Sundance 2009: “Moon”

01.17.09 9 years ago 2 Comments

I seem to be in a bit of a minority when it comes to “Moon” here at the festival, but I’m willing to bet that if the film does get a general release (and I’m hearing Sony Pictures Classics picked it up), I won’t be in the minority anymore.  “Moon” is a first feature from Duncan Jones, a commercial director from the UK who also happens to be the son of David Bowie.  There’s an odd synchronicity to the idea that Bowie’s first success was the 1969 single, “Space Oddity,” and now, 40 years later, his son makes his directorial debut with a film that very well could have carried the same title.

Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, employed for a three-year contract as the caretaker of a lunar station responsible for the mining and export of an element called Helium-3, a fuel source that has helped transform Earth as we see in a commercial at the start of the movie.  There’s so little to do, since most of the station’s work is automated, that they only ever send up one person at a time, and for the last three years, Sam Bell’s been it, the one guy.  He pines for his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and his baby daughter Eve, and he’s counting down the days until he can go home.  His isolation’s been made even worse by a faulty satellite relay that won’t let him speak in real time to anyone on Earth, meaning all his messages from home are on tape delay.  Watching his baby grow up on a video screen and missing his wife intensely, he’s slowly starting to be eaten alive by the loneliness, so much so that he has become attached to Gerty, the base’s computer/robotic arm system, which is voiced by Kevin Spacey in a fitting bit of casting.  Spacey always sounds like an artificial intelligence annoyed by all the imperfect meat he’s forced to share the world with, anyway.

But Sam’s fragile hold on reality is starting to slip more aggressively now, and as hallucinations and odd memories become more frequent, he finds himself distracted from the work at hand, and he has an accident in one of the surface rovers that leaves him grievously injured.  When he wakes up from the accident, back in the infirmary, things get much stranger very quickly, and Sam finds himself wondering if he’s lost his mind completely or if maybe, just maybe, nothing about his time on the moon is what he believes it to be.

I’ll say this for the film… it’s real science-fiction in a way that very few films are.  For the most part, what we call “SF” on film is actually action movies dressed up with sci-fi trappings or horror movies or even just outright fantasy.  “Moon,” though, jumps off from a hard science premise, and it posits an ethical rabbit hole that we may well vanish down one day if certain technologies are ever perfected.  The film gives Rockwell the chance to play multiple roles, and he rises to the occasion with the sort of arresting, eccentric choices that have always marked his best work.  Duncan Jones proves to have a confident eye as a filmmaker, and his technical command even on a limited budget like this is impressive.  He creates a persuasive environment for Sam to live and work in, and there are some invisible effects that are used to give us several Rockwells onscreen at once that are baffling at times, even if you account for the use of a photo double.

But the script by Nathan Parker, from a story by Jones, just isn’t very good.  It’s a series of unexplored opportunities, loose threads that never quite cohere.  Characters do things because the story needs them to, not because of any internal logic, and there are things that the script introduces that are simply abandoned for no reason.  Even when the big reveals of the film take place, it’s all played muted, and there are only a few moments where someone behaves in a way I genuinely believe based on what we’re seeing.  And the ending is rushed, culminating in a lousy piece of voice-over exposition wrapping it all up over a shot that would have worked much better without any dialogue at all. 

I don’t think it’s a bad film, but I think the weak script keeps it from being a great film.  More than anything, it’s a case of someone’s ambition and technique proving to be more impressive than the actual end result, and I find myself curious to see what Jones does next.  “Moon” should end up as a decent calling card for this director, as well as a reminder of just how interesting Rockwell can be in the right roles, but it’s a cult item at best, and it may leave many viewers frustrated.

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