directed by Duncan Jones
(Sony, 2009)

Moon owes a great deal to the many sci-fi movies and TV shows like Twilight Zone and Lost that inspired its plot, but what matters most is that the tropes are well-accessed, not that the ideas have been around for some time. It's not easy to come up with fresh ideas when so many premises are overcooked to the point of dullness. British director Duncan Jones, aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie, aka the Man Who Fell To Earth and the singer of "Space Oddity," fully embraces all the influences that went into making Moon, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Alien to his father's eponymous film, Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars to the 1972 classic Silent Running, as well as mindbenders like Memento. Moon proves itself not in its borrowing but in its execution, which is simple and mind-bendingly involving at the same time.

Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, a blue-collar astronaut who mines Helium 3 (an actual gas used in nuclear fission) on the dark side of the moon for an energy-starved Earth. He works alone, his only company a super-computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), who acts as a support system and mother figure to the lonely Bell. Apart from working out and tending to his plants, there isn't much for Bell to do except watch reruns of Bewitched to alleviate the crushing boredom of working solo. His three-year contract nearly up, Bell is looking forward to returning to his wife and infant daughter. The only thing marring his anticipation is the general feeling of unwellness that begins to plague him as the time for leaving home draws near.

On a routine check to find out what's up with a malfunctioning H3 harvester, something goes wrong and Bell finds himself waking up in the sickbay, unaware of how he got there. One mystery that immediately presents itself is why he's suddenly feeling so much better, almost like a new man. The other is the sudden appearance of another astronaut who claims to be Sam Bell. Is Sam hallucinating or does he have a double?

From here the movie takes a major turn that shouldn't be spoiled. Much like the movie Sleuth, you may think you know where the movie is headed but really, you don't. Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker keep the solution out of easy reach until the very end, turning the plot into a series of Chinese boxes that nest inside one another without surrendering the answer until the last minute. The concept of narrative-within-narrative plays out very well without turning into too much of a head trip, though the plot does slow down a bit in the second half.

Fortunately, Moon does not get weighed down by its rather heavy philosophical content. It's obvious that it's meant to be so much more than just another sci-fi movie. The story has serious points to make about bioengineering and industrial science, handling delicate ethical questions with haunting nuance. The emotional undercurrents about the true nature of family, memory, and of identity itself, also resonate strongly throughout the story. It's plain old-fashioned drama of the best kind, set amongst a well-designed set that relies more on miniatures and uncannily good direction rather than special effects to get its message across.

Humor is one of the movie's strongest points. Jones uses it well, punching up the exact right moment without shifting the tone into satire or overweening sentiment. Combined with a pulsating score by Clint Mansell, this rather eerie, quite moody, very atmospheric sci-fi-thriller is a quiet pleasure to watch on quite a few levels. Moon does play off quite a few genres but never becomes hackneyed or desultory. It's an esoteric, beautifully creepy and ultimately compelling tale of human survival in a desolate place.

review by
Mary Harvey

11 February 2012

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