Welcome, once again, to the Sci-Fi Squad Movie Club,
If you have good taste, you've seen Duncan Jones' Moon. If you have decent taste, you took my advice and sought it out over the weekend, either on Netflix Instant Watch or by borrowing it from your local rental establishment. If you have bad taste, you have not seen Moon and I'm sad and disappointed in you and hope you take the time to rectify this so I can adjust my opinion of you to a reasonable level.
There are three reasons why Moon is a science fiction classic. Let's dive in, shall we? Major spoilers after the jump. Do not read this if you haven't seen the film.
The role of Sam, the astronaut who's been living by himself in a lunar mining facility for three years, is one of those roles that would have been easy to screw up in so many ways. It had to have been played by an actor with enough presence to carry a film on his own, for one thing. With absolutely no one to bounce off of for the entire running time (except for a robot and, er, himself), Sam Rockwell still manages to create one of the great science fiction heroes of all time in Moon.
Since you've hopefully seen the movie by now, let's talk spoilers. About a half hour into the movie, Sam's routine gets interrupted when he almost dies in a rover accident and meets his clone, who has been conjured up to replace him after his "death." Of course, this leads to the revelation that Sam is also a clone and that they never go home and are simply incinerated when they think they're being put to sleep for the flight home. It's a left field twist, a revelation that could have been hokey and silly, especially since many viewers will be expecting a more simple, one-man show (although the trailers do ruin this surprise).
The fact that it works is a testament to Rockwell and writer/director Duncan Jones, who manage to find real human drama in an outlandish sci-fi concept. We don't know the details. We never know any more than the two Sams know, so our attention is not put toward why this is happening or how it's happening, but rather on the effect it's having on Sam. This allows Moon to be a story about a man coming to grips with his past as well as a story about a man realizing the errors of his ways and trying to change his future.
The first Sam we meet is nearing the end of his three year work duty. Bearded and somewhat schlubby, Sam is laid back, calm and relaxed, accustomed to his increasingly dull life and thinking only of his wife and child back on Earth. The second Sam, however, is uptight, arrogant and slightly violent, a man in serious need of a long time alone to think about himself. You see where this is going...
The second Sam clone is at the beginning of his cycle and is the man who Sam originally was when he started his mission. Three years of isolation transform him from a nasty piece of work into a generally good guy. The film presents a fascinating situation: what if you met a version of yourself from some time in the present, a version of you who is significantly different than you are now? Would you get along? Would you have similar priorities? How much have you changed?
Moon takes an inner conflict and literally transforms it into a physical one. That's the job of truly great science fiction, to take concepts that we've explored before and place them in a new, strange light so we can see them in ways we never thought possible.
Of course, none of if would have worked without Rockwell, who makes each Sam a distinctive character without overplaying or trying too hard. Both are significantly different, but it's easy to see how one can become the other. Rockwell is a brilliant performer and although he must have been talking to a stand-in or an empty corner during the filming of all of his scenes, you can never tell. Here is an actor who can play any relationship put in front of him. Even a relationship with himself.
Sam Rockwell's work in Moon was the best performance of 2009. It's also one of my favorite performances of all time.
Style and Visual Effects
Many genre filmmakers, especially first-timers, fall into the trap of trying way too hard to be stylish. That could be a constantly swooping camera or flashy, chaotic editing, but either way, it rarely, if ever, works. Too many filmmakers forget the number one rule that every filmmaker must follow, even if that means sacrificing their precious steadicam show: STORY FIRST.
That's why it blows my mind that Duncan Jones was a first time director when he set out to make Moon. The whole film just feels oddly mature, like the work of a filmmaker with a number of movies under his belt who's had time to make all of his mistakes. Jones places story and character first, never sacrificing a moment of humanity for a cool, whiz-bang sci-fi scene. There's a misconception that an understated camera means a director lacks a sense of visual style. Not true. In the case of Jones, it's a director with enough visual sense to understand what would be appropriate for this story.
Moon is a gorgeous movie, beautifully shot on stunning sets that fall halfway between 2001 and Alien. It's the work of someone with a vision, plain and simple.
Being a character piece, Moon is relatively light on special effects, but when they are utilized, I can only give them the greatest compliment you can give visual effects: You don't even realize that they're there. The sequences with the lunar rovers, accomplished with high detailed models, are stunning. Even more stunning is a scene where the two Sams play table tennis with one another. Sure, seeing the same actor do something with another version of himself is nothing new to the movies, but seeing an actor have an extended conversation with himself while playing table tennis while bumping into the table while moving freely in one sustained shot is mindblowing. Ironically, this amazing special effects sequence is so subtle with its presentation that I didn't even notice how impressive it is until my second or third viewing.
You know you were thinking it.
From the moment GERTY the robot made his appearance in Moon, you just knew that he was going to go bad and try to kill Sam when he learned too much, right? Why else would he be there? After all, he voiced by Kevin Spacey!
But GERTY never becomes a villain. In fact, GERTY is Sam's greatest ally, helping him at every turn. Jones knows we're going to jump the gun on this character and allows Sam to be suspicious of it, to be a representation of us, more or less. GERTY frequently tells Sam that is is his job to help him in every way possible and when this turns out to be true, it's a more surprising twist than "oh-my-God-the-robot-was-evil-all-along."
Maybe that's the most refreshing thing about Moon, how it manages to effortlessly sidestep any and all cliches while toying with our inherent knowledge of the science fiction genre. Jones knows that we have pre-conceived notions going into a movie like this and rather than avoid them, he embraces them and lets us think what we want to think while slowly twisting the screws, using audience expectations as a storytelling tool. In this way, Moon is oddly self aware, consciously trying to do something new with the science fiction genre, to create something that we've never seen before.
And that is great science fiction.