Eclipsing the Genre
Today is the 41st anniversary of the first moon landing. Which is an exellent excuse to finally implore you to see one of the best films of last year, which I sadly never got around to writing about.
Moon. See it, if you haven’t already.
It’s the first feature from British filmmaker Duncan Jones, from his own story (the script is by another first-timer, Nathan Parker). It’s an excellent argument for making sure there’s always a way for fresh minds to get fresh ideas onto the big screen — or the little one of DVD — and give them room to shake up creatively conservative corporate filmmaking. (Not that Jones is unconnected, however: his father is David Bowie.) It’s a science fiction film with no CGI, no massive explosions, no alien invasions, no destruction of globally famous monuments. Human civilization is not threatened.
What is threatened is the idea of humanity, of what it means to be human. This is, I’ve long felt, the basic thesis of all true science fiction, at its deepest core: it’s a controlled experiment in what it means to be human. That is, the best SF asks: How much can we change about what we are and still remain human? How far can we push our ideas about our humanness and our individuality before we are no longer human and individual?
Here, we explore such questions through the awesomeness that is Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Everybody’s Fine). Someday, Rockwell will get his Oscar due, I have no doubt. But I bet that when that day comes, lots of movie lovers will look back and say, “But it should have happened for Moon.” Rockwell has always been riveting onscreen, but his extraordinary performance in the Twilight Zone-ish mind frak that is this film is far beyond even anything he’s ever achieved before. We just don’t see movies like this one much: simple yet profound, obvious on the surface yet deepening with conundrums with each unfolding layer. And it’s all down to Rockwell. Moon is a one-man show: Rockwell has no one to play off of but the voice of Kevin Spacey (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Recount) as a sort of rethought Hal 9000… and another version of himself. If acting is reacting, and Rockwell has little but himself to react against, then his performance here as lunar roughneck Sam Bell is Rockwell laying himself bare as an artist… and thrilling us and surprising us and engaging us at every turn.
Moon is not a movie to be spoiled, but here’s the gist: In the near future, Bell is the lone worker at a mostly automated moon base mining helium to be sent back to Earth to power the planet. He’s lonely, but his three-year contract is just about up, and he’ll be heading home in a few short weeks. And then, after an accident outside, when he’d gone to repair some mining equipment, he wakes up on the base to find… another Sam Bell looking after him.
Has Sam gone crazy in his solitude? Did Gertie — the Spacey-voiced computer — clone him, for some bizarre reason? What the hell is going on?
And so Rockwell, all on his lonesome but doubled up with himself, gets to explore notions of identity (who are we, really? what does it mean to be an individual person?) and memory (do memories count if they’re fake?) and self-determination (are we always our own person?). Moon wouldn’t work without an actor of Rockwell’s immense talent to pull it off.
Perhaps the cleverest thing Jones pulls off is in making the film even more of a puzzle and a delight to those of us who are intimately familiar with the genre than to those who aren’t. If you think you know where Moon is going because you’ve seen and read lots of science fiction, you’re probably more wrong than you’d have been if a sci-fi virgin. I’m always hungry to be challenged by a movie. But I love Moon even more because science fiction, at least on film, more often than not fails to do that. A science fiction movie that really, really makes me think, and more so each time I watch it? Perfect.
Watch Moon online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.