WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010, long before a certain actor in this film became quite the pariah.
You know, in retrospect, maybe 2009 wasn’t such a bad year for science fiction movies. It’s just that the stench from some of the biggest movies in that genre lasted much longer than the memories we had of the movies we saw.
With “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” we sadly watched a strong franchise fall victim to a prequel which lacked the thrills and the complex characters that made the three previous entries so good. “Terminator Salvation” will probably be remembered best for Christian Bale’s angry rant on set than with what ended up onscreen.
And then came “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and I still have the impulse to bitch and moan about that sequel whenever necessary. Michael Bay left a giant robot turd for us which we just couldn’t resist seeing, so it of course made hundreds of millions of dollars. It put such an enormous dent in my enjoyment of things science fiction, and I am still getting over my frustration with it even after all this time.
But getting past that awful stench, there were a number of sci-fi gems to be found in 2009. “Star Trek” turned out to be an enormous surprise and a fantastic piece of entertainment. Imagine that, a prequel heading in unpredictable directions. And although I keep running into more and more haters of this one, “Avatar” for me was a great reminder of why experiencing movies on the big screen with an audience can be so much fun. And let us not forget “District 9,” a film that paralleled the Apartheid movement which overtook South Africa for far too long. These films were so good that I believe they will stand the test of time as opposed to the others which let me down to an infinite degree.
And then there is “Moon” which came out in limited release and did not have the same publicity as those big blockbusters did. This one proved to be the most thought provoking and original sci-fi movie of 2009. Granted, it does borrow from many classics of the genre like “2001” and “Alien” to name a few, but first-time director Duncan Jones takes all these influences and molds them into a motion picture which feels very fresh compared to what we generally get year to year. Jones is also aided greatly by another in a long line of superb performances from Sam Rockwell who is more or less doing a solo show this time out.
Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an employee of Lunar Industries who is under a 3-year contract to extract Helium-3 from the moon’s surface; a natural gas which will provide much needed clean energy back on Earth. You would figure he would get more than just a robot companion as company during all this time far from home. But I guess corporations managed to find a way to cut the whole workforce down to one person in the future, hence saving them an obscene amount of money for themselves. Sam’s only human contact is the messages he gets from his wife and infant daughter as well as his superiors who are always checking on his progress. For him, it must be like staying at “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel with outer space to deal with instead of snow. But at least here, he is spaced out instead of snowed in.
While doing his daily work on the land rover, Sam crashes and is knocked unconscious. When Sam comes to, he is back in the lunar base but has no idea of how he got back. He also ends up hallucinating to where he sees a little girl he does not know. In short, a number of things happen to where he goes outside the base and back to the damaged harvester to find someone barely alive: himself. To reveal more would be criminal because it would spoil the many surprises this film has for you.
For a moment, I thought “Moon” was an adaptation of another Philip K. Dick novel like “Blade Runner” or “Total Recall.” It turns out, however, it is not, but “Moon” does deal with some of the same themes. How would you feel if one day you woke up and found you were not who you thought you were? Would you continue on in life if you found you were nothing more than a copy of another person? How long can a secret be kept before it comes out into the open? While scientists may continue to play around with the evolution of human beings, they can never fully control the desires and actions of them. Throughout history, humanity has always found a way to break through its collective suppression to get at a reality which cannot be forever contained.
As I said, “Moon” borrows from many other sci-fi movies. The design of the lunar base looks much like the Nostromo from “Alien,” and a lot of the lettering and fonts seem very similar to those seen in “Aliens.” And there is no mistaking the influence “2001: A Space Odyssey” had on this film, especially with Sam’s robot companion GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Instead of an eerie looking red dot like HAL, GERTY has a smiley face which illustrates the different emotions which better relate to Sam’s emotional needs. This is that same smiley face Wal-Mart co-opted, and although this company is not mentioned here, seeing that icon makes me believe this particular corporate monolith may very well have the last laugh on the unions and remain more dominant in the future. Be afraid. Be very afraid…
Other directors would just take these elements and throw them up onto the screen without much forethought. Jones, however, takes all these familiar elements and more than makes them his own. “Moon” looks familiar in some ways, but it feels quite unique in others.
But what is especially impressive about “Moon” is how it was made for only $5 million dollars. Most sci-fi movies these days cost at least $150 million, and this does not include advertising and other promotion costs. Heck, when I see a sci-fi movie that costs only $30 million, I expect subpar effects and am usually forgiving about them. But Jones takes the budget he has and makes everything look like it cost ten times as much. I guess this further proves what Robert Rodriguez said about having less money forces you to be more creative.
“Moon” also benefits from an excellent music score by Clint Mansell whose career as a film composer keeps getting better and better. His music adds a strong emotional quality that strengthens our need to understand Sam on an emotional level. Ever since “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” Mansell has proven to be one of the most original sounding composers working today, and the musical themes he typically deals with are perfectly suited to this kind of material.
In the end though, this is Rockwell’s show, and he has quite a challenge as he is essentially acting opposite himself. You have to wonder how an actor plays off of himself and yet makes it look so natural at the same time. Rockwell has become better known for playing bad guys or heavies in mainstream movies, but he is more than capable of playing outside of that and continues to prove so in movies like this, “Frost/Nixon,” and “Choke” to name a few. In giving his character a strong complexity to someone who may not really actually be human ends up forcing you to identify more with something which may simply look like a machine from the outside. As a result, you could say that “Moon” also has a bit of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” in it as well.
And I do not want to leave out Kevin Spacey whose voice as GERTY creates a soothing trust Sam wants to hold on to and, at other times, test. GERTY is HAL but without the homicidal tendencies, and that has to be reassuring if you are stuck on the moon with no one else but a robot. Spacey makes GERTY seem like more than just a robot, and he makes us see how GERTY more in common with Sam than at first glance.
“Moon” is easily one of the most intelligent sci-fi movies of 2009, and it got lost in the shuffle of all the other big Hollywood releases, both bad and good. It deserves a long shelf life at your local video store, if there are any left where you live. In the end, it will last much longer in the memory than Michael Bay’s desecration of all things Hasbro. But enough of that one already…
* * * * out of * * * *