Thursday, July 16, 2009

Inner Space By Way of Outer Space: Moon (2009)

As science fiction continues to become less and less distinguishable from action and adventure movies, it’s getting harder to find anything resembling the heady, speculative style of classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Silent Running. Even the better efforts from the last few years, like Pitch Black and 28 Days Later, rely more on action and horror than they do hard science, and you only need to look at the recent remake of Star Trek-- which, don’t get me wrong, was a lot of fun-- to see that this trend isn’t going away. But all this only helps to highlight the intelligence of a film like Moon, the superb debut from director Duncan Jones. It’s very much a throwback to the slower, more contemplative science fiction of the 1970s, and like those films it uses its far-out, technological backdrop to explore very grounded and very human themes.

The film stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut coming to the end of a three year contract for Lunar Industries, a company that mines the surface of the moon for an energy resource used back on Earth. Bell has been working alone on the company’s small base for too long, his only companion a helper robot called GERTY, and when we first meet him it’s clear that the isolation is starting to get to him. Although he’s anxious to be reunited with his wife and daughter back home, he’s become jittery and accident-prone, and worse yet, he’s starting to see things.

If that sketchy synopsis didn’t already make it clear enough, Moon is a difficult movie to review without giving too much away, because so much of its plot hinges on a number of big reveals that happen relatively early on in the story. This is one of the film’s major strengths, and it lets the audience know straight away what kind of movie Jones intends to make. Any other director would’ve saved these twists for the final ten minutes and used them as the big “aha!” moment of the film, but Jones is smart enough to know that to do so would only be telling half the story, and he’s less interested in getting his audience to ask “what just happened?” than he is in giving them the time to think and speculate about the very complex and, yes, very philosophical ideas he’s presenting to them.

This conceit is reflected in the technical style the filmmakers employ, as well. Jones uses a matter-of-fact shooting style that employs a lot wide shots and longer takes, but he has a gift for giving away just the right amount of information in every one of his shots, always keeping the audience in uncertainties when he needs to. Meanwhile, a number of scenes end with slow fades to black, and in others, the sound from one scene is allowed to bleed into the one that precedes it, creating an odd sense of interconnectedness and inevitability. In each case, (and thanks also to writer Nathan Parker’s script) the story is allowed to breathe and unfold deliberately. The filmmakers want us to constantly be second-guessing our assumptions about what is going on, but they let the complexity of the ideas take care of that for them rather than planting unnecessary red herrings throughout the story. Jones supposedly has a Master’s degree in philosophy, and no doubt understands the power of a good paradox.

Moon will almost certainly be both criticized and praised for its uncanny kinship with films like 2001 and Blade Runner, and it does employ many of the stylistic and thematic elements of those films. Let’s be honest-- this film is certainly not blazing any new intellectual territory, but at the same time it does engage with its ideas in a much more direct and astute manner than most films of this kind. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to skirt around the specter of his influences, but he doesn’t let the movie ever reach the level of homage, either. In many ways, it seems as though he and Parker are making use of the expectations the audience brings to the movie. Take GERTY, Bell’s friendly helper robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey in one of his coolest performances in some time). With his monotone voice and vaguely human personality, GERTY immediately conjures up memories of HAL in 2001, so from the start we ascribe sinister motives to him. This ready-made belief helps play a big part in the great deal of suspense that builds throughout the story, and all without any real effort on the filmmakers’ part, as GERTY, in what comes as a delightful plot twist, seems to have been designed with Asimov’s three laws of robotics clearly in mind.

I haven’t mentioned Rockwell yet, but it should be said that he gives a career performance here, the kind that should be earning him huge accolades. He’s always been hit or miss for me, and I’ve criticized him for being a bit over the top in the past, but here he won me over once and for all. He’s truly carrying the film, and the poignancy and warmth he brings to Sam Bell helps to ground the personal, human aspects of the story. The fantastic, haunting music by Clint Mansell, who scores all of Aronofsky’s movies, is also worth mentioning. His music really helps to set the mood here in a subtle, non-intrusive way, often adding even more levels of suspense to what is already a pretty eerie atmosphere.

Moon is not a movie that will win the hearts and minds of the fanboy sci-fi crowd, but it’s very hard to see how anyone who appreciates the old-school, cerebral brand of hard science fiction would not find a lot to like here. Even though it gives away its plot secrets relatively early, it plays its intellectual cards decidedly close to the vest, and this only helps to make its themes and its story all the more rewarding. Few movies have the audacity to really explore ideas like what it means to be human, or how much we can truly trust the validity our emotions and our memories. And beyond the unanswerable, there are scenes, ideas, and motives I’m still reviewing and questioning-- what, for example, is going on in those video messages from Sam’s wife?-- that have me eager to see Moon again. Refreshingly, this is not because I’m still trying to piece its narrative together, but because I want more time to consider its ideas. That, if anything, will always be a sign of good science fiction.

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