Space movies in general have taken a bad turn in the last fifteen years or so. Perhaps I'm not recalling obvious exceptions, but I've been soundly disappointed by almost everything since the millennium. Supernova, Event Horizon, Ghosts of Mars and Sunshine enjoy sets and special effects undreamed of in the past, yet all squander them on yet another zombie uprising or haunted house scenario. Sunshine has a fantastic idea about re-igniting the sun, but spins off in yet another melee of predictable disaster and slaughter. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not looking for a dry documentary in my space pictures. But somebody needs to put an end to this steady diet of Sci-Fi (SyFi?) channel clichés.
Sony's Moon is a step in the right direction, an impressive small-scale show written and directed by Duncan Jones. It begins as an interesting one-man show (one man and a robot, actually) and then takes a sudden, major plot turn that would be unfair to reveal. This review will dance around that issue and avoid spoilers. As the saying goes, them that's seen the picture show will know exactly what I'm talking about, and them that ain't will get an idea of what kind of show this is without having anything ruined.
Contracted space worker Sam Bell (the talented, expressive Sam Rockwell) is the sole living occupant of a moon mining operation. He monitors mobile robotic harvesters resembling giant street sweepers or Zambonis, which scrape up moon regolith ('topsoil') and refine it into Helium-3. What sounds like a screenwriter's invention is real -- the Wikipedia article on Helium-3 says that the 'elemental isotope' is indeed more abundant on the moon and is presently "sought for nuclear fusion research". Sam collects containers of processed Helium-3 from the harvesters and "shoots" them to Earth on what appears to be a magnetic linear accelerator. An opening institutional ad for Sam's employers, Lunar Industries, claims that 70% of the world's energy is being provided by the company's moon-fed fusion reactors.
Bell is on the last couple of weeks of a three-year contract and is beginning to exhibit stress symptoms. Owing to an un-repaired satellite link, direct communications with Earth are not possible and he instead must make do with taped messages from his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott). Sam becomes overly emotional watching these videos, and in his loneliness his dreams of being with Tess are taking on the characteristics of hallucinations. Aiding, monitoring and minding Sam is GERTY, a robot assistant (voice, Kevin Spacey). GERTY is somewhat solicitous. It catches Sam in inconsistencies and nags him to cooperate with psychology tests. Unfortunately, one of Sam's momentary hallucinations occurs as he's nearing a harvester in his moon rover vehicle, and a serious accident occurs. When Sam wakes up in sickbay GERTY insists that he stay still and avoids giving him a full accounting of what happened. Sam overhears what he thinks is GERTY talking to Earth mission control in a live conversation, something that shouldn't be possible with the communications satellite out of commission. And then comes a startling revelation, a discovery that forces Sam to question every aspect of his true relationship with Lunar Industries and his personal identity.
Moon's look is clearly modeled on older intellectual space operas. The design, décor and other major elements are highly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The moon habitat's rooms, hallways and data read-outs are so similar that the show seems an extension of 2001's future world. Sam Bell carries on conversations with his "Man Friday" GERTY, who speaks in a soothing voice. Besides an almost identical electronic "eye", the box-like robot displays a smiley-face icon that changes expression to indicate concern, puzzlement or surprise.
Sam Bell's isolation is similar to that experienced by space botanist Bruce Dern in Douglas Trumbull's uneven Silent Running, especially his eccentric maladjustments. Sam's dream reunion with Tess makes us wonder momentarily if Moon is going to become a scaled down retread of Tarkovsky's Solaris. What does transpire contains elements of those movies along with a big helping of the original Alien thrown in for good measure. When the "major revelation" occurs we initially think that Moon has opted for an idea that would have worked well on an episode of the old Twilight Zone TV series. But it soon becomes more interesting, while completely avoiding the pitfalls of newer space action movies. There are no supernatural creatures taking possession of humans and nobody comes back to life as a drooling moon zombie. Also absent, thankfully, are futuristic gun battles. No nuclear auto-destruct devices impose an artificial suspense deadline.
Sam Rockwell must take on an interesting dual personality challenge; for a while the story almost veers into Jekyll & Hyde territory. But the premise stays rooted and focused in technological realism. Sam Bell struggles to comprehend his predicament, and then wrest control of it. In other words, this is an honorable dramatic workout in a mostly credible science fiction setting, a rare thing to behold in these days of 150 million dollar movies that give us fancy, empty visuals.
The story avoids gaping gaps of logic... but some questions are raised, which I've thoughtfully located in a footnote best skipped by folk yet to see the movie. An Earthbound resolution would seem necessary, but we're instead given a couple of audio bites that leave us wanting to see more. If a certain character weren't dead, an Earth-bound sequel might have great possibilities. Moon is much too good for complaint, but we can't help but feel that even its makers knew it had limitations.
Sony Pictures Classics' Blu-ray of Moon is a fine encoding of Duncan Jones' thoughtful, intelligent show. The heightened resolution and contrast range bring out the detail in the handsome effects, especially the space vistas showing the presumably non-functional communications satellite. One impressive view lets us know why the mining is being done on the dark side of the moon: seen from orbit, broad patches already scoured read like scars on the flat lunar terrain.
Director Jones contributes to a pair of commentaries, with his producer Stuart Fenegan on one track and a trio of artisans contributing to a second. The commentaries and featurettes provided impress us with how much was accomplished on the film's fairly modest budget ... even in pictures like 2010: The Year We Make Contact, we're accustomed to seeing surfaces of walls and consoles covered with contact paper. A special effects featurette is extremely impressive ... showing CGI and motion control repeat-movement shots used in an extremely effective manner. Jones' direction and the effects make one particular gag, used constantly in the latter half of the film, completely invisible. When modern effects are used in such a subtle way -- in service to an idea rather than as their own showcase -- I'm all for them.
Also included is Duncan Jones' 2002 short film Whistle, a polished sci-fi piece about an assassin that utilizes satellite surveillance technology. It certainly shows that Jones, formerly a camera operator for Tony Scott, knows well how to put a film together.
Should you buy or rent the disc I strongly recommend staying away from the extras before seeing the film itself. A promotional making-of featurette almost immediately gives away the first main spoiler. The personable Duncan Jones answers questions at the Sundance Premiere and at a later NASA-Houston screening. He's quite proud of his accomplishment and quotes the fact that another independent space movie, Sunshine cost ten times as much. He hopes to do another Science Fiction story set in the same "future world" as Moon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Moon Blu-ray rates:
1) GERTY's "character arc" is quite refreshing, but why would any company doing what Lunar Industries is doing, program the caretaker robot with the freedom to depart from unyielding loyalty to the Home Office? I mean, when things go wrong, we'd think that GERTY would be instructed to dispense poison in the moon base water supply.
2) In his interviews, director Jones says that Lunar Industries does what it does to save money. It seems that their method of obtaining labor would be a zillion times more expensive, problematic and risky than organizing a training school for astronaut-workers.
3) Jones also says that the company's specially obtained moon workers have a built-in expiration date, as in the film Blade Runner. The movie itself is not definite about this. I was rather hoping that the Helium-3 ore emits harmful radiation that cuts down the life expectancy of the workers (a situation that would make Moon a bit more like Outland). That would more logically motivate the shady labor procurement plan practiced by Lunar Industries.
4) Excellent touch: one of Tess Bell's video messages to Sam contains an edit Jump Cut ... a very nice clue to things to come.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.