Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review: "Moon"

"Moon" is fully aware of the tradition of movies like "2001: A Space Odyssey" where people venture out into space and go totally off their gourd. The existential angst-in-space thing has been done well, and been done poorly (see "Solaris" ... or rather, don't). With "Moon," director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker take us to familiar territory, and yet make it seem fresh and vibrant by playing against our expectations.

Sam Rockwell, a character actor who tackles leading-man roles in smaller films like this, plays Sam Bell. He's an astronaut in the near future who's living on the moon, collecting energy from the lunar rocks that is used to power nearly the entire Earth.

It's a one-man gig, and needless to say Sam is crushingly lonely as he nears the end of his three-year hitch. He's looking forward to getting back to his wife and the daughter he's never met. Because of persistent satellite problems, he can only communicate with them through prerecorded videos.

Sam's only company aboard the space station is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a robot caretaker very much in the tradition of HAL from "2001." Gerty moves around the base via system of track embedded in the ceiling, has a single camera eye and emotes via a screen that displays smiley (or not) faces.

There really isn't that much work to do other than occasionally driving out to the collectors to pick up a canister of condensed gas, which are returned to Earth via rocket probes. So Sam bides his time exercising, tending to his plants and working on a tiny model city.

One day on a routine trip, Sam is distracted and crashes his moon truck into the collector. He wakes up back at the base, with Gerty telling him he was injured in the accident. Gerty tries to lock him up in the base, but Sam manages to talk his way out and makes it back to the crash site, where he finds an injured astronaut who looks just like him.

This is merely the beginning of the story, but it's impossible for me to say more without ruining the film.

If you're like me, I thought I had the entire movie figured out at this point. Jones and Parker know what the audience is thinking, though, and use it to their advantage, dropping hints and possibilities.

For awhile, the two Sams steer clear of each other, and we wonder about them. Are they two sides of the same personality? Is one a clone of the other? Hallucinations of a dying Sam, still stuck out on the barren moonscape?

The answer is teased out, and when it arrives it lands with the impact of a giant asteroid. Rockwell plays the two Sams as similar yet distinctly different, like twin brothers raised in separate circumstances. The "old" Sam is peevish and sarcastic, while "new" Sam is more of a hothead.

Gerty's role in the scheme of things is somewhat in limbo. He was programmed by the corporation that owns the base, but seems to have a genuine desire to help Sam in any way he can.

"Moon" is a hard movie to review, since to tell you how wonderful it is I have to give everything away, which I will not do. But here's this: Now that the Oscars have expanded the roster of Best Picture nominees to 10, hopefully it will allow outstanding smaller films like this to make the list.

3.5 stars

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