It’s a timeless question of philosophy: what makes me “me”? Duncan Jones’s Moon presents this question by adhering to a timeless rule of cinema: show, don’t tell. Its main character, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), doesn’t ask the question directly, but rather raises several of its implications through his actions and the situations the film puts him in.
Stationed on the dark side of the moon, nearing the end of his 3-year stint mining helium-3 for power, Sam lives alone in a corporate outpost. His isolation is compounded by a perpetual outage of the live communications link between his base and Earth. He communicates with his wife and child back home by exchanging video messages with them, which take several hours to be delivered. His only company is a robotic computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey). I don’t know if this is meant to be a reference to E.T. or not, but I wouldn’t put it past Duncan Jones. His film is firmly grounded in the canon of classic science fiction, and he pays homage to several forebears of the genre respectably and tastefully—most notably Kubrick’s 2001, which any film involving a ship-board computer automatically invokes. The script by Nathan Parker, from a story by Jones, knows exactly what it’s inciting in the minds of its audience every time Gerty interacts with Sam, and it plays with these expectations in a very fun way. We’re constantly expecting the “I can’t let you do that, Dave” moment, but all Gerty wants to do is help. His emotions are conveyed by a small screen depicting a yellow smiley face, which changes to a frown when he’s trying to empathize with Sam.
Only two weeks away from his scheduled time to finally return home, Sam sets out in a moon rover and has an accident. Then something strange happens, and that’s all I’ll say about the plot. The whole premise of this film is a joy to watch unfold and become lost within. As I say, it deals with timeless philosophical questions, and it presents them naturally in the context of its story. It’s thoughtful, it’s intriguing, it’s existential, and it’s thoroughly engrossing.
Sam Rockwell is nothing short of amazing in this film, though I’ve come to expect that of him. He’s the only actor on screen for about 95% of the movie, and not a second of it is boring or tedious. Jones’s direction is tasteful, allowing Rockwell’s presence to dominate, while cleverly milking the setting for tension every chance he gets. Spacey’s voice work, too, is haunting—while the obvious comparison for Gerty is to HAL 9000, he more brought to mind for me the old man from the end of David Lynch’s The Straight Story, a character whose calmly soothing speech and apparent lack of an ulterior motive only serves to make him all the more creepy.
The style of Moon is refreshingly retro, in that it creates a world to tell a story within and never pulls you out of it, and it does so honestly. There is no CG that I could detect; the film is shot on soundstages, using handmade models when needed, the way real movies used (and ought) to be made. The special effects are completely seamless, not calling attention to themselves but merely serving to enhance the setting and the story—again, the way it should be. The set design is detailed and realistic, with the moon base where Sam works feeling lived-in in the same way the Nostromo from Alien did. There are clever and loving touches sprinkled everywhere, from rations of beans stacked against the walls to a “KICK ME” Post-It note stuck to the back of Gerty the robot.
Attention to detail everywhere fills out this world. Watch closely when Sam first draws smiley faces on the metal wall of his shower. There’s a subtle clue there of what’s to come that won’t make sense until later—indeed, it may even seem like sloppy editing at first—but it’s a great sign of the care that went into crafting this story, and the thought that went into its production. There are layers and layers of details to be peeled back.
The score, by Clint Mansell, is appropriately haunting and ambient, helping to set the tone and assisting in creating the film’s tension. Mansell is familiar to me for having scored all of Darren Aronofsky‘s films, most notably to the topic at hand The Fountain. That film, too, dealt with existential dilemmas and shared a similar theme with Moon of the most basic desire of life, which is to continue living.
Moon is the feature directorial debut of Duncan Jones, who happens to be the son of David Bowie. This fact isn’t really relevant to the film, but it’s interesting nonetheless. What is relevant is that this is an impressive movie, both for its concept as well as its execution. That it’s Jones’s first only serves to underscore its achievement. I’d like to say more about Sam Rockwell’s performance in this movie, but to do so would be to give away what I consider to be some fundamental spoilers. Suffice it to say that he’s as good as he’s ever been, which is to say that it’s as good of a performance as you’re going to see right now. He and Jones are a perfect match here, and Moon is the wholly entertaining fruit of that partnership.