2009’s Moon is a remarkable achievement in hard, idea-based science fiction, and as an entry in a veteran filmmaker’s body of work, it could easily be a high point. So when we take into account the fact that it is a debut picture, its quality becomes emphasized even further. (If a first-time director can make a mature, confident movie with a great deal of depth and value, why do we excuse more experienced filmmakers for creating absolute duds or even mild misfires?) Under normal circumstances, my response to such a film would be boiling over with effusive praise of all of its details, but Moon‘s cinematic makeup demands a more tempered response. Discussing anything past the first act threatens to send a review of the movie into spoiler territory.
This is not because Moon is a film built around “the twist”; director Duncan Jones didn’t craft his debut picture by employing the M. Night Shyamalan approach to filmmaking, in which one eschews focus on both narrative and plot for the express purpose of pulling the rug out from underneath audiences in the third act of the film. It is, however, a film replete with rewarding mysteries that are best discovered for yourself; to explore its central concepts and themes here would be to do a disservice to the film and to any who read this review.
Moon tells the story of Sam Bell, an astronaut working out a three-year contract with mining/energy giant Lunar Industries. It seems that at an unspecified point in the future, humanity has discovered how to draw clean energy out of rocks harvested from the surface of the moon. Assigned to the mining station Sarang, Bell’s job involves little labor; gargantuan roaming crawlers do all the heavy lifting, so to speak, and Sam’s job is to send harvested resources to Earth and keep an eye on the operations to ensure that things are running smoothly.
Sam is utterly alone. His only company is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), his robotic companion and caretaker. Nearly one-third of a decade of isolation from human contact has had a visible impact on Sam as a human being. It’s no surprise that he’s excited to be coming up on the end of his contract. Living out the last two weeks of his tenure on the moon, Sam makes an unexpected discovery during a routine jaunt on the surface that shakes him to his core and forces him to confront the truth of his assignment at the Sarang.
After this point, Moon asserts itself as the the kind of film that you absolutely must see for yourself, as no additional summation can really do it justice (and in fact can only reduce its impact). In a way, it’s a frustrating film because the second act reveal that introduces the movie’s central conceit is executed with such aplomb that laying it out here seems like a massive snub upon Jones’ efforts, which are undeniably impressive. Speaking as generally as possible, Moon avoids a great number of cliches and pitfalls common in science fiction (classic and contemporary), and goes in a direction both bold and unexpected, and part of the film’s pleasure lies in watching its devices unfold. So as desperately as I want to divulge details and praise those elements of the film, I must refrain from doing so.
With a deft touch, Jones has woven a rich story rife with numerous layers of interpretation; it is simultaneously an examination of the lifelong struggle with faith that many people endure, a harsh indictment of the inhumanity of faceless corporations, and a comment on the purpose of our memories. And for all of its inherent themes, it remains a quiet, restrained film. Jones’ direction here is undeniably assured, flirting with both realism (the Sarang is composed so clearly and logically that it feels like Jones spent hours deliberating over how one might structure a moon base in real life) and flourishes of eye-popping artistry. By utilizing a very limited color palette, he has created a world that is cold and dispassionate toward Sam’s plight, minute in the details and rendered starkly beautiful by that very adherence to minimalism.
Of the film’s many positives, perhaps Sam Rockwell’s multi-dimensional portrayal of Sam Bell is the one which comes most highly recommended. As with the plot, discussing the intimate details of his performance risks the story’s integrity, but in broader terms this may be the single greatest role he has ever brought to life. Rockwell shows us all of Sam Bell, drawing from every corner of his being to bring a pithy and complete depiction of this character to life. From the brash, hot-headed man seemingly eager to begin his gig maintaining the Sarang, and the haggard, disturbed, and woefully dislocated man he becomes over the course of his unthinkably long period of time in exile from his family and friends, Rockwell undeniably embodies Bell in every single frame of the film. It’s a bold, heartbreaking performance worthy of praise and rememberance, a true career high point for a man with almost naught but high points on his resume.
Ultimately, Moon is the kind of quiet film that can easily slip under one’s radar; it is not verbose, it is not loud, but it stands out as a completely profound film full of meaning. There’s so much more that I want to say about this film; this review barely scratches the surface of my love for it, and does not at all represent the aspects of it which make it so utterly special. Suffice to say that this is a remarkable start for Jones, and while I wish him the best of luck in any endeavor he undertakes, I hope that he continues to make the sort of science fiction films that his peers don’t have the guts to.