Deep, contemplative sci-fi is a hard sell. Even with loads of creative talent to back it up, 2002’s SOLARIS, directed by OCEAN’S wunderkind Steven Soderbergh and starring money-magnet George Clooney, had a hard time making it into the black. MOON, a sincere and heartfelt feature debut from director Duncan Jones, may not take home the box office cheddar, but mark my words, is a movie that will be worshipped by science fiction lovers for years to come.
Searching for an alternative energy source, Lunar Industries decides to mine the earth’s moon for He-3, a radioactive isotope of helium. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the single crew member assigned to moon base Sarang and his duties are basic: he keeps an eye on the four helium harvesters that constantly roam the surface, and he cruises out in the rover any time one of the harvesters drifts off course. Nearing the end of a three-year contract, with only his robot Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, Sam is overwhelmed with boredom and loneliness. Spending his copious amounts of free time engaging in miniature wood carving or talking out loud to his clumsy collection of flimsy plants, he’s eagerly counting the remaining 14 days until his return to his wife and daughter on earth.
But then Sam begins…seeing things. Due to mechanical issues, he hasn’t been able to establish a live communications link for some time, having to resort to exchanged video messages with his wife and corporate bosses, and he suspects that his time alone on the moon is beginning to get to him mentally. While driving a rover out to check one of the harvesters, he’s distracted by a hallucination and crashes his rover in a bone-crunching collision. Awaking in the infirmary some time later, he finds Gerty watching over him, instructing him to rest until his strength returns.
Eventually rising from his bed in the infirmary, Sam limps down the hall and overhears Gerty carrying on a live conversation with the bosses back at Lunar Industries. But how can that be if the live communications are down? Gerty denies the exchange and informs Sam that he’s been sequestered to the base. Suspicious, Sam finds a way to briefly escape the base, driving an extra rover out the site of the collision. He finds the crashed rover and climbs inside to investigate. There’s a body behind the controls. It’s Sam’s.
Working from a thoughtful script by Nathan Parker, Rockwell is handed a load of work, and he carries the film admirably. MOON is essentially a one-man show, and Rockwell handles the challenge with a finesse that Will Smith couldn’t quite muster in I AM LEGEND. It’s a film that packed with well-developed, thought-provoking themes. The moral imperatives of big business, the value of family, the tranquility that comes with self-awareness; this is thinking man’s cinema, and it’s one of the best science fiction movies I’ve seen in years.
First-timer Jones uses elaborate miniatures to depict the rover scenes, and his skillful and consistent use of scale is convincing enough to allow complete immersion. He puts you on the moon with Sam, and you feel his pain. Three years is indeed a long time. Employing good writing and top-drawer acting to explore some difficult yet interesting questions is what good movies are all about. MOON asks some questions, offers some answers, and completely satisfies. Don’t miss this one.