For this his cerebral and extremely proficient feature film debut, director Duncan Jones (son of legendary rocker David Bowie) employs both his experience in commercials and his post-graduate background in philosophy to deliver a brilliantly realized old school throwback to the likes of Alien and Silent Hunter. The kind of films that slowly drew you in with the comfortably familiar, kitchen sink nature of the acting before there was even hinting at the dark unknown that was to come.
Like Scott’s vision of the future, this is blue collar space; a dirty, humid, glorified refinery amidst the stars, with a crew of one, inside which Sam Bell (Rockwell) counts down the days to the completion of his three year contract overseeing and maintaining the automated lunar harvesters that now supply eighty percent of the world’s energy. His only company is GERTY, the station’s administrative AI (given great presence by Kevin Spacey) who takes on the shifting guise of friend, butler, company liaison, and therapist in an effort to keep Sam both safe and (mostly) sane. After an accident during a routine harvester repair run causes him to awaken back inside the module with gaps in his memory, and GERTY seemingly determined to keep him from returning to the crash site, Sam begins to suspect that everything is perhaps not what it might first appear.
Despite obvious Hal comparisons, Jones has far too much on his mind to simply deliver a half-assed Kubrick homage. Rather than make GERTY a sinister force outright, Jones very cleverly plays on our preconceptions of the genre and instead confines it to a strict and simple set of parameters – protect Sam – and allows us (and Sam) to anthropomorphize it as much or as little as care to. Rockwell too is immense here and, not to spoil the film but let’s just say he ends up doing a lot of scenes acting with himself, brings many subtle nuances to the role. Looking like Tom Hanks’ body double from castaway, we follow Sam through his routine of exercise, a ready meal, checking on Mark and John the harvesters, some model making, a shave, watering Doug the pot plant, and checking for packet transmissions from Earth from his wife Tess (McElligott).
But something’s not quite right. Sam, clearly more than a little frazzled by now after so much isolation begins to have visions of a girl in the lunar darkness. He’s carving a model of the town where he grew up, but he can’t seem to remember doing all of it. The messages from Tess are nothing if not slightly incoherent. And the question as to how honest GERTY is being with Sam about, amongst other things, the malfunctioning communication equipment become increasingly harder to ignore.
Perhaps unremarkably for a PhD philosophy candidate, Jones displays a highly tuned sense of innate of human behavior and a deep understanding of just how much we rely on those around us to help define our reality. As much as we all enjoy the idea of a little peace and quiet we’re ultimately very social creatures and deprived of contact for long enough we come apart at the seams. Moon also has a lot to offer on a political level as something of a slight against the rather one-sided nature of globalization. The company responsible for all this, a green energy company no less, is still more concerned about the bottom line than the well being of their guy who is quite literally keeping the wheels of industry turning.
But what’s most striking about Moon, especially as a debut with a miniscule budget, is the masterful production design, which came about through a point of good fortune on Jones’ part. With the writers strike having brought many big budget movies to a grinding halt, Jones was incredibly fortunate to have very experienced, very innovative, and above all, very bored technicians eager to work, which is how he ended up with Peter Talbot as DOP and model makers from Alien and the Bond franchise. All of whom lend Sam’s tightly enclosed environment a beautifully tactile quality, given an extra dimension by Clint Mansell’s wistfully melancholic score.
Poignant, involving, emotionally gripping, and a technically brilliantly piece of old school science fiction, Moon has more going on, both visually and thematically, in any fifteen minute segment you care to pluck out than the entirety of any big budget sci-fi movie of the last fifteen years.
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Kaya Scodelario, Dominique McElligott
Director: Duncan Jones
Runtime: 97 Minutes
Distributor: Sony Picture Classics