Watch out for the giant circle that's after you, Sam
dir: Duncan Jones
Moon is an absolute throwback, to a kinder, gentler, colder era of cinematic science fiction, and it wasn’t until this flick came along that we knew we needed it so much. I won’t go so far as to say this is an utterly brilliant flick, because there aren’t really any elements of tremendous originality or mind-blowing complexity at play. But it is, all the same, a tremendously good flick. Really, really good flick.
Of course, it will bore the hell out of you if you’re expecting explosions, gunfights or aliens bursting out of people’s chests.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole occupant and operator of a mining facility some time in the future. This facility, surprisingly enough, happens to be on the moon. Earth’s moon. The world’s energy needs are being taken care of by this facility, which uses harvesters to extract helium-3 from the surface of the moon, which Sam sends them back at regular intervals. He does general maintenance, fix-it jobs the robots and automated parts of the facility can’t take care of, and drives out with a buggy to the harvesters to fix things that have gone wrong.
Sam is getting towards the end of his three-year contract with Lunar Industries, the friendly monolithic transnational and in fact now transplanetary corporation for whom he works. He fills his days with exercise, with model building, and with conversations with an artificial intelligence called GERTY (voiced perfectly by Kevin Spacey, who doesn’t overact for once). GERTY, whom I shall henceforth refer to as Gerty, just to save on capitals, is not some malevolent supercomputer intent on killing all humans, just like every other AI that appears in every science fiction flick (despite the clear homage to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and isn’t an omnipotent, omniscient entity either. It just speaks in this almost sly but unaffected voice, and even has a little screen intended to represent expressions and emotions. Its role in the story is… ambiguous at best.
Gerty is a company AI, though, so we’re not always sure whether we (and thus Sam) can trust it. Getting towards the end of his contract, Sam is starting to really hanker for the return trip to Earth. A problem with communications means that Sam can only ever send recorded messages, and receive them with a substantial delay. So he sends messages to his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott), and receives these recordings where his wife rambles on about whatever crap pops into her empty little head, and images of his baby daughter, who’s tottering around like the little kid that she is.
These moments help Sam deal with his intense loneliness and isolation. They give him the forbearance to endure the remaining weeks in order to get home in one, sane piece. They, in effect, keep him whole.
But not too sane. Sam feels like he’s getting a bit rundown, and also, in the corner of his eye, starts seeing the image of a young woman, which he can’t explain. And then he has a serious accident whilst driving the lunar rover over to one of the harvesters.
When he wakes up in the facility’s infirmary, enjoying Gerty’s tender ministrations, he, and we, are none the wiser as to how he made it back to the facility, wounded as he was. In fact, he looks better than ever, even if he’s a bit weak and confused.
Gerty’s soothing and reassuring voice convinces and cajoles him to just keep calm, and to relax and keep doing the tests to check whether his mental faculties and motor functions are okay.
The glitches and confusions keep arising, and Sam starts to question the reality of his situation, just the way we’re all supposed to. It’s tempting to think that Gerty’s been lying to him about the seriousness of his injuries, or the actual conditions at the facility. But Gerty isn’t that advanced. Gerty doesn’t know how to lie, exactly, but does know how to try to deflect questions and delay answers. Asked the right question, though, and Gerty’s all truth and light.
What follows shakes the foundations of Sam’s entire world. For once, I’m going to elect to take the hardest path, which is to review a film of this nature without giving away the central conceit or plot twist which constitutes the entire plot of the film. It should be virtually impossible to write a credible review of such a decent but layered film without giving it away, but if you, gentle reader, have read any of my other reviews, you should know by now that writing reviews that lack credibility is obviously something I can live with without losing any sleep.
Sam, as his condition continues to deteriorate, discovers that the facility he works in operates in a far more complicated manner than he previously realised. We get to see footage of Sam in an earlier part of his contract, where his personality and character seem to be quite different. We are meant to assume that three years of working in isolation has changed Sam in some ways, for the better, especially since it’s implied that before coming on board, Sam had a bit of a short fuse. Bit of a temper.
Later on we glean that, for some of Sam’s time away, his wife elected to end their relationship, because of some of his issues.
But look, honey, I’m a different man, I’ve changed. I can be a better man, honest.
It’s interesting to see the ways in which Sam has changed. Fresh on arrival, you could say he was angrier, more prone to violence, but also more decisive, more determined, more forthright. The older Sam, after the three years, lacks the drive, the determination, but he’s gained insight, and maybe even a philosophical dimension to his thinking. He’s also, ironically enough, more of a humanist, perhaps because of his hunger for the company of other people.
The situation comes to a head when Sam realises that a curiously elaborate cost-cutting measure employed by Lunar Industries means his safety can no longer be guaranteed. He also starts to realise that some of the facility’s limitations previously taken for granted, are ones he can actually alter. He just assumed they were facts before, like many of the facts of our own existence. The difference is that his facts are somewhat more malleable.
The refreshing part of this film is that the complex issues of identity, human endeavour or our wonderment in the face of either the universe in general or technological advances specifically, are not made subordinate to the need to have some arbitrary bad guy pop up out of nowhere in order to superficially entertain. It was a problem in the otherwise great Sunshine, which had an already complicated and life-threatening situation, which the filmmakers inexplicably felt compelled to add to it by introducing a crazed killer into the mix. There is a villain in this, but the villain is so diffuse, so distant, that it remains an existential threat in probably all senses of the word. The villain is procedure, or bureaucratic decision-making, or the acceptance within corporate culture of actions and courses of action that should otherwise be unthinkable. But that’s not where most of the story’s tension arises from.
Sam Rockwell is wonderful in this role. It’s tailor-made for him, and he gives everything in a role I’m pretty sure will get him nominated for some kind of award, despite the fact that only three people saw this flick. He has scene after tremendous scene where he’s the only one on screen, but sufficiently carries the film, our attention and our emotions.
There’s a really strong scene where, amidst all the confusion, he’s asking for a handshake from someone just because he’s been so alone for so long.
There’s also a wry scene where Gerty, aware in whatever way an AI of its type is capable of being aware, tries to console Sam upon a devastating discovery, and extends a robotic arm in order to pat his shoulder in, obviously, a most mechanical manner. Let’s not forget, though, that being an AI, Gerty’s programmed to do that. And, considering that this is science fiction, you have to wonder how much everything else taken for granted as ‘choice’ is a matter of programming as well.
Mentioning robotic arms might make you think of a facility covered in shiny sleek surfaces that looks like a high class hospital crossed with a modern Italian café. The actual look of the facility is almost more deliberately retro. It looks like the kind of facility Kubrick’s production and art designers would have put together forty years ago, or even Tarkovsky’s people for Solaris. It’s supposed to have a functional, weighty, grungy feel to it, as opposed to the IKEA crossed with Star Trek feel you might expect. That being said, there’s nothing arch, kitsch or camp about this flick. If they’ve looked back for visual inspiration, it’s with the intention of serving the interests of a story simpler yet more essentially human than Kubrick or Tarkovsky managed. Interviews I’ve heard with Sam Rockwell and director Duncan Jones mentions the films they were thinking of, and especially the “blue collar” feel of working in space exemplified by flicks like Alien, Outland and Silent Running.
They achieved their objective. Rockwell’s acting is excellent throughout (with the exception of one scene involving frenetic dancing to Walking on Sunshine, a cinematic conceit that should be added to the Geneva Conventions list of war crimes), the cheap effects actually look pretty good, with the sterile blankness of the moon’s surface adding to the feel and mood of the flick. Clint Mansell, formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself, has handed in another sterling soundtrack, though this time it’s less dramatic and powerful than those he created for flicks like Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain. This flick required a quieter, gentler score, and he delivered.
It’s a very well put together flick, probably one of the best flicks to come out in 2009. When you call a flick like this science fiction, and call Transformers 2: Rise of the Fallen Revenging Machines science fiction as well, it shows either that it’s a broad genre with room for everyone, or that some films genuinely tell good science fiction stories, and other just blow shit up real good, with no ambitions beyond selling toys.
Of course there are people who are going to be bored by Moon’s quietness, charm and slow pace. There’s no reason for the pace to be any different from what it is, and a different pace would have killed the film. But they’re not going to see it. They’re just going to see the lack of acidic blood, laser carbines and alien chicks with three green titties and they’re going to yawn.
Not my problem. Praise goes where it deserves to go. Moon is a fantastic (but modest) film, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn’t change a thing, and it’s the best thing the perpetually sleazy and sleepy-looking Sam Rockwell has ever done.
Moon gives me hope for science fiction, whose purpose was supposed to be giving us hope. Or to scare the shit out of us, whichever.
9 times director Duncan Jones no longer needs to have the fact that his birth name was Zowie Bowie as his only claim to fame out of 10
“I hope life on Earth is everything you remember it to be.” - Moon