Tuesday 8 March 2011

Moon (2009)

Director: Duncan Jones
Star: Sam Rockwell

You know the ideas are going to start rolling when a film begins with a commercial pointing out how we've already solved the energy crisis. Lunar Industries Ltd has been farming HE3 from the dark side of the moon and shipping it back home and now feeds 75% of the energy needs on our planet. You know it's hardly going to be conventional because it's written and directed by Zowie Bowie, David's son, though he's going by his real name of Duncan Jones to presumably at least attempt to avoid that connection, as if that's ever going to work. It stars people as talented but as diverse as Kevin Spacey and Matt Berry, all backing up Sam Rockwell, hardly a minor talent himself. Its $5m budget is high for a low budget film, which it looks far too expensive to count as, but low for a Hollywood movie which it seems to have successfully competed with, both with the critics and the public, though praise has not been universal. So it's about time I saw it.

A movie this optimistic can't help but invite comparisons and initially they're entirely obvious. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who's almost at the end of a three year work contract, which is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, he's working at a mining base on the dark side of the moon, by the name of Sarang, possibly because it means 'love' in Korean. Secondly, he's the entire human crew, which is a strange decision on the part of the company he works for but one that isn't without precedent. In fact, this is the first reason that Silent Running is the obvious initial comparison. For a while it looks a lot like Dark Star too, especially given Sam's plentiful facial hair. There are inevitable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, not only because there's a computer called GERTY who runs the show and talks a lot like HAL but because that computer is able to lie and refuse to let Sam out of the doors following an accident. Open the pod bay doors, Hal, indeed.

The accident is the point at which we begin to ask a whole slew of questions, deeper ones than just why Sam has a table tennis table when there's nobody else there to play. He's started to experience hallucinations. He burns himself while making coffee because he sees a figure of a girl in the room with him. Then out on the surface he sees another figure, causing him to crash into one of the harvesters. He wakes up in the infirmary back on Sarang with short term memory loss, but he finds a way past GERTY to visit the scene of the crash and discovers himself, still alive in the crashed moon buggy. The film really engages here as we ask a whole bunch of questions, postulate a whole bunch of answers and wonder if we've figured out the twist a little early in the film. Obviously we're in Blade Runner territory, but is that all we have in store or is there something else to follow?
Well, the good news is that every time we think we've answered everything, more questions turn up. There's also emotional impact in the answers, which is a powerful achievement given that for the most part there are only two actors on screen, both of whom are playing Sam Bell. I should add that it isn't done with effects the way that Buster Keaton made Sherlock Jr, it's done with an actor named Robin Chalk, who looks very similar to Sam Rockwell. The bad news is that the way the film has unfolded thus far leads us to phrase our questions in terms of which classic science fiction movie they're going to patch into the story next. I was expecting a mind trip along the lines of my expectations of Solaris, one of the few classic science fiction movies I haven't seen yet (and should really get around to soon), but surprisingly I got elements of everything else instead, with 2001: A Space Odyssey being the most frequently referenced.

Where this all leaves me is a little hung in my opinion. A lot of people have raved about this film to me and it's done well as far as awards nominations go, especially in its native England. I have a lot of admiration for it, both because it's a serious science fiction film done well and because it has managed to escape its low budget origins in a way that others have not managed to do, not least GB: 2525, another low budget serious science fiction film released in 2009 that impressed me but didn't seem to reach critical mass and impress everyone else. The story unfolds well, the effects are decent without being groundbreaking, presumably courtesy of Jones's experience in turning out quality effects for little money in the commercials industry, notably using physical models instead of digital effects. The acting is excellent, Sam Rockwell dominating not merely because he's almost the only actor we see. It's a substantial part and he does it justice.
Where I had problems was mostly in the fact that there's very little, if anything, here that could be called original. Much seems to have been made of the thinking behind it, including a tale of synchronicity from a screening at NASA. In his Q&A Jones explained why the base looked like a bunker not like something that would have been transported to the moon, namely that he saw it as more likely that Lunar Industries Inc would use materials there to build things. A woman then explained, from the audience, that she was working on a substance called mooncrete comprised of lunar regolith and ice water that could be harvested from the moon's poles. I have no problem with the hard science or in acknowledging that Jones really thought his story out, but almost all of it seems to have been borrowed from other science fiction films. What is there that exists in this movie that doesn't appear in another science fiction movie? Were GERTY's emoticons it?

It got so obvious that I soon reached a point where I stopped wondering about what progressions the plot would make and started wondering which movie references were going to appear next. I even began to think about which movies hadn't been given nods thus far and so tried to imagine how they could fit in. It was a fun game, but it damaged my interpretations of the film and I don't really see that as my problem, rather one inherent in the script. Rockwell's dynamic acting really isn't enough to get past it. In fact, the very act of wondering highlighted parts of the story that were under- or not explored, not least GERTY, as capably voiced by Kevin Spacey. I was waiting for a nod to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but perhaps that's too early for the era of influence Jones had. It never came. I was also waiting for a Planet of the Apes reference, but the film's timeframe didn't get that ambitious. The hallucinations may have ended up too Blade Runner.

Jones is apparently planning a sequel to Moon, but ultimately aims to end up with a trilogy, albeit much later in his hopefully long and versatile career. He certainly shows serious talent, as this is his first feature film. Sure, being David Bowie's son can't hurt. Having Sting's wife as a producer can't hurt. The gazillion entertainment industry contacts you probably grew up around certainly can't hurt. Yet at the end of the day, Duncan Jones had to make this film and he did exactly that. However original it is or isn't, it's a capable piece and it's a heck of a starting point for a career. Before it was only a short film called Whistle, dating back as far as 2002. After it comes Source Code, an action thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal due for release on April Fool's Day, and then an epilogue to Moon called Mute, which is currently in development. This could easily be Jones's Donnie Darko. The real question is whether Source Code will be his Southland Tales.


elvis presley said...

it appears you couldn't just sit and watch the film without having to diligently search for references to other sci-fi films and you kept expecting it to unfold and end like this film and that film. jesus christ just watch the film. no sci-film or any film in that matter is going to possess full originality as that's why these are genre films. they are influenced by one another which makes them sci-fi. and you kept name dropping and expecting that a person who has a famous father and sting's wife as producer wouldn't be able to produce a great film. this was a very snobby review and i did not find it helpful.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Sorry you took it that way.

The only expectations I had were high ones, as a few friends whose opinions I trust had seen Moon and praised it highly. I enjoyed the film too and thought it was well shot and notable for the budget but unfortunately notably unoriginal.

I didn't set out to search for references. As I pointed out, they leapt out at me in such numbers that it became very difficult not to acknowledge them and at some point, they just took over. I point this out to deliberately highlight how this didn't help my objectivity but that's a problem inherent in the derivative story.

Science fiction has common themes, sure, just like every genre, but that doesn't prohibit originality. There are a number of modern indie science fiction films that embrace that. Check out The Man from Earth, 8th Wonderland, GB 2525, Lunopolis, The Photon Effect or It Came for Friendship But Found Food. Not all are as well made as Moon, but they're all far more original.

The spice said...

It's been some time since I saw "Moon" and I don't remember the scene where he sees a hallucination of a woman. It might be that this is another reference that you'll find once you watch Solaris.
Thank you for this post. It had very very interesting trivia!