You will remember the preview I wrote for director Duncan Jones’ new movie “Moon,” so we can jump right into the review. And, yes, I know I saw the sixth Harry Potter movie before I saw “Moon,” but the Harry review can wait. “Moon” is the sort of movie that gets into your head, and I can’t help myself. It’s as much psychological drama as pure science fiction: psy fi? This thing makes you think; it stays with you in the way that the best movies do. And it is without doubt a change of pace from the usual summer shoot-em-up blockbuster.
Short review: Sam Rockwell rules this movie. Go and see him do it!
For those of you who want a bit more, read on.
This is one of the most evocative movies I’ve seen in a long time; it really does a great job creating a completely alien world that’s also – somehow – believable. I don’t only mean the special effects of the lunar surface, though those exterior shots are beautiful and create an otherworldly, merciless landscape of dust and craters where the sun is an unfamiliar white point in a black sky.
I’m really talking about Lunar Industries’ Sarang lunar base where mining engineer Sam Bell lives. There’s a distinct vibe to the place that recalls the space station interiors of sci fi flicks from the 70s and 80s, but it also looks lived-in. A detail: If you look, you can see how Bell’s scribbled with black marker on the control panels; he’s named the four mining machines displayed there. The place becomes an interesting exercise in personalizing the impersonal as Bell makes his human stamp on it.
In my preview, I predicted that the film would fly or flop based almost solely on Sam Rockwell’s performance as Sam Bell. “Moon” is in many ways a lunar version of “Cast Away,” and that movie had depended heavily on Tom Hanks (oh, all right, and Wilson). Here as the one-man crew of the lunar mining base, the reliably good Rockwell turns in a virtuoso performance that commands the screen, being everything from sympathetic to hostile and back – and beyond when he makes a startling discovery that turns his little world upside down.
Rockwell’s co-star in many ways is GERTY, the base computer voiced by Kevin Spacey. The set-up inevitably recalls the infamous HAL, and Spacey’s voice adds to the feeling: one is inclined to wonder about the actual benevolence of the computer that professes its purpose is to help Sam and watches him constantly (and there I was, expecting the worst since the computer sounds just like Keyser Soze, for goodness sake!). This computer, though, has an additional quirk that I loved: aside from using the unsettlingly calm Spacey voice, it communicates with cartoonish bright yellow emoticons that flash on its screen – a smiley face, a confused face, a frowning face. The effect is memorable. GERTY attempts some kind of emotional feedback, but the effort only underlines how great a gulf exists between Bell and the computer.
SPOILER ALERT for the next two paragraphs
Rockwell as Sam Bell is absolutely outstanding. In his scenes as the sole inhabitant of the lunar base, he’s good. As the film progresses, though, and he becomes his own co-star, he becomes stunning. The exchanges between the younger, angrier Sam and his older, ailing counterpart are excellent; the two copies become two distinct people, and their emerging relationship is one of the most unusually nuanced things put on screen this summer. Throughout, Rockwell’s ability to make Sam Bell a believable character is on display, and there are moments when a look, a tone, an expression turn credibility into something more. Bell becomes understandably, touchingly human, right down to the mundane verisimilitude of the little things he does – the unmade bed, the photos plastered willy-nilly on the wall, the Post-It note “Kick Me” sign he’s put on GERTY, the haphazard garden growing in Styrofoam takeout boxes, the fantasy dream about his wife Tess. But through it all is also the crushing loneliness of his isolated life and his desire to finish his contract and finally go home to a loving family. It’s so basic, profound, and universal a desire that it will take your breath away to see it rendered in such stark, extreme terms. We all want to go home too (even if it’s only metaphorical), but too often, we can’t have what we want. For Sam, “Two more weeks” becomes a desperate mantra. There is one scene when Sam says, “I want to go home,” and it will break your heart. It broke mine, and – as you all know – I am evil to the core and don’t even have a heart! It made me want to hug Bell and bake him cookies. In the cold vastness of space and the barrenness of the moon, Sam Bell is the single tiny flicker of warmth, and whether that one small fragile bit of humanity has value, value as an individual with a mind and heart and soul, is one of the great questions this movie asks.
By the end of the movie, you can easily pick out a common meme these days, the idea of The Evil Corporation. It’s a typical kind of left-leaning political canon: the Evil Corporation engaging in morally dubious practices and running roughshod over people in order to boost its bottom line. Fine. We’ve heard this too often enough already. But, the way I see it, this movie is at its core not so much a slam on The Evil Corporation as it is a robust argument for the sanctity of human life, for its value, for the individual. As Bell tells GERTY in a line that made me want to cheer, “We’re not programming. We’re people.” Absolutely. That’s a lesson for everybody to learn – not only the leftist bogeyman of the Evil Corporation, but also the leftists in their urge for utopian-minded social engineering projects. We’re all individuals with value as human beings. We are none of us disposable little automatons to be programmed and used for the greater good, by The Evil Corporation, or by anybody else or any other organization either. Of course, it does give you pause that the Evil Corporation here trumpets how it provides pollution-free, environmentally-safe clean energy to the people of Earth. Oh, and one last thing. You’ll never think of the term “scheduled obsolescence” in the same way again. Appliances and machinery these days are often manufactured with the intention and expectation that within a certain amount of time, they will stop working (and you will have to get a new one). The idea takes on a distinctly sinister turn here.
As a friend of mine emailed me when she got out of her theater halfway across the country, “The first part was a little slow, but overall it was great.” The first part is rather slow, but you have to be patient. The scenes of apparently mundane details from “a day in the (lonely, boring) life of Sam Bell” actually pay off later with huge dividends.
Unbelievably enough, I don’t recall any egregiously bad things about the movie. I’m sure it has its problems (and I mean in terms of being a movie – I’m not going to deal with the plausibility of the science itself, mmmmkay?), but I was too busy being entranced by it to recall.
Anchored by Sam Rockwell, “Moon” is a reminder of what intelligent heights science fiction in film can reach. It is a showcase of ideas, emotions, character development, and storytelling where the special effects are the supporting cast, not the focus. The result is – and I do not apologize for the pun – stellar.
Mad Minerva gives this film an A.
Rotten Tomatoes gives “Moon” a fresh rating of 90%.
The official website is here.
“Moon” runs for 97 minutes and is rated R for language (with a brief bit of nudity and violence). In my book it barely counts as an R and feels more like a PG-13.
UPDATE: Some thoughts on mining the moon -- including Helium-3.