Here I Am Sitting in a Tin Can, Far Above the World
2009 // UK // Duncan Jones // July 25, 2009 // Theatrical Print
A- - Feature science fiction cinema is looking a tad moribund these days. One can count on a single hand the milestones of the past five years, and one of those would be a children's cartoon: Children of Men, A Scanner Darkly, and WALL•E. (The Host and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow might warrant nods if one were feeling generous.) It would seem that quality "hard" science fiction—i.e. narrative fiction that explores political, social, or ethical conundrums within a futurist or speculative setting—is becoming a rarer and rarer beast. Thank goodness, then, for the appearance of Duncan Jones' Moon, a film that is so smartly constructed, so effortlessly engrossing, and so thought-provoking, that it feels like a monsoon after a long drought. Jones and riveting lead Sam Rockwell have created a sterling example of what science fiction can achieve at its most disciplined, empathetic, and imaginative. Moon seems destined to be a topic for countless late-night discussions—not about what happened during the film, necessarily, but about the implications of those events and about the unpleasant choices that a comparable future might someday demand of us.
Rockwell, who is on-screen throughout most of the film, portrays Sam Bell, a corporate astronaut finishing a solitary stint on the dark side of the moon, where he has spent three years harvesting helium-3. Excepting a brief introductory commercial promoting Bell's employer, Lunar Industries, Moon develops its setting incrementally, without the tedious exposition or irksome condescension that are the fatty building blocks of so much excruciating sci-fi. Indeed, because Bell's job is a one-man operation, much of what we learn about the lunar base emerges from the film's observation of this diligent, homesick man going about his work. Bell's only companion is the base's computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) a disconcertingly calm and obsequious artificial intelligence that unavoidably calls to mind 2001's HAL 9000. Bell regards GERTY with a familiar wariness, as though the computer were a cross between overly fussy butler and a housecat with questionable loyalties.
Moon devotes just the right amount of time to establish the broad outlines of Bell's circumstances—weeks to go before his return to Earth, with malfunctions aplenty on the base—before adding strange happenings into the mix. Irrespective of some creepshow flourishes and tasteful Kubrickian nods in its production design, Moon never succumbs to either stale formula or unearned grandiosity. Its aims are decidedly gritty and humane, rooted in vexing and urgent questions rather than pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Such constraints to its ambitions contrast with the clumsy, bloated striving for "vision" that characterizes so many entries in the genre. Moon is a much more grounded, visceral, and respectful work of fiction, a treatise on the possible evolution of our essential definitions. What do we mean, the film asks, by "human," "worker," and "happiness"?
Perhaps the most pleasantly unexpected aspect of Moon is that while it is a pure science fiction film (straight up, no chaser), it is not the science fiction film one necessarily expects. The trailers for the film suggest that Moon's technological preoccupation will be space exploration (and exploitation), but this proves not to be the case. While the mental effects of long periods of solitary space living comprise one avenue of Moon's investigations, its primary concern is a wholly different aspect of the brave new world. The viewer may begin to suspect the nature of the film's secret at about the half-hour mark, and when it is finally stated openly, it has a matter-of-fact quality.
Moon's central conceit flows smoothly from its traditionalist science fiction suppositions, particularly the fundamental inhumanity of corporations and the illusory nature of intimacy in a universe of isolating machines and scarce resources. Jones operates within these thematic conventions without succumbing to their historic baggage, maintaining a sense of disorientation and expectancy by means of a lean, urgent directorial style. Moon keeps us guessing by placing us almost entirely within the firsthand experiences of Rockwell's Bell. This seemingly straightforward approach quickly twists into a nightmarish state of confusion as doublings proliferate through the sets and the story, with incredibly gratifying results. As Sam stumbles through his experiences, Rockwell often portrays him as oddly uncertain of what his reactions should be, an appropriate stance for a character who is accustomed to both solitude and surveillance.
As a performer, Rockwell has a profound ease with characters that elicit a tinge of revulsion even as they beg for our sympathies—his scene-stealing portrayal of Charley Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford being the preeminent example. Thus, while Sam Bell is necessarily and desirably the vessel for the anxieties that Moon confronts (about our labor and our bodies), Rockwell is sufficiently confident to paint him as dimwitted, callous, or petulant, as appropriate. Spacey does well enough as GERTY, but his presence is less memorable than the computer's place in the story, which both capitalizes on and subverts the viewer's expectations about artificial intelligence as it has previously been presented in the space thriller subgenre.
This is but one manifestation of the single element that most impresses about Moon: its respect for its audience's intelligence. While Jones works within what is for all purposes a traditional narrative framework, he never spoondfeeds the viewer. Much of what is revealed emerges through Sam's investigations, which are at times meticulous and at times frenzied. Jones invites us to discover the secrets of his tale by gazing over Sam's shoulder, rather than by listening to characters pontificate ludicrously about plot points or by staring for endless minutes at flashing monitors. The film's grander revelations, when they arrive, have the desired impact precisely because Jones soft-pedals so many of the details in Moon's story, allowing them to enter our awareness and simmer there. Fittingly, one of the film's most gloriously effective moments occurs is its final scene. As a vessel hurtles through Earth's atmosphere in a riot of flame, Jones permits a upwelling of unexpected giddiness to overtake the film, evoking dormant memories of space travel as high-velocity adventure. In that instant, radio and television transmissions float gently into the soundtrack, foreshadowing the profound and uncertain consequences of the film's events. It's a triumphant moment, an ending simultaneously joyful and probing that speaks to the film's achievement as a stimulating work of fiction.