MOON - Theatrical review

No Starchild. No ultimate trip. No jive-talking robots. Just good old-fashioned story-telling.

csjlong's picture

It is necessary to talk around "Moon" in order to avoid spoiling a major plot point that would be irresponsible to spoil even though it occurs fairly early in the film.

One thing that is safe to say about "Moon" is that it is a science-fiction film, and it owes a lot to its predecessors in the genre. The two most obvious referent points are "Silent Running" (1972) and "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) films that are, respectively, about a man stationed alone in space and (partially) about a talkative, near-omnipotent computer. I would also toss in a less obvious comparison, John Carpenter's debut feature "Dark Star" (1974) which Carpenter once described as "‘Waiting for Godot'" in space.

"Moon," like the other films, leans heavily on an existential theme which is inevitable in any philosophically inclined space movie for the obvious reason that man is very small and space is very big and space doesn't give a damn about tiny little men. In "Moon," however, space isn't the primary uncaring cad; it's the multi-national corporation.

The film kicks off with an advertisement for Lunar Industries, the world's #1 provider of clean energy. This energy comes in the form of Helium-3, a radioactive isotope mined on the moon and shipped back to Earth. The sleek, spotless commercial reminds us that Lunar Industries has helped to save the world from its energy crisis and transformed it into a place where shiny happy people can finally hold hands.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole employee at the company's Sarang Base on the dark side of the moon where he is responsible for supervision and routine maintenance of the mining equipment. He's nearing the end of his three year contract with the company and eagerly looking forward to returning home to see his wife and baby daughter who he speaks with on videophone in a scene plucked almost straight out of "2001." Unfortunately, Sam is about to learn that while the company intends to honor his contract, there's a world of difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

His only companion during his three year post is the computer GERTY (voice by Kevin Spacey) who is an obvious descendant to "2001's" HAL9000. GERTY is far more user-friendly though. Instead of manifesting as a baleful red eye, GERTY shows up as a smiley face that occasionally turns into a frowny face or even a crying face, like the world's most expensive emoticon or the cheapest special effect the film's producers could think of. But it works and it's one of many examples of the filmmakers' ability to make a virtue of their meager means. It's not easy to make science-fiction on a low budget ("Dark Star" being one example that comes to mind) but while "Moon" doesn't feature any whiz-bang bravura CGI fights or jive-talking robots, it looks awfully good with its cramped sets and rickety lunar rovers. An exceptional score by Clint Mansell, best known for his work with Darren Aronofsky makes the film quite an audio-visual treat.

As Sam's contract is about to end, he makes a series of discoveries that change his understanding of his job, his life, the universe and everything. If you're at all familiar with "2001," you're probably expecting GERTY to utter the words "I'm sorry, Sam, I'm afraid I can't do that." You might be right. I'm not telling. But whatever obstacle GERTY might pose, Sam's real opponent is far soulless and inhuman. He's fighting the corporation and it's not a fight that he can win in any traditional manner. But human ingenuity is boundless, and there just might be a way to salvage something more than Helium-3 canisters from the whole operation. I can say little more save that even if you ultimately find the film predictable, it is still utterly compelling as it winds down to its inevitable tragic (or perhaps not so tragic) conclusion.

Sam Rockwell is in large part responsible for this. Almost literally a one-man show, Rockwell has to shoulder a heavy load and he does so with ease, demonstrating the charisma that made him so fun to watch in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002). His role requires equal parts comedy and drama and a good deal of physically demanding work and he handles every aspect admirably.

"Moon" is directed by Duncan Jones who, as you probably know if you've read anything else about the movie, is the son of David Bowie. The song "Space Oddity" becomes another obvious science-fiction reference point. I don't know if Jones was inspired specifically by his father's song or if it's simply a function of the song expressing the existentialism that's so inherent in the genre. "Space Oddity" was also more drug trip than space trip, and that element is not present in the movie though it's fair to say that Sam has a tough time keeping his sense about him at times. I would like to point out that I have not woven a single line from or pun on this or any other David Bowie song into my review, and I take great pride in having not done so.

Jones has directed commercials before, but this is his first feature and it's a very promising one. Too many directors who tackle the science-fiction genre contract a terminal case of "2001"-itis. The primary symptom of this insidious disease is a an urge to tackle grand, universal themes with an aching, trembling poetry that aspires to transcendence but inevitably fails when the person who has contracted the disease is not named Stanley Kubrick. Jones keeps his focus on the personal. Whatever themes the film may explore, it is Sam's story and it is set in a very specific (and very claustrophobic) place. No Starchild. No ultimate trip. No jive-talking robots. Just good old-fashioned story-telling.

Though Jones and his team do a marvelous job of creating an anti-septic vision of an environment constructed entirely by a bottom-line oriented company, I wish the film had explored the corporate theme a little more. Today we're told that one of our greatest national priorities is to liberate ourselves from dependence on foreign energy. That's a nice thought, but "Moon" shows that even if we pull off that feat of economic re-engineering, we're still going to be dependent on corporate oil. In an era where global mergers continue apace, the thought of being free of Saudi Arabian oil isn't so comforting if our only other option is to be beholden to Halli-Exxo-Cono-Petro-Lukoil.

"Moon" has already become a modest success on the art-house circuit and is actually making its way into a few suburban multiplexes. If you have the chance to see it, do yourself a favor and take advantage.


Film Value