Moon (2009): Duncan Jones’ Sci Fi, Starring Sam Rockwell as Solitary Astronaut

The new sci-fi “Moon,” directed by Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son), has a simple and promising title (a movie about the Moon?), boasting high aspirations that regrettably are only partially fulfilled. 


A throwback to classics features of this genre, such as Kubrick’s seminal “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” and “Outland,” “Moon” also incorporates some ideas from good 1950s items, when the genre was popular, with such films as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”


“Moon” world-premiered at Sundance Film Fest in January and played at Tribeca Fest last month.  Sony Classic is releasing the film in a platform mode beginning June 12.


You can’t fault a director for trying to be intellectual or ambitious, but you can criticize his film by contrasting the considerable gap between goal and intent on the one hand and end results as evident on screen on the other. Though “Moon” mostly centers on one character, it has an intelligent scenario, a melancholy mood, and a fascinating production design, considering its low budget.  But after the excellent premise (more of a conceit) is presented, the movie becomes dramatically inert, as confined in its development of ideas as it is constricted in physical space.


Sam Rockwell, one of our most underestimated actors, for which the part was written, plays Sam Bell, an astronaut living on the far side of the moon, completing a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to mine Helium-3, Earth’s primary source of energy, Helium-3. 


By nature and necessity, it’s a solitary job, made harder and lonelier by a broken satellite, which allows no live communications with his home; Sam is able to send and receive only taped messages.


Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that Sam is eager to be reunited with his wife Tess and their daughter Eve. He can’t wait to leave the isolation of “Sarang,” the moon base, and begin interacting and behaving like a normal human being, with actual people, after years of “talking” to “Gerty,” the base’s computer (impressively voiced by Kevin Spacey), which is a variation of Kubrick’s Hal.


Life suddenly changes, when Sam’s health deteriorates, and he is experiencing recurring headaches, hallucinations, and lack of concentration.  In fact, he almost gets involved in a fatal accident on a routine drive on the moon in a lunar rover. The loss of memory forces him to recuperate back at the base.  Out of the blue, another person appears, and his no other than a younger, angrier version of Sam himself, who claims to be there to fulfill the same contract the adult Sam had started years ago.


Confined with what appears to be a clone of his self, and with a promise of “support crew” to help put the base back into order, Sam is eager to find out what’s going on and what the future holds for him.  On one level, “Moon” is an intimate character study, set against a starkly impersonal outer-space location, but on another, it’s a multi-person drama with only one actor visible onscreen.  After establishing its intriguing premise and presenting an engaging first reel, “Moon” slows down and seems to be running out of ideas, or rather present variations of the same ideas.


That said, it’s worth seeing the work of a neophyte helmer who may give us more thematically developed and multi-nuanced pictures in the future.  Over the past two decades, Hollywood’s sci-fis have become thriller and actioners, blurring the convention of these once-different genres.  “Moon” differs radically from this trend by respecting the genre’s codes and by not relying on special effects or lavish production values.  Reportedly, it was shot in 33 days on a relatively small budget of about $5 million.


Nathan Parker’s screenplay is based on Jones’ short story.  Surprisingly, the moon has not been a popular site for sci-fi stories and movies. (Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” made the same claim about the Sun).  Jones emphasizes the interesting notion of the moon as the source of renewable energy, which could keep the planet energy-sated for the next hundreds of years.  And the timing of the film’s release is apt: This year commemorates the 40th anniversary of the first man walking on the moon.

Most people feel some personal connection to the Moon, perhaps because of its perpetual visibility.  This may explain the large number of popular songs about it, including one written by Jones’ father, David Bowie, whose 1969 hit “Space Oddity” told of a depressed astronaut and might have served as one source of inspiration for this picture.