If Star Wars never existed, science fiction films would look a lot more like Duncan Jones’ Moon.
In 1968, the genre took an evolutionary leap with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which married astonishing visual effects to provocative ideas about human nature and artificial intelligence. 2001 and subsequent films like Silent Running found inspiration in the decade’s radical politics and the triumphs of the space program. Celluloid sci-fi suggested that outer space could bring out both the best and worst in humanity, but then George Lucas’ retro space opera came along and all but consigned the genre to juvenile fantasies.
Director Duncan Jones presents Moon as a welcome throwback to 2001-era space stories and loads the film with Kubrick tributes. Lunar miner Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) jogs on a treadmill in one of his first scenes in a nod to Kubrick’s ill-fated astronauts. The pale, lonely rooms of Mining Base Sarang echo 2001’s sterile art direction. A computer and robotic-armed assistant named GERTY control most of Sarang’s functions. Kevin Spacey’s affectless delivery as the machine’s voice unquestionably pays homage to Douglas Rain’s work as the voice of HAL 9000. Moon’s tight, tense storytelling proves highly satisfying, even though it doesn’t attain 2001’s stratospheric heights.
We find Bell in the final two weeks of his three-year contract as he oversees the extraction of helium from moon rocks for the energy-starved Earth. Apart from GERTY, he’s Sarang’s sole occupant, though he receives view-screen messages from his Earthbound wife (Kaya Scodelario). The years of isolation and hostile environment have made him more than a little stir-crazed: Initially, he wears a scraggly beard like he’s about to turn into a grizzled prospector, and asking your computer “Why don’t you listen to me?” is never a good sign.
He also sees what could be hallucinations, such as a possible edit in one of his wife’s messages, and human figures when he should be alone. One such distraction causes him to crash his moon buggy into a mining machine that resembles a combine. Bell awakens in the base infirmary, and he — and the audience — quickly notice inconsistencies in GERTY’s account of what happened to him.
I’ll tip-toe around the subsequent plot points to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that Bell confronts mysteries that force him to question his identity. Part of Moon’s tensions stem from the way the film establishes both Bell and GERTY as unreliable, so we can’t take anything at face value. Bell literally cannot trust himself.
Rockwell’s live-wire performance captures the subtle differences in Bell’s personality at the beginning and end of his three-year lunar contract. Energetic, hot-tempered and fresh at the outset, the years turn him gloomy, sardonic and twitchy, and he speaks almost as if he’s lost the knack for talking aloud to other people.
Moon offers some intriguing variations on the suspicious-computer plot. GERTY is clearly programmed both to keep secrets from Bell and protect his welfare. Instead of HAL’s red light, it has a screen with a happy face and other appropriate emoticons. At one point, it gives him a "reassuring” pat on the back with a mechanical claw. If GERTY behaves inconsistently, it’s under inconsistent commands.
Moon’s essential theme isn’t just the toll of space exploration or the dehumanizing potentials of mechanization, but how corporations can mistreat human beings, particularly ones far beyond the reach of any kind of oversight or justice system.
Jones happens to be the son of David Bowie, and probably heard his fill of “Space Oddity” jokes during Moon’s production and promotion. He’s said the film was shot in British studios during a writer’s strike, so more special effects experts were available to work on it. Moon’s old-school models look perfectly convincing and appealingly hark back to Moonbase Alpha from the old show “Space: 1999.” (Remember when we had a moonbase in 1999?)
The film keeps enough focus on character and pays just enough attention to plausible science that you don’t quibble over details like the lack of “low gravity” effects. In a season of silly sci-fi films like Transformers, Moon’s thoughtful approach proves inspiring. If we’re not going back to the real moon anytime soon, how about launching a space program for serious films?