Duncan Jones’ debut feature, MOON, is a sharp and intelligent consideration of reality itself. An engrossing tale set in the near future on the dark side of our planet’s satellite, it probes the equally dark side of the human condition and in the process does what the best science fiction ought to do, which is to give the audience pause as it presents the present through the prism of something mythical yet oddly familiar.
The scene in an isolated moon base populated by one human, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). He’s at the end of a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to harvest helium 3, the miracle element that has solved the worlds energy problems and ushered in an unprecedented age of prosperity, world peace, and general happiness. The cost for Sam, though, is that utter aloneness that his robot helper/caretaker, Gertie (voice of Kevin Spacey) can only stave off, not squelch. With two weeks left to go, Sam may be going quietly insane. There is the computer glitch that shows Sam scenes of himself that never happened. Certainly the young woman he sees sitting in his chair can’t possibly be there, and certainly the new person stalking the base, the one that looks just like him, can’t be real, either.
What follows is a drama as stark as the lighting, as what has happened and what is remembered take different paths, and the core assumptions that get everyone through their days and nights are upset to a such a degree that a return to sanity is the least attractive option on offer.
The idioms on view are the familiar part. It’s the familiarity of a previously agreed on future replete with nods to classic films starting with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s stark, monochromatic light and shadow and taking off from there. While there are variations on HAL and the greenhouse in SILENT RUNNINGS, there is nothing lazy or second-hand here in either the plotting or the writing. There is a subtlety that is effective and subversive, centering on Gertie, a large, ungainly box that glides about on a ceiling track, flashes emoticon faces in an attempt to relate to Sam, and who has motives hidden behind its slightly scuffed exterior that are endlessly debatable and disturbingly human in the best and worst sense. Is it compassion or sadism that gets Gerties processors going? Is that calm voice with just the right soupcon of human inflection sympathizing or mocking? Spacey’s voice work, coupled with the character work that has a tentacle of a robotic hand exhibit engaged body language, is a superlative bit of synergy.
Rockwell is a superlative himself. He plays the same person twice over, but makes each incarnation distinct and entirely independent of the other. The first Sam starving for any kind of human contact, vulnerable, and desperate for home and for sanity, the second angry, cocky, and bristling with indignation. Even standing next to one another, it’s impossible to mistake the one for the other so complete is the characterization. It’s impossible to be indifferent, so vulnerable has he made each of them, but for entirely different reasons.
MOON is a puzzle with a solution that is elegant yet savage. The insignificance of the individual in the grand scheme of things is etched sharply, signaled by the vast expanse of moonscape, or the oppressive sameness of Sams meals, stacked up in identical boxes stretching along the wall with a thundering banality. But so is the intrinsic worth and dignity of each soul as it struggles for meaning and for clarity in a universe that may itself have gone mad.