Note: Today marks the 40th Anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11—Monday will be the anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s One Small Step. That moment is my earliest and most vivid memory—or is it? I remember watching the moon walk on TV with my parents, but is it a real memory, or a fantasy I’ve just continually reinforced and polished over the decades until I only think I remember it? And that’s as good a segue as any into Moon…
And no, it wasn’t David Bowie. But let’s get Bowie out of the way early—yes, Moon is the directorial debut of his son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. And yes, it’s not hard to imagine that some of the film’s existential and alienation themes may have soaked into young Zowie Bowie’s head as “Space Oddity” played over his crib.
And yes, in his low-budget tale of lonely corporate space worker Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) grinding out the final weeks of a three-year solitary shift on the far side of the moon, Jones openly admits to drawing inspiration from films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Solaris, Alien, Outland, and Blade Runner. Moon’s sci-fi world is a minimalist one, where the daily blue-collar lunchpail routine (Sam is overseeing strip mining of a new helium energy source) gives way to frightening glimpses into the human condition and one’s place in the Grand (or Not-So-Grand) Scheme.
There is a robot, Gerty (voiced with every bit of unsettling calm by Kevin Spacey), but it does not transform into anything or punch any other robots into next week. There is a car crash, but it comes off as more of mundane mishap than gripping entertainment. But there are no shoot-outs. No space battles. And the only alien in sight is that pesky one within that Philip K. Dick was always so found of rubbing your face in.
Moon is a mesmerizing film. But some caution is necessary. In the rush to praise it as the Anti-Transformers and to champion small, smart, hard science fiction on the screen, critics and sci-fi geeks are pumping Moon up to levels of expectation that could be deadly for the little film. Moon is slow-paced. It is brooding and thoughtful in a matter-of-fact manner, and if you do not give yourself over to its meditative nature, you may find yourself with a deadly infestation of Moon ants in your spacesuit pants.
(You can read James Rocchi’s excellent piece on science fiction vs. action films here.)
Instead, sit back, relax and let Jones, first-time screenwriter Nathan Parker, and Sam Rockwell have their lunar way with you, even if they take their own leisurely time about it.
Moon was specifically written to showcase the offbeat talents of Rockwell, long a personal fave. You want the manic, goofy Rockwell of Galaxy Quest, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? There’s an echo of him here, but it’s all too clear the sorts of fears and doubts that mania is masking. You want the brooding, melancholy Rockwell of The Assassination of Jesse James, Snow Angels, and Choke? There’s some of him moping around as well.
Rockwell’s MO for his characters has often been to cling bravado in the face of a world around him that has slipped beyond his ken, and that habit of his lost, befuddled characters retreating into their own heads to find escape works perfectly in Moon. Due to a turn of unexpected events, Sam Bell–a glorified maintenance man– has to struggle not only with the Big Questions about Life and Existence but to do so while playing philosophical (and literal) ping-pong with a seemingly living challenge to his already very shaky identity. Desperate to complete his shift and return to his wife and child on Earth, Sam finds his simple work life is being manipulated and messed with by someone–but who? The energy corporation he works for? Mischievous aliens? The time-space continuum? God, Buddha, and/or Allah?
And what happens when you ask Who Am I and Why Am I Here, and you get back the most basic, prosaic, utilitarian answer? What if you find out your beloved individual existence is not so much a lie as it is a commodity, a resource to be exploited? What if your futuristically banal moon base is just a big cubicle?
All this plays out on a stark, bleakly beautiful moonscape, where Sam’s maddening solitude is intensified by the shabby-sterile white surfaces inside his work base and the gray desolation outside. Jones and Rockwell do an impressive job of making the fairly spacious and vastly understaffed base feel close and claustrophobic—it’s not the walls that are closing in on Sam, it’s the cosmos.
For all its wonderfully rendered, poignant lunar existentialism, Moon still unfolds a solid science fiction tale, full of mystery and ideas–and not all of them have epic, mind-blowing resolutions. Granted, it’s not going to be everybody’s cuppa Tang. But if the summer’s loud, hot, garish parade of killer robots and boy wizards has you seeking an escape that makes you think with your head instead of just react with your lizard brain, I recommend this very cool trip to the dark side.