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Way, way out: Rockwell in Moon.

Ground Control to Major Sam

By John Brodeur

Moon

Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Considering his famous dad’s fascination with all things cosmic, and affinity as a young man for taking on alter egos, it comes as no surprise that the debut film from Duncan Jones—aka Zowie Bowie, son of David—deals with the psychological ramifications of life in outer space, and the fragility of human identity. Jones’ Moon boldly goes where many men have gone before, but still manages to come up with something new.

Set in the near future, the film opens with a brief “commercial” promoting Lunar Industries, a company that harvests energy-rich helium 3 from the far side of the moon. Sam Bell (a typically excellent Sam Rockwell) is a one-man crew on the company’s Sarang lunar base where his only companion is a helpful, HAL-like bot called Gerty (voiced, ideally, by Kevin Spacey). Naturally Sam is lonely, pining for the wife and child he hasn’t seen in years. This condition is made worse by the lack of a functioning live-communication link with Earth.

On the bright side, Sam is nearing the completion of his three-year assignment. But suddenly things get weird: His physical condition begins deteriorating; he starts to experience visions, headaches. And one day, after he’s injured off-base while checking on a malfunctioning mining rover, he awakens to find he’s got company—another Sam.

The film turns sharply here: Rather than just an examination of one man’s tortured psyche, Moon becomes a meditation on reality, personality, and morality. The physical atmosphere somehow becomes less claustrophobic, but the existential landscape becomes flurried with questions. Who is the “real” Sam Bell, and how will he coexist with himself? Is Gerty here to help, or to guard the truth? And to what lengths will Lunar Industries—and the human race in general—go to keep fuel in their minivans?

In this second half, as the layers begin to pile on, Jones loses his focus a bit, leading to an emotionally satisfying but rather conventional climax. This isn’t as much a complaint as a critique: Once the premise is revealed, the story could go in a number of directions; Jones chooses what could be considered an easy road. But it’s artfully and, again, satisfyingly done.

The direction, particularly in the early part of the film when we see Sam roaming the retro-futuristic halls of his space-cage, recalls the great 1960s and ’70s work of Stanley Kubrick—2001, obviously, but also The Shining. (In its playful moments, Moon also resembles a live-action Wall-E.) There’s an attention to detail here, necessitated in part by a modest budget, that’s lost in the CGI mucky-muck of too many modern sci-fi films. Jones’ use of model miniatures gives the moon’s surface a familiar distance; clever lighting tricks and postproduction elements bring these tried-and-true methods into the modern age. But the gravy is the split-screen work: Plenty of films have incorporated this trick, but the interaction between the two Sams is unlike anything you’ve seen.

This is a multilayered film that comes close to taking on too much, and in doing so it runs the risk of revealing itself too early. But when it sticks to its basic tenets as an old-school sci-fi creeper, Moon is a major success.


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