Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)

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Aspiring to craft something akin to the hard s.f. touchstones of the ’60s and ’70s, 2001 on down to Silent Running and Solaris — is heady territory for a first-time feature director. But Duncan Jones has the wisdom to intrigue and seduce through simplicity. His impressively unorthodox Moon places a man in total isolation, stuck in a place for three years and unable to leave, sort of a Lifeboat in space, then turns the tables for a psychological examination of a mindbendingly self-reflexive series of arguments with a clone, and incidentally why is there a clone of me to begin with? Like so many sci-fi films, Moon can’t help subverting this nifty premise with explanation and rationalization rather than enjoying its character implications. All the same, Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker take us on an intriguing and pleasingly unadorned ride. Beneath everything else, Moon is the story of a man and his identity.

It helps, of course, that the man is brought to us by Sam Rockwell, one of the most underrated actors of the last decade; he brought Zaphod Beeblebrox to boisterous life in 2005, and before that gave a brilliantly cocky interpretation of Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (still George Clooney’s best effort as a director). Rockwell’s sharply read self-regard in those performances is absent here, and when he’s expected to play against himself in dual roles, it’s surprisingly compelling how drastically deep he’s able to take the subtle differences that come to light in two different stages of the cloning process.

But who is this man, anyway? He’s Sam Bell, mining for helium on the far side of the moon for a company called (what else?) Lunar Industries, a corporation in the typically corrupt sci-fi mode; think Buy N Large in WALL-E. After three years in space with constant communication problems that prevent a live feed with Earth, a crisis which may or may not have wrecked his marriage, Bell’s got two weeks left before he gets to return home when an unexpected accident leaves him trapped in a lunar vehicle, left to die by the ship’s sentient computer GERTY, which (unbeknownst to us) wakes up another Sam Bell from the huge stock in the heretofore undisclosed basement and proceeds with daily business. Unfortunately for the program and Lunar Industries, the new Sam finds the old one and brings him back to safety; the hour and a half that follows finds the two coping with one another’s existence and gradually coming to terms with the resulting implications until they find that they are among numerous Sam Bells, the original still living at home with his daughter — the daughter whom they know to be three years old but is actually a teenager, the wife they expect to be coming home to thanks to memory implants having long since died. Darkest of all, rather than being sent back “home,” each Sam Bell is incinerated at the end of his three-year contract — a fact discovered with the unexpected aid of GERTY (voiced with appropriate noncommittal warmth by Kevin Spacey, sadly his best role in a number of years). Every revelation sinks Rockwell’s face further into despair, especially the ailing variation whose death will ultimately be a bittersweet one as he watches his counterpart fly in a helium module to Earth, ready to tell the world of Lunar Industries’ morbid labor program.

Clones of a specific personality are a tricky subject for a movie to take on in just over ninety minutes, which is why it’s such a boon to have Rockwell on board; with no obstruction or muddiness at all, he gives us Sam’s entire history — capturing the yearning to be back, the angry undercurrent he must curb that slowly fades over the course of the three-year contract, every time, and most of all the sense of responsibility and need for his family, which gives what could be a clinical story a thrust of badly needed humanity. It’s extremely pleasant indeed to see such a cerebral Möbius-strip structure for a movie applied to what is finally a story of family and loss, reflected with such care in Rockwell’s eyes.

With that said, there’s some cinematic sleight of hand in play here; interviews suggest Jones was highly budget conscious. It’s to his credit that he recognizes how much minimalism can help a film, but some story points seem shoehorned in almost unfairly, above all the killing off of the wife we see only in video messages that turn out to be very old. The film intrigues and saddens with the establishment of her loss then can’t really take it anywhere; a stray element like that in a story this bare hurts quite a lot. You expect some intrigue involved, some further information about why the original Bell was chosen to be cloned, why his family life and attitude was considered so optimal to make him the ideal worker; it’s fine that we don’t get that, but the emotional phone call scene had the potential to play even more fascinatingly and uncomfortably if Tess Bell had still been alive, if a confrontation between her and a clone had taken place. That’s certainly a sequence I would’ve loved to see in this movie, not least because it’s clearly shown that Tess means so much to all of the clones by design.

That’s a minor problem when you witness how much memory and pain in general inform the story, how much Rockwell is able to get lost in those things even if the movie itself doesn’t give them much time. That’s as it should be, really; the sci-fi story is simply a jumping off point for a universal feeling of displacement, the futile grappling to make a relationship or life work that very plainly cannot. This is all done without excessive exposition or a corny, artificial sense of “quirk” to make Sam more of a Character. Like Children of Men before it, Moon ends up exploring classicist science fiction ideas not only humanistically and personally, but in a way that seems cheerfully new. The lack of excess at every turn only makes the film linger more in the mind, only makes its images more powerful.

Visually, Jones nails it — the desolation of the moon landscape combined with the lonely sterility of the base give you a feeling of loneliness and loss that’s both tangible and accurate, judging by Chris Jones’ book Too Far from Home, one of the more extensive explanations of space station life published to date. In that book, Jones talks of the growing restlessness among the crew members at the International Space Station forced to spend extra time there after the NASA shuttle program was temporarily grounded as a result of the Columbia explosion. One of the images of the book that came to my mind often during Moon was of the astronauts gradually becoming accustomed to the deafening quiet of their lives in space. A violent movie (Tank Girl) they screened near the end of their stay nearly sent them into collective shock. It’s useful to recall this as we note the continued routine of Sam Bell’s deterioration over the course of the three-year program.

One interesting way in which Moon overturns sci-fi convention, specifically the convention of the all-time great film of the genre, 2001, is in the character of GERTY, the onboard computer. Jones banks on the audience being familiar with 2001 as he alludes to it early on and plays with its tropes — the treadmill at the base, the beautifully empty moonscapes, and of course the HAL 9000 equivalent with the chillingly pleasant voice, magnified here by not just HAL’s steely and threatening electric eye but an even more sinister computerized smiley face that changes expressions during conversations with humans and even cries at one point. Against the odds of space-movie cliché invented by Kubrick, though, GERTY turns out to be programmed to help his humans faithfully and ends up being a good guy who helps the Sams succeed in their mission and places their importance above that of the corporation. It’s a bit of an improbable trick, but it’s fun to watch the film turn such a notion on its head.

Moon does have a bit of a traditionalist streak, of course; how could a film so clearly intended as an homage to the post-Forbidden Planet pre-Star Wars school of science fiction not? Its great achievement is in economically but believably suggesting that there are still stories to be told in this format. It’s also wonderful that Jones keeps the whole thing so tidy and under 100 minutes, even ending it at precisely the right moment. The newer Sam approaches Earth as we hear voiceover of news clips suggesting he comes to expose Lunar Industries and gets plenty of attention and riles a number of folks up. This goes on for all of fifteen seconds and then we fade to black; no huge unearned ceremonious nonsense, just a simple story and then it’s over. What a relief! I do wish we were allowed to know Sam Bell as well as Rockwell seems to want us to, but perhaps it’s wrong to mess with such a well-crafted tale by adding any filler at all. Jones errs on the side of caution and elegance, and he deserves our respect and trust for that.

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