SEATTLE — Duncan Jones’ eerie yet playful science-fiction feature debut, “Moon,” flirts with a number of contradictions.
Much of it is special-effects driven, yet its technical wizardry all but vanishes from mind as viewers are pulled in by the dazzling performance(s) of Sam Rockwell as a lunar mining engineer and his mysterious double. It’s a film that explores our notions of home and self, even as it portrays a figure who may not have either.
If the identity issues facing Sam Bell (Rockwell) feel as deftly addressed as they are urgent, that may be because 38-year-old Jones is the son of David Bowie and has surely dealt with some tricky identity issues of his own. He decided some years ago that “Duncan Jones” suited him better than “Zowie Bowie,” his given name. And while growing up in London, Berlin, Scotland and Switzerland, he had ample opportunity to ponder what, exactly, “home” means to him.
“Moon” is the fascinating result of his musings — an intelligent, action-spiced meditation on sense of self and sense of place.
Jones, a genial fellow with a ready laugh, is the first to say that many of the warmer qualities of “Moon” should be credited to Rockwell: “He’s very human, he’s very quirky. And he just does things that immediately grab your attention.”
Still, it took some effort to talk Rockwell into tackling the film’s dual roles.
“He was nervous,” Jones said in an interview in Seattle, after a sold-out screening at the Seattle International Film Festival. “It was an awful lot to ask: first-time director, special-effects heavy, huge amount of weight and responsibility on his shoulders.”
Jones himself had prepared for the project with two years at London Film School and a long immersion in music-video and commercial work. His aim: to get experience with special effects, fight choreography and anything else that would serve him in attaining his real goal of making feature films.
At the same time, Jones felt strongly that technique alone doesn’t make a movie. There is, he says, “lots of personal stuff in the film,” especially in its treatment of Bell’s homesickness (he’s got two weeks left on a three-year contract before he can return to Earth).
“It’s tricky,” Jones says. “Because I’ve always traveled, growing up, it is difficult to get a sense of home. I think it is more an aspiration than a reality for me. Home will hopefully be the place where I eventually buy a house and have a family. But I’m not there yet. I don’t have a home yet.”
He pauses, then admits, with a big laugh, “That sounds kind of sad.”
In the film, Rockwell’s Bell shares his “home” with Gerty — a clunky computer/robot (voice by Kevin Spacey) that’s a deliberate spin on HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Much of the humor in “Moon” stems from Gerty’s mothering behavior toward Bell. Another sly touch is Jones’ cheeky use of Chesney Hawkes’ one-hit wonder “The One and Only” (“the epitome of cheesy music”). And Rockwell — working within a special-effects constraint inspired by David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” — supplies a slapstick turn or two in a film that’s generally unnerving.
“The point that Sam made, and really got across to me — I’ll remember this for the rest of my career — is that ... you need to have those moments of levity in order for the audience to relax and prepare themselves to go wherever you’re going to go next.”
Jones was able to keep his budget to a modest $5 million by minimizing his use of computer graphics: “A lot of the exteriors of the vehicles driving around on the lunar surface were done with model miniatures — the same techniques that they were using in the ‘70s and ‘80s ... a way of working that just doesn’t get done anymore.”
Jones acknowledges the debt he owes to “2001” (“It’s the granddaddy”) but says it was later films — “Outland,” “Alien,” “Silent Running” — that were a more direct influence on him. He also cites the late writer J.G. Ballard as an inspiration: “He would take what almost seems to be believable and then he’d make one little tweak — and that would make it science fiction.”
“Moon” goes a little further than that, Jones admits. “But I think there’s certainly an appreciation of that kind of science fiction in it.”