Saturday, July 4, 2009
That many are quick to point out Duncan Jones' father is David Bowie is unfortunate, but inevitable. For one thing, the children of celebrities will always be defined by their parents but, more substantially, it's incredibly easy to look at this film and throw out words like "Space Oddity" and "Life on Mars." But never mind all of that; Jones' debut feature is of such admirable quality that he should be considered a talent to watch and not someone riding the coattails of his name.
Clearly channeling the classic science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Alien, as well as contemporary realistic sci-fi such as Sunshine, Moon is a gorgeous semi-thriller that seems more complicated than it is in some places and is deceptively simple in others. Jones made the film for $5 million, which would shame George Lucas if he still had a sense of artistic decency.
Yes, Jones actually uses miniatures for the film, making it look as real as possible. Remember miniatures and real props? The kind that sucked you into a film instead of inadvertently making you look for the digital seams? Setting the film on the moon allows him to keep these special effects shot minimalistic, yet they are at times overpowering in their beauty. Likewise, the interior of the helium-3 mining facility looks like a working class take on 2001's space station.
I'm hesitant to divulge much of the plot, as it takes a big twist early on and takes the story in a whole new direction. At the start, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three-year contract working in a helium-3 mining facility on the far side of the moon. His replacement is two weeks away, at which time he'll be reunited with his wife Tess and toddler daughter, Eve. Yet three years in a remote locale appears to have taken a toll on Sam, and he suffers recurring hallucinations of a young woman (an overt nod to Solaris). One day, he's so distracted by the vision that he crashes his lunar rover, and when he wakes up he sees...himself. Is this new Sam another hallucination? A clone? I shall say no more on the matter.
Sam's only companion -- well, besides himself -- is the facility's computer, Gerty. Voiced by Kevin Spacey, Gerty calls to mind HAL9000, but instead of HAL's pulsating, unresponsive red eye, Gerty sports the friendly emoticons of the future. Spacey's slightly altered voice sounds like a digital Nurse Ratched: so calm and clinically supportive that it sounds sinister. With only two characters in the film, you're naturally meant to suspect this robot from the start, but his real nature is actually surprising.
Gerty and Sam are the only two substantial characters in the film, so the entirety of the film rests on Rockwell's shoulders. Sam Rockwell has long been one of my favorite actors, and one of the most varied working today. Ebert might have been onto something when he compared Rockwell to Christopher Walken in his review for Choke, but Rockwell is more than just the weird guy: he can do broad comedy, satire, drama, tear-jerking, everything. Rockwell gives one of his finest performances to date as Sam; he pulls off Nathan Parker's dialogue with his snappy timing while simultaneously crafting a sympathetic character experiencing an existential crisis. He could have resorted to over-the-top acting to fill the gap or in his interactions with "himself," but he brings real subtlety to the film. Rockwell has bafflingly never received an Oscar nomination, but hopefully this year someone recognizes his excellent work here.
Earlier I mentioned the superb effects shots, but attention must also be paid to the makeup department. As cabin fever begins to take its toll on Sam, he looks worse and worse, and the makeup crew make him look terrifying at times. His deterioration is every bit as beautiful as the shots of the lunar surface and the facility interior, and they suggest a dark edge to his employment at Lunar Industries.
Thematically, Moon isn't all that complex: it contains the usual questions concerning what makes us human, where we will go in the future. But its sharp, on-target dialogue, the incredible effects work and Rockwell's tour-de-force make it the most entertaining film I've yet seen this year. My only quarrel with the film was the ending, but I read later that Jones intends to make a sort of trilogy the universe, so I withhold my criticisms of its final minute. Regardless, Moon deserves immediate placement in the list of great contemporary science fiction, alongside Children of Men, Sunshine and Serenity, and we should all be watching Duncan Jones with great interest.