Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moon Movie Makes Dramatic Landing

If it’s starting to feel like you’ve seen Mr. Potter and his wand doing the same adolescent battle against the forces of boarding-house mischief a few too many times, you may want to instead check out a tiny sci-fi film called Moon, staring Sam Rockwell as a mining engineer spending a long-term assignment isolated on the far side of the moon.

Moon - a simple movie plainly made without the massive effects budgets of the Harry Potter franchise and other summer blockbusters - clearly relies on the cleverness of its story and the acting talents of Rockwell (and Kevin Spacey, as the voice of GERTY, the astronaut’s computer companion) to deliver its thrills. Moon is much more the inheritor of a Stanley Kubrick sensibility, bringing his 2001-moon-base commercialism into the world of the mid twenty-first century.

The movie in fact opens with a commercial for the moon energy of “Helium 3” with so practiced a corporate tone of anonymity that many in theater thought they were still watching the pre-film commercials, rather than the main attraction. This is the first hint that the movie wants to play with what we think we know and what we think we’re watching: and it does so quite successfully.

For all apparent purposes, Rockwell’s astronaut, Sam Bell has been on the moon now for nearly three years, and is about to end his tour of duty. But the isolation is driving Sam a bit crazy - he misses his wife and young daughter terribly. There also seems to be some unexplained interference that has prevented real-time contact with earth all these years: all his communications come with a twenty-minute time delay.

That those communications have been oddly edited seems to escape his notice, and perhaps that’s due to his mental state - he is beginning to have hallucinations of a strange woman visiting his moon base, even standing outside on the moon in the middle of a hail of rocks from one of the Helium 3 harvesters.

To say much more about the plot would be to ruin the clever surprises. Let’s just say that one particular special effect plays a critical role in the movie, and it challenges Rockwell to create two identical but subtly different characters. The subtleties in the acting here are fabulous and – along with his turned out performance in Frost/Nixon – help establish Rockwell as one of the most interesting actors of our day.

The film has many touching moments – supported by Rockwell’s performance – that underscore the nature of humanity as it moves into frontiers of science. Bell is not a perfect man: he’s driven to bouts of anger and destruction, he’s reckless, and in the end, we can understand, as well as sympathize with, the situation he’s created for himself. In one of the final shots, as Sam stars up at the earth from his rover on the moon, it’s hard not to feel the longing he feels as the metaphor it’s intended to be: how our science has changed who we are, and made it impossible to touch the things we hold most dear. Like many sci-fi’s (think back to the Alien series), the movie casts a corporation in the role of bad guy; yet this movie also poses a deeper question about our own complicity, our own willingness to sell our soul, so to speak. That question is strongly hinted at in this film and I think it could have been a better movie had it been explored a bit more.

Yes, this is a movie with just one actor holding most of the screen time – a tour-de-force if you will – and yes, it does travel in stock sci-fi tropes (though it tweaks them nicely, particularly the AI played by Spacy). I wish the film had been able to spend a bit more time on Sam’s psychology and find a bit more resources to lavish upon the texture of the story – in the building of the sets and the composition of the scenes, which are mostly clever and serviceable yet don‘t all deliver the moment as well as, for example, Sam‘s ending stare at a distant blue Earth. This is a story that really could have benefited from the sorts of grandiose budgets and studio support visited upon the more “hit” driven childish fare of summer. But, sigh - the adults will take what morsels we can get.

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