Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is a blue-collar astronaut employee of Lunar Industries, sent to the moon to man a helium-3 harvesting station. He’s in the final weeks of his three-year stint as the harvester’s solo human supervisor, with only his overly attentive robotic companion GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company. Sam whiles away the hours running on his treadmill, watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns, and watering his plant collection. His satellite connection to earth has failed, meaning he can only send and receive prerecorded messages; he watches a video from his wife and child, telling him how eager they are to see him again. After three years alone in space, he’s not in the greatest shape emotionally or physically. One day, he dodges GERTY and heads out to the mine, only to find another mangled astronaut in a wrecked tractor—an astronaut who looks exactly like him.
Moon is not shy about its influences; Duncan Jones is an obvious fan of broody, brainy seventies science fiction, where space turns out to be a lonely and distinctly miserable place. The film is a nod to both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, filmed by both Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) and Steven Soderbergh (2002). Its class consciousness borrows from Sean Connery’s turn as a lunar miner battling company corruption in the 1981 film Outland, and its vision of a bleak future where technology has entirely surpassed morality is reminiscent of George Lucas’s 1971 movie THX 1138. Duncan Jones is, of course, David Bowie’s son, and Moon is in no small sense an extended-format version of Bowie’s supremely melancholy “Space Oddity.”
But like Bowie himself, Duncan Jones is far more than the sum of his influences, and his elegant parable takes on a very timely resonance in a political climate where the working class is increasingly seen as disposable. The very best science fiction uses the lens of genre to tell us about the world we live in now, and Moon—while never heavy-handed in its exploration of the morality of technology and the exploitability of labor—is no exception. It’s a thoughtful, beautifully made vehicle for big ideas, but it doesn’t lose sight of the need for a film to be about storytelling as much as insight.
Moon’s visual aesthetic bypasses the gadgetry and flashy effects of contempory, crowd-pleasing sci-fi blockbusters. The inside of Sam’s spaceship looks like a 1980s cafeteria. GERTY is boxy and awkward, moving about on a series of ceiling conduits like robotic track lighting. Its screen uses emoticons for facial expressions, an especially nice touch. The computers are clunky, bulky things more reminiscent of early Apple computers than the fluttering touchscreens of, say, Minority Report. Even Lunar Industries’ font—a dense, squared-off sans-serif—looks like something from a different era. Clint Mansell’s gorgeous and spooky score is a flawless backdrop to the movie, evoking perfectly a rich and moody atmosphere that moves gradually into the realm of the sinister. In Moon, the beauty of space is more desolate and alien than inspiring (it’s hard to believe the visually stunning film was made for under five million dollars). The movie’s tension builds so palpably that by the middle of the film I was holding my breath, waiting for something truly terrible to happen—though Moon has little in common with Alien, it manages in the same way to build an atmosphere of menace with very little action. In Moon, however, the off-screen monsters are not alien. They are very human indeed.
Moon is Sam Rockwell’s show, and he carries the movie so effortlessly it’s almost possible to overlook how extraordinary his performance is. He’s onscreen for ninety of the film’s ninety-seven minutes, and his only other real co-star is Kevin Spacey’s eerie, synthed-out voice and, well, himself. (Spacey, who couldn’t cross the street without looking creepy, is a perfect choice for cheerily sinister GERTY.) I can’t imagine any other contemporary actor who could pull off Rockwell’s bravura Everyman (or Everymen, as the case may be).
I am no stranger to the joys of the big-budget, mindless spectacle; but it’s a rare joy to find a movie that takes its audience’s intelligence seriously. Moon is a reminder of the things I love most about science fiction: a willingness to look at the world we live in now, a desire to ask serious questions about the future, and a political consciousness bundled together into what is, more than anything, a well-told story. It’s the kind of movie that seeps under your skin.
The Rejectionist is a writer and freelance editor. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.