Sunday, February 14, 2010

Moon (2009)

There will be spoilers (although I'll be as unspecific as I can get away with).

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is on the last three weeks of his working stint servicing the automatic helium harvesters of a private company (and this in a film made before Obama gutted NASA) on the dark side of the moon. It is obvious that Sam needs the return to Earth badly. Live communication feeds between his base and home have been out of service for ages, with pre-recorded messages which are relayed via Jupiter his only contact with his bosses and his wife (Dominique McElligott).

The only thing alleviating Sam's loneliness is his "Robotic Assistant" GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an AI who displays its emotional reactions mostly through smiley faces and wouldn't fulfil most people's emotional needs.

As a reaction to this isolation (and probably the boredom of his work), Sam has taken on a classic mad hermit persona, with all the rambling to himself and lack of hygiene that implies. The astronaut has also started to hallucinate, seeing the shape of a girl where there can't be one.

Distracted by one of these visions, Sam crashes his vehicle into a harvester and loses consciousness.

He awakes in his station's infirmary, not being able to remember what exactly happened to him (or how he got there). Sam soon realizes that something is not right. GERTY seems to be having secrets, possibly even a live connection to mission control, and Sam's not supposed to go outside until a rescue team arrives. It's as if there is something out there nobody wants him to see.

With a bit of creative sabotage, Sam manages to get outside and to the site of his accident. In his vehicle, he finds an unconscious, wounded man. A man who looks exactly like himself...

One of the more annoying aspects of the majority of SF in the movies in the decades after Lucas' Star Wars is the implicit insistence of too many of them that "SF" means "space opera" and nothing else. Of course, I like exciting adventures in outer space as much as the next guy (see my momentary slight obsession with Bioware's new Mass Effect game), but I find the way movies reduce a very rich genre to a single one of its sub-genres rather depressing. Add to this that movie space opera is usually ignoring the inspiration it could get from the more thoughtful - and frankly more interesting - literary space operas by people like Iain (M.) Banks and you have a recipe for the endless repetition of the same three or four ideas. Sure, movie SF has gotten a little better again in the last few years - mostly through the efforts of directors not from the US - but the success of a film like Avatar doesn't make the outlook for less loud SF any better.

Moon, directed by Brit Duncan Jones, is a perfect antidote to this sad state of the genre on film. It's not that its ideas about typical SF-nal elements like cloning or AI are revolutionary or new to someone even halfway familiar with written SF and its tropes, yet they are seldom treated with this much respect or concentration on the movie screen.

Jones is very good at playing with his audience's expectations, with the way movie conventions just let us assume certain points of view to be correct without asking any questions about them or looking at what's going on below our feet. In a way, we start watching the film the same way as Sam sees his life, taking what we are told to be the truth. At a certain point of the film, the viewer's interpretation of what is going on and Sam's will start to drift away a little. Most viewers will certainly realize The Awful Troof before our protagonist does, but it is very much to the movie's credit that it doesn't play the moment Sam realizes what the viewer already knows as a moment of revelation for anyone beside the protagonist.

Apart from an exceedingly clever script, Moon has a lot of other factors going for it.

Jones' direction is just fantastic, with nary a scene that isn't in some way important for mood, character, theme, or worldbuilding (the Holy Quartet of SF), but also without the strange feeling of claustrophobia I tend to get in too tightly constructed films. Moon does believe in the importance of incidental details, but as it is with Sam's moon base, there's still no wasted space in the film.

I'm also very fond of the production design. The moon base (and with it Sam's everyday life) feel right in a way you don't get to see too often in SF films. I can imagine this to be a place where a person has to spend years of his life, carefully designed not to let him lose his mind too fast.

Being basically a special sort of one person play (plus robot voice and video messages) with a heavy emphasis on character, Moon could still have been ruined by the wrong lead actor. Fortunately, Sam Rockwell's performance is just about as perfect as they come. Rockwell (at least in this film) has a natural acting style, without the "Warning! I'm acting now!" grandness of gesture Hollywood stars trying to act often fall into. As everything else in the film, Rockwell's performance is just right.



Todd said...

I'm a big fan of this movie. In addition to all of the virtues you already noted, I also loved its reliance on practical effects and miniatures over CGI.

houseinrlyeh said...

Yes, I agree completely. It's not difficult to imagine GERTY as really bad CGI effect.