I only want what’s best for you. There are no spoilers here.
There is an old adage which states that painting, as an art form, is always several decades ahead of literature on the creative curve. Similarly in The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film (1991), long time genre critic John Brosnan posits that there is a similar lag between science fiction movies and books. Furthermore his tome develops the thesis that despite the massive boost Star Wars gave to the genre, in the long run it’s effect as been somewhat detrimental; ushering in a return to the zap and blast school of ‘50s pulp and stifling the growth of the more cerebral and mature strain of SF films emerging in the 1970s.
And certainly from the 1908s onward much of SF in the cinema has either followed the child friendly adventurism of Lucas’ space saga and Spielberg’s ET or opted for the dark and violent thrills of James Cameron’s Terminator films and Aliens. The 70s trend which produced the likes of Silent Running, 2001 and Rollerball, where stood for ‘speculative fiction’ and embraced the inner space approach of the 1960s ‘new wave’ school largely disappeared. And the advent of the summer blockbuster school of movie making that grew out of the box office successes of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, coupled with leaps forward in special effects technology has ensured that the pulp adventure brand of SF has continued to rule the day.
However some brave souls have continued to keep the spirit of smart SF alive, making films which are about exploring concepts and ideas rather than starship dogfights and robots knocking seven bells out of each other. And this summer we have the release of Duncan Jones’ Moon, a film that not only furthers this neglected strain of SF but positively drips with affection for its predecessors.
Moon is the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the single crew man operating an automated mining operation on the far side of the moon. He is nearing the end of his long and lonely three year shift, during which his only companionship is the robotic artificial intelligent GERTY (Kevin Spacey) and the occasional recorded transmission from Earth. However Sam is not quite as alone as it first appears…
For me, a good rule of thumb for how great a film is how well your opinion of it holds up a few days after seeing it. Many films entertain or even impress on the initial viewing, but after some time has elapsed that first impression fades. However a really brilliant piece of cinema will linger in the mind; you may be haunted by its atmosphere, find yourself pondering its plot further, itching recommending it to friends, hitting the net to rabidly consume anything written about it, and most crucial be itching to see it again. And Moon has provoked all of these reactions in me.
Despite a tiny cast and a very low budget (around $4 million), Moon delivers an absorbing and intense story and I think it can safely be said that all concerned with this project have truly exceeded themselves. To begin with Moon does not look in anyway cheap. There are none of the typicall shortcomings of low budget filming making here.
Usually the bane of a cheap SF movie are the limited special effects. However in Moon, we have some of the best effects work I’ve seen in a while. This film does not feature the usual eye-watering mountains of CGI work; it doesn’t attempt to wow the audience with hollow spectacle and littering the screen with impressively realistic but somehow still utterly unconvincing set pieces. There are no worlds exploding under the weight of robots, or raptors playing the banjo in cosmic firestorms here thankfully.
Instead, the special effects, in conjunction with highly detailed sets and beautiful cinematography actually build a wholly convincing world. So convincing in fact, that halfway through the movie, I had a sudden jolt when I remembered that they didn’t actually film this on the lunar surface. It’s quite fitting considering the SF style of this film that Jones managed to procure effects veteran Bill Pearson to work on Moon, the man who built the model of the Nostromo for the original Alien. In an age where so many directors instantly reach for the computer, Moon showcases what can be achieved with old school model work and some well executed CGI touches.
Just as narratively, much of recent movie SF has been either interstellar romps or dystopian action, so too the aesthetics of SF are polarized. Either we have bright and shiny futures, all pristine white walls and twinkling technology, or grimy industrial nightmares, full of dripping water, rust and low lighting, garnished with an inexplicable amount of pipes spewing steam for no good reason.
Moon however brings back a third approach, using a look I’d describe as ‘tomorrow, today’. Much like the hardware featured in the classic Dan Dare comics of the ‘50s or Derek Medding’s model work for various Gerry Anderson series in the ‘60s, the design of the Sarang lunar base looks like something which would be produced if NASA started building tomorrow. It’s the technology of the future realized in a contemporary way. Hence the rovers and harvesters looks like something vehicle designers would build today and GERTY, the base’s AI, has a body that is little different from the robots that assemble cars now. Also in an inspired touch, GERTY has a ‘face’ which displays different emoticons to match his mood. Not only does this mirror several real life artificial intelligence projects but creates a character which I predict will become as iconic as Hal 9000 or R2D2.
More importantly though, Moon’s world looks not only futuristic but invokes our own working spaces. Things are worn and show the familiar signs of something that was once new and shiny tarnishing under fair wear and tear. The space age elements such as the computer banks are offset with familiar touches such as coffee rings, creeping grime and post-it notes.
As the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted a work of fiction should evoke “a willing suspension of disbelief” and in particular, a tale of the fantastic could achieve this with “a human interest and a semblance of truth”. And this latter phrase sums up Moon perfectly as it not only shows us a convincing future but backs it up with an engaging emotional storyline.
Like its forebears Silent Running and 2001, Moon is concerned with inner rather than outer space. It’s not a story about the latest zap guns or the mechanics of warp drives, it’s about a man who finds himself in an extraordinary situation, and tells a tale that questions what it is to be human.
Sam Rockwell is frankly outstanding. For much of the film he is the only actor on screen and his performance not only carries the entire movie but he does so with considerable charm and heart. The role of Sam Bell especially was written for him by Jones and Nathan Parker, and it shows. In it Rockwell gets to display a wide range of emotions in what would be a very challenging part for any actor. And Rockwell is more than up to the job; it’s a real tour de force performance and he deserves at the very least a nomination for every major acting award going. If he doesn’t win anything next spring, there ain’t no justice and I’ll be leading a Tony Harrison-style chorus of “this is an outrage!”.
Equally impressive is Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY. And though on the face of it, the role of a computer is an undemanding one; basically just saying lines in a robotic voice; Spacey manages to imbue GERTY with real character. It’s a brilliantly subtle performance with some masterfully judged emotional infections. There is not only a great interplay between Sam and GERTY, there is chemistry and you see that there is an actual friendship between them as the film develops.
Also special mention must also be made of Clint Mansell’s score. Not only is it hauntingly beautiful but it meshes with the film perfectly, evoking and intensifying the emotions and atmosphere being created on screen. All too often these days, film soundtracks are either by-the-numbers knockoff Williams/Elfman orchestral wallpaper, or a selection of pre-existing pop and rock tunes selected to sell an LP to teens. So it’s a great pleasure to see a film which has a proper individual score, but furthermore it’s something of a real rarity to see a movie where the music is so beautifully woven into the fabric of the film. Like Carpenter’s soundtrack for Halloween, Mansell’s music for Moon is not just background flourishes but part of the story itself.
Moon is one of those rare movies were all the elements mesh beautifully and become greater than the sum of their parts. It’s a highly polished piece of work, and whose achievements are even more impressive considering it is Duncan Jones’ debut feature. On a technical level the direction is quite stunning but his really inspiring accomplishment is bringing together narrative, design, performances, effects and music into one seamless whole, and creating a unique and powerful piece of cinema. Duncan Jones is definitely a name to watch, and I was delighted to discover that he plans a further two films in the Moon series.
Not only is Moon a welcome return to intelligent SF, it is, without doubt, a hands down classic. It’s not just a brilliant slice of science fiction but a great piece of drama. It's a superb film which is worhty of every superlative you can throw at it, and which deserves to be appreciated by lovers of great cinema as well as genre fans.
If you go outside Sam, I cannot guarantee your safety from spoilers
I know I’ve already praised his performance but I really feel the need to laud Sam Rockwell further in this section as he gives not one but two outstanding performances. It is quite a test for an actor to be the sole performer on screen, and also quite a feat to perform two roles in the same film. And all of this is required from Rockwell, who rises to the challenge admirably.
But furthermore Moon requires him to play the twin roles against himself. Now we’ve all seen this kind of thing before in a variety of forms – for example, a twin turning up is a much beloved plot device for countless television shows . However while the visual wizardry that brings this illusion to life in Moon is second to none, what really stands out is the quality of Rockwell’s acting.
There is a clear distinction between the two Sams and the twin motif here is far more than just a plot gimmick. As the story unfolds we can see how the original Sam has changed and grown as a person during is three year tour of duty. And these changes are contrasted sharply with the new Sam’s character.
It’s a testament to the powers of his dual performances that it becomes very easy to forget that both Sam’s are being played by Rockwell. And when you consider how these scenes will have been filmed – out of sequence, against a green screens and with only imagination to flesh out the other role, Rockwell’s performance is all the more awe-inspiring. Again, if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, there ain’t no justice!
Now I did guess correctly some plot twists in Moon, but in fairness that is more down to me having read countless twist-in-the-tale short stories over the years rather than any weakness in the film’s storyline. And, more importantly, Moon isn’t a film that lives or dies by the unexpected nature of its twists – it’s not a M Night Shyamalan type of tale and its weight lies within the emotional power of the narrative.
That said though, Moon did spectacularly catch me out in a few places. As we saw in the first section, Moon is very much the child of the 1970’s literate SF cinema, and anyone familiar with the movies from this period will spot many references to them. There are little call backs to the likes of Dark Star and Silent Running dotted throughout the film.
However, in a perfect example of Duncan Jones’ finesse as a director, one of these little visual allusions becomes a rather neat plot twist. As the sharper eyed of you may have noticed, GERTY’s robotic interface features a camera lens eye that harks back to 2001’s Hal. And as the film’s story unfolds it becomes apparent that all is not quite as it should be on the Sarang base, and that Lunar Industries is up to something rather shady.
Now anyone who has seen 2001, will soon form the impression that GERTY isn’t quite the harmless “plastic pal who’s fun to be with” (© the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation)he first appears to be. Indeed that Hal eye will lead you to believe that GERTY is either mad and/or evil. But as the film enters the final third, there is the very pleasing reveal that GERTY is not the embodiment of the immoral corporation but is actually on Sam’s side after all. Well played Mr Jones!
More generally though, I really liked the fact the GERTY character had a story and a journey of his own. There is a very strong sense of a real relationship between GERTY and Sam and again Kevin Spacey deserves to be praised for his vocal performance. However the role GERTY has in the film is excellently plotted and scripted.
This subplot, pleasingly for SF fans everywhere, has a subtle echo of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot stories, where contradictions in a machine’s programming lead to unexpected results. On numerous occasions in the first part of the film GERTY states that his primary role is to look after Sam. However when Sam begins to discover the truth about himself and the cloning operation, there is a powerful sense of GERTY becoming conflicted with his programming which lead to the AI eventually deciding to reveal not only reveal the truth but help Sam.
Finally I’d like to address a point raise by Ian Loring of Cinerama in the 35mm Heroes podcast. In a piece of what he confessed was a bit of extreme nitpicking in an excellent film, he questioned what was the point of two visions the original Sam has of what we later will discover is his grown up daughter; a daughter who he who he believes still to be three years old.
Rather than some inserted Solaris style weirdness, my theory would be that these hallucinations are in fact Sam’s subconscious trying to tell him that things are not what they seem. And supporting this idea, there is the matter of the model. The original Sam notes that some one else started it, and new Sam questions why as it is a diorama depicting a location they have a personal attachment too. Being the literally cut from the same cloth, this question no doubt had occurred to the original Sam too.
But also, there is another vision. At one point Sam briefly sees what appears to be his past self on a monitor screen, a Sam still sporting long hair and a bushy beard. On one hand this would fit nicely into the warning from the subconscious thesis. But as this hallucination appears on a computer another possibility presents itself – that GERTY is trying to enlighten Sam to his predicament…
It’s exactly this kind of subtly that makes Moon such a joy. And coupled with the excellent performances and stand out cinematography, this depth and intelligence makes Moon a film with a high rewatch value.
JIM MOON, 17th August 2009