Thursday, June 18, 2009
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the new sci-fi film Moon, directed by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones.
"Moon" (opening June 19 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) has been generating a lot of buzz. First, it's the feature-directing debut of David Bowie's son Duncan "Zowie Bowie" Jones. Second, NASA asked to screen the sci-fi film because the organization was interested in the idea of mining Helium 3 on the moon. And finally, it showcases actor Sam Rockwell in a dual role. You can listen to my radio feature or read the review.
"Moon" opens with this faux spot for a company called Lunar Industries: "There was a time when energy was a dirty word. But that was the past. Right now we are the largest producer of fusion energy in the world. The energy of the sun trapped in rock, harvested by machine on the far side of the moon."
Sony Pictures Classics
But harvesting Helium 3 on the dark side of the moon also requires a human being, and that person better be prepared for a long lonely gig far from home. The man doing the job at the moment is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). He has been on the moon for nearly three years. He misses his family, the isolation is wearing on him, and his only companion is a HAL-like computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). GERTY tries to be a good companion to Sam, attending to his needs and prompting him to discuss his problems. But when Sam inquires about repairs and when the company will get to them, GERTY explains, "I understand it's low on the company's priority list right now."
This infuriates Sam who has just two weeks to go on his three year contract. But these final two weeks feel like forever, especially since live communication with earth is down. All Sam can do is send and receive pre-recorded messages. But while he's watching the latest message from his wife, he notice a glitch or maybe it's an edit. But why would the company censor a personal message? This is just the first sign that things might not be exactly what they seem. Then Sam gets in an accident and when he wakes up he thinks he sees someone who looks just like him.
Sony Pictures Classics
"Moon" feels like a throwback to 70s sci-fi because it returns the focus to how technology impacts human life. It also returns the genre to more overt social commentary. This is not sci-fi action like "Terminator Salvation" or the upcoming "Transformers 2." Instead it's a more contemplative genre piece like the 1972 film "Silent Running." "Moon," like "Silent Running," presents us with a character that's essentially a blue collar worker at the mercy of a cold and callous corporation. In the case of "Moon," Sam discovers the extreme lengths Lunar Industries will go to in order to keep its operation running smoothly and cheaply.
Sony Pictures Classics
Director Duncan Jones also taps into the visual style of "Silent Running," which was directed by special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (who worked on "2001" as well as "Blade Runner"). Taking his cue from Trumbull, Jones creates a vivid but far from perfect futuristic world. Stylistically, the emphasis is on small details rather than big effects and blowing things up. And like Trumbull, Jones is as interested in technology as he is in questions of humanity and philosophy. "Moon" asks us to consider how far we'd like to go in order to serve the needs of the many. What sacrifices to our humanity are we willing to make? But he asks these questions within a story that is both tense and funny.
A key to the film's success is Sam Rockwell who plays multiple roles and is asked to carry the film. Rockwell is an unconventional actor and he's always compelling. He's not an action hero or a typical leading man. But he finds fresh ways to come at his characters so he's always fun to watch. Here he gets a chance to show the broad range of his talent. Plus he gets to play off of Kevin Spacey as the smiley faced super-computer.
"Moon" is one of the more thoughtful sci-fi film of the past decade. It's flawed and still feels long at 97 minutes, but it's also smart and innovative. It may sound familiar but it manages to pull some clever twists as it asks you to think about the kind of future you want to have. Jones in his first feature outing manages to deliver a thoughtful and speculative sci-fi drama; a paranoid thriller that builds tension effectively; and a bittersweet tale
Companion viewing: "Silent Running," :2001: A Space Odyssey," "Blade Runner".