Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2009

Alone in the dark

Sam Rockwell delivers a heartbreaking human portrait in impressive 'Moon'

Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Nathan Parker
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott and Benedict Wong
Rated R / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Against the backdrop of an entire solar system, it's easy to feel insignificant, hopeless, alone. Countless sci-fi dramas have touched on that experience, but the latest to do so - Duncan Jones' Moon - takes it to a literal level. It is about one man coming to understand his own irrelevance, in the starkest of terms and the darkest of places.

All films set in space are about discovery in one way or another, and often that discovery is some dangerous, spooky threat to our existence. Moon has none of the terror and violence that so frequently accompany the desolate space drama, but the threat to existence therein is of an even more sinister sort - for the very reason that it is so quiet, so unassuming and covert.

The man in question is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is coming to the end of a three-year term alone aboard a lunar space station at an energy harvesting site on the moon. His only companion is GERTY, a HAL 9000-esque robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey) that essentially keeps the station running.

Sam is naturally anxious to get back to Earth, but the three years of solitude have done him good. The time away from his wife has eased the tension that nearly broke up their marriage; he's mellowed out and grown up in his time alone, and his 3-year-old daughter will be awaiting him when he gets home.

What he discovers over the course of the film I can't divulge here, but I will say that it changes his present circumstances entirely - and the circumstances of his entire being. The enormity of this realization is brought along in gentle strokes by director Duncan Jones, who creates a quiet unease and a confused sense of reality for Sam as things begin to sink in.

Instead of playing up the initial shock through traditionally dramatic means, Jones lets it unfold with an unsettling casualness. Sam essentially takes it at face value, reacting with a pragmatic approach to the apparent paradox he's just uncovered and now has to deal with. It's that very pragmatism and matter-of-factness that sets Moon apart stylistically, forcing us to get used to its ideas rather quickly.

Where the film works most is from an emotional standpoint - thanks primarily to an astoundingly multi-faceted performance by Rockwell. It's a devastating portrait of a rather overwhelming crisis of identity for Sam, not only for the existential issue he comes face to face with but the decisions he has to make in response to it. Few actors could pull off this level of performance quite as honestly.

But as well as Moon engages us on a human level, it also seems to sidestep the social implications inherent in what's happening. Certain scientific and ethical questions are raised that Jones curiously doesn't deal with. Is he ambivalent about them? Or, on that note, do these issues only matter on a human level anyway?

I think they do - and I think we get a clue during the last 10 seconds of the movie that Jones wants to explore them, but either couldn't figure out exactly how, or decided it wasn't worth it. Is what we hear in the final 10 seconds, then, mere lip service?

No one's asking for a political treatise here, but a bit more inquisitiveness may have been in order - especially considering we can all see the ethical complications right on the story's surface. By largely disregarding them, Jones leaves us wanting.

However, seeing Moon as an insulated, personal experience for Sam Bell is rewarding enough as it is. Drawing inspiration from the balletic exploration of space in 2001, the grungy, industrialized aesthetic of Alien and its ilk, and even the surreal, dreamlike mood of Solaris - both Tarkovsky's original and Soderbergh's remake - Jones has a surplus of reference points, but enhances those with ideas and stylistic proclivities of his own.

Despite any reservations about the film's drawbacks, Moon and Jones himself - making his feature-film debut - are far too promising to be ignored.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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