Director Duncan Jones knows that he’s toiling in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with his film Moon. This quiet, haunting entry in the sci-fi genre evokes that seminal classic in mood and tone as it’s main character finds himself stranded in outer space for a prolonged period of time, a situation that forces him to question not only his sanity but his purpose. With nods to Silent Running, Alien and Solaris, Jones pays homage to those films as he crafts his own distinct entry in the genre. While Moon may not achieve all that those films do, it certainly is one of the more thought-provoking films to be released this year and serves as an auspicious calling card for the director.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of a task that would test the mettle of the strongest of souls. Having signed a three-year contract to man a mining station on the dark side of the moon by himself, he finds himself on the verge of losing his mind with two weeks to go before his stay is done. Sam lives for taped messages from his wife and small child and finds that his only companion Gerty, a robot charged with caring for him (voice by Kevin Spacey), is far from adequate company. Careless and tired due to his long stay, Sam has an accident while operating a large mining vehicle, which leaves him unconscious. He wakes up in the infirmary and is assured by the robot that he’s been out for a while and will soon be back on his feet.
Then, a shocking event occurs that turns the film and Sam’s life on its head.
I’ve read reviews that give away Jones’ plot twist and this is nothing but a disservice to the filmmaker and the audience. Much of what makes the movie work is the way in which Jones doles out the many intriguing plot points he has up his sleeve. The initial twist is a stunner and the rest of the film deals with the narrative ripples that emanate from it. Sam is forced to contend not only with all that is happening with him in the present, but also with his past as he has to contend with his state of mind as well as reality, which wind up being intertwined in ways he never contemplated.
It’s to Jones’ credit that time travel nor any other fantastic sci-fi convention is not used to put Sam in this situation. He goes out of his way to keep this tale grounded in the plausible giving us a vision of a probable future, which results in a story that’s more human and ultimately poignant. In keeping with this, the film’s aesthetic reflects this as the space station where Sam resides is a bit grimy and worn, reflecting his state of mind as well as the logical extension of today’s technology to outer space of the near future.
In a sense, the entire film rests on Rockwell’s shoulders and he rises to the rare acting challenge it contains. Running the gamut of emotions from cocky to paranoid and everything in between, the actor pulls out all the stops. He doesn’t shrink from any of the intense emotional moments Jones throws his ways and winds up delivering a moving performance. The existential confusion Sam faces as well as the mental trials he endures are written on Rockwell’s face and in his physical demeanor as he attempts to remain strong under a magnificent burden. It’s great fun watching him, especially when he interacts with Spacey’s Gerty, a perfect piece of casting, as that actor’s syrupy, subversive mischievous tone does nothing but incite Sam’s paranoia and ours.
That the story takes place on the dark side of the moon is no coincidence. Sam, and by extension the audience are forced to plumb the depths of many universal doubts and fears, which must be dealt with far away from the sight of others. Among all other films that have been released this summer, Moon sticks with you in a way others can’t, as Sam’s trial resonate, because his journey is so much our own.
Moon opens today and will be playing at the Beverly cinema.
Runtime: 1h 37 min — Rated R — Sci-fi/Fantasy