space: 1999 (and before some wag puts it out there, I’ll add that the budget for this film was clearly inspired by mid-70s Doctor Who). You notice it even before we get to the friendly, calm-voiced computer named GERTY (which is well done by Kevin Spacey, but his voice is so recognisable that you notice it’s Kevin Spacey).
Sam Rockwell (in a much stronger performance than 2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) plays Sam Bell, the sole human inhabitant of a mining station on the far side of the moon. The work is mostly automated, but needs a caretaker — and Sam is itching to get home after have served his contract of three long years away from his wife and daughter.
The time has taken its toll on Sam, and one day while out in a rover doing inspections, he hallucinates and crashes, injuring himself badly.
This part of the film is clear. The rest of it is a little murky.
Some time later, Sam wakes up in the infirmary, informed by GERTY that he has suffered injuries and some memory loss. As he recovers he wishes more and more to get back to work, the only thing that gives him a sense of feeling. Finally tricking GERTY into letting him outside the base, Sam returns to the scene of the accident and makes an unsettling discovery — the injured Sam still alive inside the vehicle.
At no point are we as the audience absolutely certain that what we’re seeing is reality, and Jones’ strength here is to keep us focused on that mystery. Is this all a dream of the dying Sam #1? Is the presence of a second Sam an indication of madness? Further along in the film we get a “logical” explanation of how this situation came to be, and we eventually return to what we assume is the real timeline, but we cannot be certain, particularly early on. Watching the two Sams warily interact proves very entertaining and the story unfolds more-or-less logically from there. Eventually Sam(s) realise the truth of their situation, that they are being manipulated. But why exactly, and how can he (they) beat the odds?
I suspect that a lot of the raves given this film are due as much to its obvious borrowing (sorry, homage) to its influences, and due to it being a rare example of a slow-paced story in this genre. There are few explosions or action sequences; largely it is (apart from the first quarter and climax) a psychological play. Plot revelations are drawn out, actions are very constrained, the feel is deliberately claustrophobic, and the minor supporting roles are minimal. Hopefully it will find (and seems to have found) an audience mature enough to be able to deal with the Kubrick-esque pacing and really savour the performance and atmosphere. If Moon is a modest hit, it will be good news for low-budget and serious SF filmmakers everywhere. To be able to take your time and really get into a story will come as something of a revelation to the twitchy video-game generation, for whom “sci-fi” in movies has largely meant huge explosion, whizzy spaceships, thrilling headgear and odd-coloured alien women to romance.
Rockwell gives a fairly low-key performance (for him) as both Sams, doing a very effective job of showing us Sam at various stages of his experience on the moon, and interacting with “himself” quite effectively. The special effects are quite modest (very Gerry Anderson!) but they do the job, and the moonbase while obviously cheap removes us from our own world well enough to allow us to sink into the mind(s) of the characters. Throw in a modest twist to the “us versus them” countdown and you end up with a satisfying story (with kind of an open ending) that doesn’t try to keep you thrilled/amazed/scared/titillated the entire time. For me that’s kind of refreshing, for some leaving the theatre with me I got the impression they were surprised to be so thoughtful after a “sci-fi” movie. Some were just plain perplexed. A few seemed underwhelmed.
Points off for being so completely blatant in his borrowings, but overall Jones has made an effective, well-directed “little” SF film, something the world could probably use more of. The sparse soundtrack by Clint Mansell is as unobtrusive as a fine waiter, and Gary Shaw’s cinematography makes the most of the limited sets (also helping the “moon surface” shots be more convincing). If you’re the type who enjoys discussing movies over drinks after the screening, Moon will probably be the first in a long time to provide you with more than just “what’d you think?” to ponder.
*Apart from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which is actually a great sci-fi movie.