Ostensibly, Moon is a movie about a man named Sam, the sole employee of a lunar mining outpost, drudging his way through the last two weeks of his three-year contract, and the way things begin to go wrong for him as his termination date approaches.
Which is true, but that’s like saying 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie about a cranky computer.
The movie slyly opens with a standard slice-of-life of Sam’s automated, lonely existence, as a sense of disaster begins to seep into the cracks like grime into his exposure suit. The cheerful computer, GERTY (complete with emoticon interface), grows sinister; Sam begins to see flashes of other people on the station; there are no outside communications. The stage is set for the slow burn of hallucinatory nothings, the at-last reveal that Sam is not alone, his showdown with the ruthless computer mind—you know where this is going.
Except it doesn’t.
While taking a rover trip out to retrieve a case of Helium-3 (the sustainably energy source Lunar Industries is harvesting), Sam gets into an accident. Later, Sam wakes up in the infirmary, unable to remember what’s happened. When Sam makes an unauthorized trip out to the wrecked rover, he figures out why he doesn’t remember his accident—the Sam Bell who crashed is still in the wreckage.
In constructing the script, Duncan Jones masterfully avoids the usual “He’s right behind you!” sci-fi scare tactics. Nothing jumps out from around a corner—nothing has to, when the corporation’s insidious tactics are clear to us from the start (though not, at first, to the Sams). The two Sams don’t waste any time denying the other’s existence; they circle each other for a little while before settling into an uneasy truce and fighting over ping-pong. (“Old” Sam is better, though his palpable desperation for company keeps him from gloating too much.)
Sam Rockwell delivers two seamless and unique performances, constructing “old” Sam as the easygoing blue-collar drone baffled by what’s happened, and “new” Sam as the sharper, more capable astronaut determined to get out of their hopeless situation. Without any debate about whether they’re less human because they’re clones, they present two people who just happen to be clones of one another, and let the audience realize how different they are when the men’s timeline shrinks and they start making decisions about who stays, and who makes a run for it.
Even in the details—the music on Sam’s alarm clock; GERTY’s reactions that hint that Sam’s is not the only awakening; the music cues that turn potentially horrific moments into tragic ones—the movie works deftly, weaving three fully-realized characters into a situation that feels just familiar enough without resorting to stock, and delivering a quiet, mature story whose implications linger after the credits have rolled.
Moon is cerebral science fiction at its best; see it if you can.