CATEGORIES Drama, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Sundance, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Sundance Reviews 2009, Reviews, Sundance Film Festival, Cinematical
"You haul 16 tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go;
I owe my soul to the company store. ..."
-- "Sixteen Tons," Merle Travis
Know thyself. -- Solon of Athens
Moon, the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, opens with a bright, breezy bit of corporate propaganda explaining how, in the film's near-future, clean energy is provided by fusion fueled by hydrogen wrenched from lunar mineral deposits on the dark side of the Moon. Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, who runs a fuel-harvesting station, aided only by the base's A.I., GERTY (given voice by Kevin Spacey). Sam is nearing the end of his three-year contract, and it's been a lonely stint; he's got only two weeks left, but he's on the thin edge. The communications satellite is down, so Sam can't talk to Earth -- his bosses, his wife -- directly; for all of the high-tech trappings and whiz-bang science of his work, Sam's a hard rock miner. And that's always been dangerous work.
Moon evokes many things -- the nature of the human experience, the nature of employee-management relations, how the odds are fairly good that the future will be exactly like today, but more so. With all of its far-flung inventions, impeccable visual design and Clint Mansell's eerie score, Moon boils down to a single man having a long conversation in isolation, telling himself a few lies and opening his own eyes to a few truths; Rockwell, playing the only person for tens of thousands of miles, has no one else to act against, and much of his plight has to be conveyed through special effects that gave him little or nothing to work with on-set.
Many reviews of Moon will go to great pains to preserve its twist -- as will I -- but let it also be said that Moon is more than just a film defined by its twist. Moon has a cat in the bag, yes, but it knows when to open the bag and bring out the cat, fairly early on, so we can take a good look at both and think about what they really mean. Jones (who, not coincidentally, is David Bowie's son; Sam Bell and Major Tom could be distant relations) has made a science fiction film that's not about aliens but instead about alienation, not about future technologies but instead about the people who'll have to live and work and cope with them.
There are bits and pieces of other films and directors in Moon; the earnestness of '70s science fiction films like Silent Running, the eerie isolation and visions of Solaris, the frosty futurism of 2001, the blunt brusqueness of David Mamet's working-class blue-collar plays; the tones and techniques of some of David Cronenberg's finest films. But it is also its own film; I appreciated not just the production design, but also the thinking that went into it. When we first see the mobile camera-and-keyboard terminal for GERTY that can follow Sam through the base, for example, there's a post-it note just under the lens; at one point Rockwell dances dementedly to Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine." It's a future, but it's not one that far off; Sam Bell may be harvesting the energy of tomorrow, but he's also got a temp job, with that phrase readable in any number of ways.
Clint Mansell's score pulses and thrums with eerie life, filling the stark visions of the movie with a welcome energy and tone that still never seems obtrusive or jarring. Jones pulls a couple of remarkably tricky shots off with style and flair, but they're always in the story, never above it. Spacey's a little too famously familiar to play GERTY -- you know it's him, and that's a touch distracting -- but even then, Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker take what you might expect from Sam's relationship with GERTY in several interesting directions. And, to say it again; Moon has a twist, but those twists shape and turn a graceful, smart interlacing tapestry made of tone and character and plot and ideas.
Rockwell, mixing invested emotional scenes with tricky effects-driven moments, also shines. Even in the most extreme and improbable circumstances, he has a warm, everyday quality to him; his everyday observations still have a loopy, unique energy. Rockwell is given several tough acting challenges here, and he makes them no big deal, and he's as capable of making you laugh as he is of breaking your heart. Moon is looking for a distributor here at Sundance, but since the phrase "smart science fiction" seems to translate to "box-office poison" in this day and age, it'll have to be hoped someone takes a bet on Rockwell and Spacey's names selling enough tickets or inspiring enough rentals to earn their money back. I can't quite say I think Moon is knock-me-down, you-gotta-see-this brilliant; at the same time, I can say I'm still thinking about it, and in an age when most big-budget science fiction films are made by people with no respect for science or fiction, it's a welcome pleasure.