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Moon (2009) August 7, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , trackback

Directed by: Duncan Jones

There’s little to indicate that this latest independent sleeper hit wasn’t a huge gamble for all involved.  With a first-time feature director, a first-time writer, and a sci-fi narrative that’s more exacting than exciting, the film drains every cent out of its ambitious $5 million budget and shoots for the stars.  Or, in this case, just beyond.  Released in timely conjunction with the NASA Apollo landing’s 40th anniversary, Moon, with its subtle combination of low-fi human introspection and upscale science fiction setting, acts to remind us just how lost this once fine genre had become.

Set some time in the future, we find ourselves in the main hub of the Lunar Industries mining operation, located on the far side of the moon.  With a crew of just one, this off-world outfit is extracting Helium-3, a clean and efficient energy source that is periodically sent back to Earth.  Sam Bell’s three-year contract working on the station is almost up, and he looks forward to returning home and talking to someone other than his central intelligence computer, named GURTY.  With just two weeks left, a fault on one of the Helium-3 harvesters forces Sam out onto the surface for repairs, whereupon he crashes his lunar rover.  Waking up back inside the base, Sam finds himself confined indoors with no explanation as to why.  Only on sneaking back to the accident site does he discover what he was being protected from.  Sam is forced to confront his wavering sanity, his lost sense of identity with the world, and, most frighteningly, himself.

Armed with the intent of harking back to a long since forgotten era of science fiction, director Duncan Jones has wilfully created a movie with its roots in both the past and the future; a thirty-five-year-old outlook on a reality now possibly only the same distance ahead of us.  It seems that modern sci-fi has typically been dissolved into other genres, be it the action flick (such as the recent Star Trek reboot [review]), or possibly horror (Event Horizon, Starship Troopers et al.).  The Alien franchise can be traced back to both of these side-avenues, and Jones makes clear nods towards this, although his film is naturally closer to Ridley Scott’s original vision, than the sequels by Cameron and Fincher.

As a self-confessed fan of the whitewashed sci-fi style crafted during the 1970’s, there are references galore in Jones’ film; with the lonely themes of Silent Running, a robotic companion straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a general disquieting emptiness that reeks of Solaris.  But the period authenticity doesn’t stop there.  Commonplace digital effects are swapped for practical ones, character motives are ambiguous without excuse, and an airy atmosphere seeps into the gaps left by the lack of pervasive action sequences.  Moon isn’t a film so much influenced by its lineage, as one crafted in its very image.

Which all adds up to a very odd filmgoing experience in the 2009 summer schedule.  While every other movie is grabbing a concept and sticking to a formula, suddenly here’s a film that doesn’t show its calculations.  As such, it can be a tricky watch, using the first half to set up a number of narrative possibilities - is it a mystery thriller, or maybe a ponderous metaphor for life?  Sam’s hallucinations suggest a hint of claustrophobic horror may rear its head.  Then add to this some fantastic scoring by Clint Mansell that only further mystifies the film’s intentions.  His piano-led theme wavers around the high notes in a enigmatic manner, while the lower melody adds a haunting air, before percussion turns it into the film’s driving force.

Despite this multi-threaded approach to narrative direction, it’s maybe Moon’s biggest flaw that it follows through on none of them.  This ambiguity may well be purposeful, and as genre-defying counter-programming it certainly works, but it also results in a long lead up to a rather lacklustre conclusion.  Even as the final minutes approach, there are hints at some sort of character turn, or possibly a devious twist by either Sam or GURTY, which ultimately never arrives.  The characters are simply without ill will, and while it is undeniably a film about human emotion rather than plot, it could have been so much more.  With such a flat-lining story and a tendency to offer up information without provocation, Moon isn’t quite the character study it sets out to be.  Themes of loneliness, loss and identity are abound, but never entirely dissected during the film’s tight 97 minutes.

Duncan Jones has done fine work in the director’s chair, recreating the feeling of a space walk with slow, purposeful shots and editing.  The special effects, while not up to regular Hollywood standards, are good for the shoestring budget.  Model miniature implementation on the moon’s surface does not go unnoticed, but the backgrounds and general design aesthetic more than makes up for it.  Inside the station where we spend the majority of the film there is a notable scarceness.  Whether this is attributed to money, or a deliberate stylistic choice, it becomes the job of the smaller details to add realism and familiarity - the post-it notes on GURTY, the humanising of the harvesting machines, and Sam’s classic hermit hobbies: meticulous model-making and tending to plants.

And it is as this reclusive spaceman that actor Sam Rockwell really shines.  It helps that the film is almost a one-man show, yet with naught but the vocal performance of Kevin Spacey as GURTY to play off, he also has the responsibility of holding the film together.  Needless to say he is wonderful, bringing a range of emotive states to the role and make them play as a continuous whole.  The film itself further complicates the job by throwing him a performance curve ball that’s too fun to divulge here.  Infrequent appearences by other actors are merely background; the broken communications of people far, far away.  Just like Sam, the audience is constantly isolated from the rest of the world.

It isn’t often that your expectations about where a story will turn are shattered.  For Moon, however, there’s always the feeling that it doesn’t so much take a different path, as take no path at all.  The story (by Duncan Jones himself) and subsequent screenplay by Nathan Parker, deserves merit for its attention to old sci-fi maxims; not least its ideas, something seen increasingly less in modern day interpretations.  The film’s nicest moments are also its least explicit, including the lingering question of programming as a part of human nature.  Although mentioned only briefly at the end, Sam immediately denies it; but is he considering his own man-made existence?  Humans can transcend computational behaviour - but if, like a computer, you confine an entity and deliver consistent input, can you not expect a predictable output?  As a debut film this is an incredibly accomplished piece of work, and, if we’re lucky, one small step - if not giant leap - towards the return of intelligent sci-fi.

Moon is currently on UK limited release.

Comments»

1. ghost of 82 - August 8, 2009

Limited release is right- considering all the multiplexes with ten screens its crazy that a film like this doesn’t get shown everywhere. I would have thought that was the whole point of multiplexes and multiple screens. I’d love to go see it but looks like its going to have to be a wait for the DVD. A sad indication of the state of cinema distribution. I hope the Solomon Kane movie (another indie effort)gets a fairer shake in October.

No wonder I never go to the cinema these days- they don’t show the movies I want to see!

2. badblokebob - August 8, 2009

I’d been very much looking forward to this — it sounded like exactly the kind of film the SF genre has been lacking of late, and the use of models instead of CGI always pleases me — so it’s a shame to hear it can’t quite follow through.

Still, the very idea of making intelligent sci-fi is to be applauded and rewarded, but I’ll probably leave it for DVD/Blu-ray at this point (not least because I don’t think it’s actually showing around here).

3. Chris - August 10, 2009

Unfortunately the true home of intelligent Sci Fi is Tv and always will be, 22-24 45min episodes as season instead of 2hrs at cinema holds much more promise.

The good news is that Tv is full of exciting and intelligent Sci Fi, turn yours on occasionally and you might discover something wonderful :p

Chris

4. badblokebob - August 10, 2009

My TV’s on all the time. It’s why my blog’s floundering a bit of late.

5. ghost of 82 - August 11, 2009

Well don’t buy the upcoming BSG boxset, if you get started on that you’ll never get any reviews on your blog…

6. Chris - August 12, 2009

Apologies Bad Bloke, I was referring to the owner of the this blog, he’s really bad at watching telly, he’s never even seen Firefly… He owns it, but he’s never bothered to watch it! And he talks about the lack of intelligent sci fi, i mean, honestly! *shakes head in despair*

7. gproject - August 12, 2009

First of all, on the subject of limited availability, Moon expanded its release slightly last week. It may be worth checking the wonderfully helpful FindAnyFilm website (just enter a postcode) to see if it is showing anywhere near you right now.

As for intelligent sci-fi, while it’s true that my TV watching is limited to only a few select things, I don’t find myself drawn to a lot of TV sci-fi. The last sci-fi series I watched was probably Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct (I was young). Unless you count Cowboy Bebop, which everyone should.

Also, I’m not down with the argument that the longer running length of TV shows leads to more opportunity for smarts. More depth, sure, but I’m talking about the use of sci-fi as a means to pose ideas and make statements about the way we live. Moon manages to achieve all this in just 97-minutes. Film is good with these conceptual abstractions, unbound by having to worry about its life or series arc; television is better at simply telling its characters’ stories.

Lord knows Chris, we shall probably discuss this further!

8. badblokebob - August 14, 2009

I have the BSG box set on pre-order. My blog is doomed!

I think it’s probably true that few, if any, TV sci-fi properly deals with science-fiction ideas — however great Firefly is (and it really, really is), it’s more down to the characters than its spaceship setting. (Incidentally, mentioning Cowboy Bebop, you’ve probably heard it said before that it and Firefly are meant to be pleasantly similar. Just one of the reasons I have the Cowboy Bebop DVDs… as yet unwatched, of course.)

That said, current SF TV can and does reflect on the way we live — the new BSG is constantly praised as being the best commentary on the war on terror etc, while Torchwood: Children of Earth had a disquieting believability in the actions taken by its fictional government (anyone who doesn’t believe our real-life government(s) wouldn’t act at least as badly has more faith in them than I do!)


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