Sam Rockwell in Moon

Plenty has been made of the fact that Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son. Those who think they live in an orderly, connected universe look to Bowie’s Space Oddity or his Ziggy Stardust phase or his starring role in The Man Who Fell to Earth as possible sources of inspiration. That’s not only unfair to Mr. Jones (he wasn’t born when Bowie sang of Major Tom and he was 5 when the Nicholas Roeg film came out), it also overstates how “out there” his debut film Moon really is. Though it takes place in space, its psychological thriller roots are much more down to earth.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a man with two weeks remaining of a three-year solo mission tending a Helium 3 mine on the far side of the moon. With only the base’s computer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and the occasional message from his wife and daughter back home to keep him company, Bell has about reached the limit of his ability to cope with the isolation. After an accident leads to a haunting discovery that touches on the very nature of his mission, Sam’s sanity is called into question and the icy fingers of paranoia begin to take hold of him. Can he hold it together for two more weeks?

This is terrific raw material that has been compared to some of the sci-fi greats of the past including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but few films would hold up in such company and Moon is no exception. It is at heart a mystery and a psychological thriller that uses science fiction as a setting rather than a device to explore some of the headier thematic concepts approached by Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky.

It’s disappointing that Jones isn’t more ambitious, but perhaps its best to simply appreciate how much he gets right and to enjoy Moon for what it is rather than lament what it’s not. For starters, the film makes excellent use of its tiny budget. Elaborate effects are kept to a minimum and an especially gritty futuristic setting is created with models and good old-fashioned set and production design. The base really feels like it could be on the moon and it has the nifty used look of a civilian facility where housekeeping is a low priority.

Better still is the criminally overlooked Sam Rockwell who has to carry the film as the only actor on screen. The man has spent the last few years being great in movies that no one sees including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Snow Angels, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Choke. His highest profile recent role was in last year’s Frost/Nixon but little mention was made of the fact that he was one of the best parts of an otherwise thuddingly pedestrian film. Here Rockwell’s scruffy unpredictability is put to perfect use and he seamlessly inhabits a man going stir crazy at best and completely insane at worst. More importantly, he makes Sam Bell highly sympathetic in all his shadings. The farther he seems to get from being united with his wife and daughter, the more heartbreaking it becomes.

To a point, Moon questions the place for humanity in a future created by mankind, but that’s as close as the film comes to the big philosophical ideas that are the stock and trade of the best sci-fi. Though it’s not thoughtful enough to achieve classic status, it’s an entertaining and highly assured first film that is light years ahead of movies with much bigger budgets and noisier advertising campaigns. Combined with another knockout performance from Sam Rockwell, Moon is definitely worth seeing.

Moon. USA 2008 (theatrical realease 2009). Directed by Duncan Jones. Screenplay by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker. Cinematography by Gary Shaw. Music score composed by Clint Mansell. Edited by Nicolas Gastor. Production design by Tony Noble. Starring Sam Rockwell, Kaya Scodelario and  Kevin Spacey. 1 hour 37 minutes. MPAA rated R for language. 3.5 stars (out of 5)

8 Responses to “Review: Moon (2009) *** 1/2”

  1. Hehee, Sam Rockwell’s the man in the Moon.

    I think my expectations are about right for this one–I’m looking forward to a modest, entertaining indie sci-fi feature. Rockwell’s got to get his breakout role soon, doesn’t he? He’s so reliably good. Maybe he needs a Scorsese or a PTA, some giant auteur to take him under wing and nurture him to greatness.

    Solid review, glad you liked it. “Light years ahead,” “down to earth,” nicely understated.

  2. I’ve been really looking forward to this and I think your review has nicely tempered my expectations. It’s asking a lot of the film for it to reach the dizzy heights of past greats, particularly with what has to be a heavily psychological journey given only one onscreen actor and another actor’s voice together in a potentially claustrophobic SciFi setting.

  3. Impossible that you get away without any mention of Mansell’s score! Did nothing for you?

    I agree with everything that you enjoyed (Rockwell, the champagne on a beer budget effects, etc.), and despite my initial misgivings from the first viewing it’s been growing on me the last couple of months and I think I might check it out again when it rolls back into town.

    People who must have watched it much more closely than me noticed a lot of religious and philosophical underpinnings that rocked them to the core, so I’m wondering what I missed. Like you, I was kind of hoping for a really heavy monologue or narration or something a little more provocative than Bell bantering/scuffling with Bell. Maybe it just wasn’t at the intellectual level that I expected, as pretentious as that might sound!

    But in any case I liked it a lot – even more than the other sci-fi monster this year, Star Trek…

    Odd side note – Duncan Jones attended the Q & A here wearing the yellow space suit Rockwell wears in the movie. Pretty interesting guy.

  4. “It is at heart a mystery and a psychological thriller that uses science fiction as a setting rather than a device to explore some of the headier thematic concepts approached by Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky.”

    Fair enough. This precisely what I envisioned with this. And you are quite right, methinks to mention how invaluable Sam Rockwell is. Another very finer recap.

    “But in any case I liked it a lot – even more than the other sci-fi monster this year, Star Trek…”

    Now, now Daniel, let’s not get personal. LOL!

    But I am intrigued to hear that Mansell scored this. I am a huge fan of his work too.

  5. You’re right about the Mansell score Daniel…I should’ve put it alongside the production design as one of the key elements for making this thing work. This is what happens when I try to write reviews more quickly. Some of my thoughts end up slipping through the cracks.

    I didn’t get a religious or spiritual feeling from this at all, but maybe that’s because I’m not a religious person. I’ll allow that it might be deeper than I’m giving it credit for.

    If you could point me to some of these interpretations, I’d be eternally grateful.

    JB, Rockwell is most definitely due for a breakout, but I have a feeling he’s too off-kilter and too content playing weirdos to ever really break through to the mainstream. So much the better for us.

    Incidentally, a lot of reviews of this movie spoil a key plot point that I think is best left to viewer discovery. As a result I wasn’t able to talk too much about why Rockwell is as good as he is here. Suffice it to say, he’s awesome and we’ll leave it at that.

    Nothing personal Sam, but I also enjoyed Moon a great deal more than Star Trek. It’s not really a fair comparison though since ST is a mainstream blockbuster and Moon is very much an independent film. Their goals are totally different.

  6. “It’s disappointing that Jones isn’t more ambitious…”

    Is this an evaluation for Jones’ ambitions merely as a writer, Craig, or as a filmmaker/visualist as well?

    I’ve heard praise for his control of narrative and pace, all as good observations for what might be a promising career as a filmmaker. I was wondering whether Jones, with this debut, might be for 2009 what Martin McDonough (IN BRUGES) and Steve McQueen (HUNGER) were 2008.

  7. Thanks for stopping by again Villalba.

    I guess I’m thinking more in terms of the screenplay. And it’s possible as Daniel said that there’s just an angle I missed, but the setup seemed really ripe for some heavy philosophical pondering, but it really played more in a thriller vein.

    I should be clear too that I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. It’s more a matter of unmet expectations, but it’s my fault maybe for having the expectations in the first place.

    McDonough and McQueen are interesting comparisons because, like Jones, they’re a bit older than you’d expect from someone making their feature debuts, but the films had a maturity and a self confidence you wouldn’t normally expect from a first timer.

  8. Whoops, I guess I mentioned that, ahem, plot point as well without giving a spoiler warning. Don’t go back and read it, anybody, until you’ve seen the movie!

    And Sam, obviously no offense meant your way. I guess i just have two sci-fi movies to compare so far and I chose Moon, even if they aren’t apples to apples as Craig notes.

    “the setup seemed really ripe for some heavy philosophical pondering, but it really played more in a thriller vein.”

    Bingo, that’s basically where I landed. And as far as the religious things, well they came out more from the Q & A discussion and conversations I’ve had since, more than an reviews I can link to. It’s unfortunate because I’m intrigued at what I might have missed. Apparently there was some subtle religious aspect to the naming of the rovers or antennae stations or miners or one of those big lunar objects, as well as other ideas about existentialism.

    And funny thing about Duncan Jones’s age. I knew nothing about the guy and when he ran up in a yellow space suit and literally bounced around during the Q & A, almost giggling, I would have pegged him for like 25. And there was bad lighting so you couldn’t really see his face very well unless you were really close. Somebody even asked him how old he was (a pretty weird question for a Q & A, but it’s clear everybody was curious) and he avoided the question. Or I think he said 14 or something like that. He’s 37, I believe.

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