Monday, July 20, 2009
Tonight, for my decennial Fete de la Lune (it’s French, bitch), I’ll be tuning into Al Reinert’s Apollo documentary For All Mankind on Turner Classics. But I started my day with a more offbeat tribute to the triumph of Apollo 11: Duncan Jones’ Sundance indie Moon, starring Sam Rockwell as Sam the sole astronaut operating a mining facility on the far side of the moon.
Moon is a space film, and it deftly mines the genre: there’s a procedural aspect to it, as Moon spends twenty minutes or so just following Rockwell on the job; then we get into the well-worn psychological horror of loneliness in space, previously seen in Solyaris and Sunshine; finally there are other elements not worth ruining that recall classic space films from Forbidden Planet to Alien.
Without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say Moon is not exactly what you think it is, even once you’re safely enveloped in its folds. This is largely thanks to its elusiveness, the utter unclassifiability of the thing; Moon is so difficult to pin down to any one genre or archetypal plot that it’s almost surprising when it gracefully concludes and you realize nothing is left hanging.
I must also praise Moon’s writer Nathan Parker, working from a story by Duncan Jones, for addressing some perennial sci-fi philosophical questions, like what it means to be human and what’s ultimately real. The mysteries happened upon by the plot are mere dressing; the conflict here is existential. The pace is plodding, which truthfully does wear after a while, because Moon is so preoccupied with its big ideas. In the final account, I’m not sure any of this hasn’t been done before, but as a piece, Moon is an assured contribution to the genre.
Still, I wanted to see Moon today of all days not for any intellectual curiosities but for magnificent, wondrous shots of our gorgeous gray satellite. In this, Moon is quite an achievement. The first landscape shot is transcendent; if only I could lie on the surface and behold that majestic blanket of stars. Blinding sunlight and long shadows decorate the dusty, cratered terrain of the moon, and we are treated to multiple vehicles navigating the desert, a few moonwalks with curiously Earth-like gravity, and the occasional overhead shot from a satellite camera. Jones manages to capture some exciting angles, including lunar ridge silhouettes and sumptuous earthrises. Rockwell does get to moonbounce once, but I wish his other walks were as zippy.
As our protagonist, Sam Rockwell is impressive. It’s difficult to discuss without spoilers, but Rockwell delivers a multi-faceted performance that feels natural and real. Knowledge of the filmmaking provides an extra, meta thrill when you watch Rockwell in his spoilery scenes. There are times when the script calls for him to act in ways the average person wouldn’t, but that may jibe with some readings of the film. He’s joined throughout by a robot named Gerdy who is voiced by Kevin Spacey. It’s fair to say that Gerdy is a huge asset to the film and something of an iconoclast for psychological sci-fi robots.
Throughout, Moon is draped in the passionate, pensive score by Clint Mansell, the pulse of the film, augmenting some scenes, overwhelming others. The script never falls into summer movie hysterics—in retrospect, it’s fittingly quiet—but you can always count on Mansell to give Moon some life.
I wouldn’t say Moon was absorbing, but it was interesting, and as a feature film directorial debut, Duncan Jones is a filmmaker to keep your eye on. It wasn’t perfect, but at the moment, my imagination wistfully cast back to the past and out toward the stars, I wish there were more space movies like Moon.