Saturday, May 02, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Moon

What do you get when you combine the corporate responsibility of the Alien franchise with the décor of 2001? Surprisingly, the answer is Duncan Jones’s Moon (trailer here), a moody character-driven science fiction film screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The son of David Bowie, Jones entered the world with the name Zowie Bowie, which he eventually changed for obvious reasons. For the record, Major Tom does not appear in Moon, nor is “Space Oddity” heard on the soundtrack, although Bowie’s fictional astronaut shares a similar state of mind with Sam Bell, Moon’s lonely protagonist.

Bell is mere weeks shy of completing his three year contract as the solitary caretaker of an energy harvester on the far side of the Moon. In that time, he has had no live interaction with other human beings, only recorded messages from his wife Tess. His only companion is the robot Gerty, who seems to be a combination of HAL 9000 and Twiki from Buck Rodgers, but with the silky-smooth voice of Kevin Spacey.

The isolation seems to be a toll on Bell, both mentally and physically. He even blacks out on a routine mission, crashing the lunar SUV. When he wakes up in the infirmary, Gerty tells him his orders are to sit tight and wait for the extraction team to come make repairs and send him home. Instead, he steals away to the crash site, finding the near-dead spitting image of himself behind the wheel of the vehicle.

Suddenly, there are two Bells tensely coexisting in the Moon station, one older and ailing, the other younger and more assertive. New Bell quickly figures out some sort of nefarious cloning scheme is going on, and none of their implanted memories can be trusted. Considering how thuggish the extraction team looks in their ID photos, the clock would seem to be ticking for the Bells.

The visual effects of Moon are indeed quite effective, seamlessly integrating the two Bells in their scenes together. Yet, it is Sam Rockwell who really sells the premise, dramatically differentiating the two Bells. Frankly, it is a bit of a shock how much pathos he is able to wring out of sickly Bell.

Jones’s direction is tightly focused, evoking the claustrophobic conditions of the lunar base and Clint Mansell’s insinuating electronic score heightens the otherworldly atmosphere. Yes, the script relies on the kneejerk stereotype of the evil corporation, but it also offers an unambiguous ethical critique of cloning, staking out a pro-life position in that context.

Ultimately, Moon is a thoughtful excursion into the science fiction genre and a probing cautionary tale of the potential dangers of unchecked, industrial cloning. Essentially, it is science fiction for those who are usually uncomfortable with sci-fi. It screens again at Tribeca today (5/2), in advance of its June theatrical opening.