Sunday, July 12, 2009

In Theaters: Moon

Moon poster and IMPAwards link
MOON is the latest attempt at what’s dubbed “serious” science-fiction; if I sound a little flip it’s because the subgenre seems to be more about being grim, depressing, and monochromatic, the line of thinking apparently being that bright futures and good cheer are for the dumb summer blockbusters. Okay, I’ve vented that, but I was still interested in this picture and made a point to catch it when I found out it hit Kansas City. It’s actually pretty damned good, my apprehension notwithstanding; as arty and subtly psychological as it is, it’s a solid story buoyed by good acting and a low-key attitude. This is partly a puzzle movie, and I will spoil a small part of it, but fortunately it has value beyond simply working out what’s going on.

Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell (must have been confusing), the sole worker on a large lunar mining facility that churns up Helium-3 from moon rocks and sends the gas to Earth, to be used as a source of clean, cheap energy. He’s been up there for three long, lonely years and is about to be sent home, but when looking after one of the massive machines that churns the satellite’s surface, he crashes his rover and loses consciousness. He comes to in the medical bay, with no clear idea of how he got there. When he goes out again to the crashed rover, he finds... himself, barely alive. The two Sams aren’t quite the same, but neither of them knows which one is really supposed to be there.

And I think I’ll stop there; it’s hard to know just how much is spoiling the plot, because the way this unfolds is very gradual and strangely logical. It’s not the kind of thriller that arbitrarily twists things for shock value and ceases to make sense the instant you leave the theater; the apparent inconsistencies of the story start to work themselves out, and become part of the answer. The answer isn’t the end of the story, either, as there’s still at least one man to deal with, and the company has decided to send a rescue team to help repair the damaged equipment, and they won’t be too happy seeing two Sams walking around.

Needless to say, this is Rockwell’s picture- he has to not only carry the entire film, but do so twice. He does an excellent job, particularly in differentiating between the mannerisms of the two Sams, showing how they’ve been differently affected by their situation. You always know which is which, quite an accomplishment. (The effects putting them both on screen almost seem to get better as the film goes on- at first they’re rarely in the same shot, but then it becomes commonplace.) There are other actors, but seen only in transmissions from Earth. Kevin Spacey provides the voice of GERTY, a robotic waldo system that assists Sam, and amusingly “emotes” via a smiley face on his monitor; it’s a nice twist on the old HAL 9000 bit, and the character becomes fairly sympathetic. Seeing DARKPLACE’s Matt Berry in a serious role is disarming, though.

For a low budget picture, the film looks great; the visual style is obviously hearkening back to 2001 and ALIEN, and at times the sets seem almost too similar, but the chunky aesthetic is downright comforting at times. It keeps the action grounded, and the effects work is strong. At times the miniatures do betray their scale, but it’s an odd thing to evaluate, because the moon does have low gravity and seemingly heavy objects are going to sort of rattle and bounce.

The story inevitably drags just a little once the major revelations have been made; other elements fall into place, but a lack of urgency hangs over the proceedings for a short time. Fortunately, it ramps up to an excellent climax, one which treats the characters as more important than another twist or some grand philosophical point.

MOON’s a great picture, an attempt at small-scale sci-fi that, though it continues in the dark, low-color, and somewhat male-centric tradition of other art-house sf productions, works enough on those terms to make them unobtrusive. The film’s doing a slow rollout, so keep an ear to the ground, because it deserves to do well. It’s a pleasant little surprise in between blockbusters.

Story by Duncan Jones
Screenplay by Nathan Parker
Directed by Duncan Jones

Grade: A-

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