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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Moon (review)

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.

MPAA: rated R for language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • RyanT

    First of all, I completely agree on everything you said about Sam Rockwell. He was magnificent in this film that could’ve easily sucked with a less talented and engaging leading man.

    I also agree that it was nice to see a film that managed to surprise me. I have seen way too many sci-fi films so I thought I knew everything, but the general feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen next was pretty refreshing and made the movie all the more wonderful.

  • Lisa

    so… better than Splice then …

  • LaSargenta

    I really regretted not getting to see this in the theatre. I will have to get my hands on it and watch it.

  • I will just say it: Moon rocks.

  • Brian

    It’s in my Netflix queue. Looking forward to it.

    I wonder how many reviews Mr. Jones had to endure that contained the phrase “space oddity?” (Thanks for not going there, MaryAnn.)

  • JoshDM

    This is a very cool and smart sci-fi movie mystery without having to go the Pandorum route.

    Man, I had to go look up the title Pandorum from my Netflix DVD watched queue, as I kept thinking the character played by Dennis Quaid was actually Sam Neill and could not find the film on imdb.

  • Marky

    Great movie! Easily one of the best of last year. Way better than shit like The Blind Side, and yet that gets nominated and this doesn’t. Sam was amazing in this role(roles?). I even really dug the use of miniatures in lieu of CG. Classic, smart, sci-fi. Like you said…Perfect.

  • Sonja

    Moon is a fantastic film – I was never so disappointed as when my local theater in the middle of Hicksville decided not to show it last year.

    Excellent review as always.

  • JT

    So glad you finally reviewed this! Moon is one of my favorite films and Rockwell’s performance never fails to utterly blow my mind. I can’t even imagine what filming this was like…

  • I was so disappointed with this film, because it’s right down my alley.

    I agree with the first part of your review – the fact that this is low-budget, close-quarters sci fi cannot be praised enough.


    But the narrative was just…frustrating. We were told the solution to the ‘mystery’ about 35 minutes in. And then simply had to wait for the rest of the film to play out. I kept waiting for some sort of twist – thinking surely this isn’t all there is to it – but there wasn’t.

  • amanohyo

    You’re not the only one Stuart. The ideas in this movie have been explored to much greater depths in science fiction stories written decades ago. The acting was excellent, but like you, I kept waiting for the movie to take the concept somewhere interesting or unpredictable. It ended up being a huge letdown for me and my wife, and both of us love quality science fiction. Sure, it’s more thoughtful than most modern sci-fi movies, but that bar has been set at subterranean levels for a long time. Fifty years ago, this might have been a somewhat interesting screenplay. Today, the average teenager thinks through more interesting plots while daydreaming in high school bio. So, nice execution, a great acting exercise, but the story it tells was not really worth the effort. Oh well, hopefully Inception will be more substantial and surprising.

  • Funwithheadlines

    Great review. What I most loved about this movie was Rockwell’s acting. His reaction to the, uh, situation he finds himself in wasn’t histrionics but a quiet introspection and perhaps sadness. We got to watch him act from inside himself and it was fascinating.

  • Muzz

    Regarding what Stuart and amanohyo are saying: one of the best things about this movie for me (and one of the aspects that stil stays with me) is its defiance of many well worn sci-fi tropes from the last 40 years or so.
    There’s some slight misdirection at the start (which is earned since there are perspective changes involved). You can figure out the basic plot fairly easily, or at least I did, and tonally I had a good sense of where it might go (or thought it ought to go) and I was happy as hell it stuck to its guns.

    There’s no “twist” as such. No great mystery where you’re with the Sam’s at every revelation, mostly you can figure the important detals yourself (and if you look ‘younger Sam’ figures it all out almost right away himself). Instead at every turn where it could ramp itself up the film gently directs you to pay more attention to the smaller moments. Usually ones that have regretfully already gone by.
    Seriously, I can’t remember a film where, on first viewing, little touches made me want to go back a few scenes and watch it again differently right away, because I was watching the wrong movie. Waiting for it to meet my Twilight-Zone-meets-Robert-McKee-ish movie going expectations. And that was the point, I think. If you’re watching the “plot” above anything else you’re not really watching it.

  • Sam Rockwell was excellent, but I was hugely disappointed by Moon. Everything came so simple in film:
    Sam 2: Hey, uh, Sam 1. D’you reckon we’re clones?
    Sam 1: Don’t be ridiculous.
    Sam 2: Well, I reckon there’s a secret area of the base where the clones are stored and then woken up.
    25 minutes later…
    Sam 1: Hey look! Here’s the secret area with the clones!
    Later on…
    Sam 2: Hey, Sam 1. I reckon they’re jamming our communications with some kind of signal.
    10 minutes later, on the lunar surface in a transport vehicle…
    Sam 2: Hey look! There’s the radio tower jamming our signals!

    I thought the film tied some lose ends up too nicely. The most interesting scene was when Original Sam called what he thought was his own home’s phone number and heard the real Sam Bell’s voice. Did Real Sam voluntarily give his DNA for cloning? Was it taken from him against his will? That’s the only idea the film left open. (I didn’t want that answered, though. Would bring it too close to The Sixth Day.) Didn’t like that they felt it necessary to provide a montage of audio at the end about the fallout with Sam 2’s arrival on Earth, though. And also, if the company didn’t want the clones to find out the truth, why did GERTY help Sam? Couldn’t they have easily programmed GERTY to prevent him from discovering the truth at any cost?

  • MaryAnn

    The ideas in this movie have been explored to much greater depths in science fiction stories written decades ago.

    The literature is always ahead of film when it comes to SF. If you’re looking for the cutting edge of SFnal ideas, you will never find it in film. But that’s no reason to avoid SF films, because they offer other pleasures. Such as unforgettable performances, like Rockwell’s here.

    If you’re watching the “plot” above anything else you’re not really watching it.

    Exactly. What’s so brilliant here is something you cannot get in a book: the intimate connection with an actor that film can give us. It’s a different kind of intimacy than we get from literature.

  • iakobos

    MaryAnn, two comments about your review. One it’s excellent and two, it’s about time. :) I watched Moon on an overseas flight last year and loved it. It too, reminded me of a good Twilight Zone episode. It was certainly one of the best movies of last year, which for me is either Moon or Star Trek. ST is a totally different kind of SciFi because last years ST is more of a big adventure set in space which I enjoyed a lot. Moon, however, used SciFi to explore some great questions about humanity, kind of like some old ST episodes. I give Moon 5 stars.

  • JoshDM

    This movie made me want a semi-intelligent (read: not MIB 2 or Ghostbusters 2) sequel to Galaxy Quest.

  • Muzz

    And also, if the company didn’t want the clones to find out the truth, why did GERTY help Sam? Couldn’t they have easily programmed GERTY to prevent him from discovering the truth at any cost?

    Well probably not actually. That’s one of the more ‘real sci-fi’ aspects of the film. I read up on this stuff yonks ago. I’m not sure I remember it very well or could explain it in any case, but much thought on what real AIs will actually be like usually doesn’t have them at all like the ones traditionally found in the movies.

    Indeed ‘programming’ isn’t a very good word for it, in the sense we usually use (that of sets of fairly rigid instructions). Something reactive must have fairly flexible and generic sense purpose or behaviour. It’s bottom up rather than top down. And that’s just the way they’ll have to be to become any sort of analogue for what we understand as ‘intelligence’. (I told you I wasn’t very good at explaining it).

    In any case, crazy robots and HAL scenarios are very much part of the thinking and have been for a long time. A construct designed to care for your clone supply also having the capacity to kill them if necessary is just asking for trouble. GERTY’s job is to care for, in a sensitive and reactive way, an enourmously more complicated creature. Achieving that effectively would be enough.

    AIs of this sort will be very hard things to get our head around when they show up, by most theories. They’ll be like super smart, articulate, emotionally broken babies or house pets. A combination of traits that completely defies all our human/animal relating capabilities.

    I recognised a bit of GERTY from the literature I read back in the day (probably in some Daniel Dennet or Wired or something) and apparently artifical intelligence was Duncan Jones’ thesis topic at university, so it figures Moon is more up to date than most.

    Story wise GERTY isn’t there to be Checkov’s Robot or whatever but a contrast to the human relationships in the film (I think anyway. And more besides, of course).

  • Oh, what a gorgeous and sad little film this is.

    If Sam Rockwell doesn’t get an Oscar nod…grrr. The music, the cinematography, the design – wonderful.

  • Nate

    Oh, what a gorgeous and sad little film this is.

    If Sam Rockwell doesn’t get an Oscar nod…grrr. The music, the cinematography, the design – wonderful.

    Unfortunately this was first released in June 2009, so his time’s already passed.

    There was actually a pretty big campaign from the geek community to get Rockwell an Oscar nod, but Sony Classics decided to push An Education instead.

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