During 2007’s Writer’s Guild Association strike, Duncan Jones — David Bowie’s son — created his own space oddity in Moon: a small-budgeted, one-man sci-fi show with the best effects that a shutdown on all other Shepperton Studio projects could buy.
Because of that lull, the look Jones was able to create on a $5-million budget is old-school and minimal but magnificently desolate, sterile and labyrinthine — as if Stanley Kubrick’s Starchild created a line of interior design. And you know that rusty blood will eventually clash against this milky white interior.
Too bad that Moon wanes more than it waxes with its narrative possibilities. It’s a modestly engrossing puzzle box, even as it plays like an artier black-box theater spin on a big-budget summer movie from 2005. (It might also be the only movie to use Chesney Hawkes’ lone hit as a foreshadowing grace note.)
In the future, an energy-ravaged Earth sustains on solar rays harvested from the moon’s surface by a privatized corporation. (That the lunar rovers gathering this energy share names with biblical tax collectors such as Matthew are nice blink-and-miss-it bits of social commentary from Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker.)
When Moon begins, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) looks like a cross between a trucker entering his 24th consecutive hour of driving and Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Sam is the only man on the moon, basically charged to oversee otherwise automated robotic equipment and, in his free time, water his plants and watch reruns of Bewitched and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
His only conversations are with GERTY, a computerized chum who’s like a happier version of HAL-9000. (Capable of expressing himself with happy and sad faces, GERTY is given indeterminate motivation thanks to vocal work by Kevin Spacey.)
Sam is near the end of his three-year tour of duty and eager to return home to the wife he’s missed and the daughter he’s seen only on a video screen. But the newer messages from home have somehow been tampered with, jittery with apparent edits. And while out for a routine maintenance check, Sam hallucinates a woman on the moon’s surface and suffers a nasty accident.
Upon Sam’s recovery, it soon becomes clear that GERTY is lying to him about something awfully important. Just who was that GERTY was talking to on the video screen when Sam woke up?
What GERTY knows — and just how far GERTY’s seeming friendliness toward Sam will go — brings out a leaner, hungrier side of Sam’s personality even as Sam descends into a sweaty, feverish mess caused by a preexisting condition.
Rockwell is Moon’s greatest asset — arguably inheriting the mantle from early Nicolas Cage for manic, off-kilter surprises. When the truth is revealed, it’s a masterful moment for Rockwell’s considerable scope. It’s Rockwell’s work that propels Moon.
It’s not that the man behind the curtain isn’t worth the attention, it’s that he’s just not as interesting. That’s because Moon never quite deleteriously wriggles into the viewer’s brain the way mounting circumstances do for Sam.
This story of self-awareness and self-preservation in the wake of inexplicable phenomena starts to crumble even on its own simplistic terms. The source of Sam’s vision — once we learn who it is — doesn’t really make any sense and the quick coda, arguably, might make a more interesting movie in its own right. The ideas that Moon explores prove to be nothing new, but it’s so atypically mournful and elegiac that it achieves a thoughtfulness akin to Philip K. Dick. Similar to The Machinist — albeit without Christian Bale’s frighteningly skeletal weight loss — Moon is a good, if not groundbreaking, spin on an existing idea.