Friday, June 12, 2009

Smart Sci-Fi: 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, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

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 taking 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 spitting image of himself, near-dead behind the wheel of the vehicle.

Suddenly, there are two Bells tensely coexisting in the Moon station, one weak and ailing, the other stronger and more assertive. New Bell quickly figures out some sort of nefarious cloning scheme is going on, and none of their identical implanted memories can be trusted. Everything connected to the company is now suspect, and considering how thuggish the extraction team members look in their computer 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 opens today in New York, expanding to further cities in the weeks to follow.