The most compelling movie futures are not necessarily the shiniest. They don’t always show us the sleekest designs, most efficient technologies, or the most spectacular visions of what’s to come.
Take the future presented in Duncan Jones’s Moon, for example. On one hand, it’s clear that, in the movie’s idea of the future, some amount of progress has taken place. In this world, energy can be harvested from the moon, so long as there is one man out there to keep an eye on all the equipment.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is that man, fulfilling a three-year contract as the sole resident and caretaker of the moon. And, as is the case with some of the best movie futures out there, the world Sam inhabits is not a dazzling, Technicolor place where picture-perfect, streamlined gadgets fit seamlessly into everyday life. Instead, Sam’s future looks rather junky. His living quarters are colorless. His satellite is temperamental, offering no live feeds from Earth. His only companion is a computer named Gerty (with a voice by Kevin Spacey), a being that mostly resembles the swinging attachment on a dental chair with a face no more sophisticated than an emoticon.
With this washed-out style, Moon aligns itself with other sci-fi films that present futuristic worlds that still have plenty of kinks to be worked out, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, or Solaris. Sure, there are plenty of special effects used in the film — just listen to the commentary, which features Jones and his director of photography, concept designer, and production designer, since they seem to love getting into the technical details — but they’re not meant to over-stimulate the senses. If anything, the effects are there to make life on the moon look bleak and broken. Instead of flashy CGI, Moon, like those other sci-fi films, relies more on its ideas to engage its audience.
In another bid to push those ideas to the forefront, Jones lets them develop slowly. He quickly sets up the premise of the film, but is almost stingy with details, avoiding a preliminary rush of exposition. Instead, the audience is allowed to really get acquainted with Sam. Through watching Sam’s usual, solitary activities go on for a time, the audience really gets a sense of his isolation and loneliness.
Afterwards, the audience is allowed to discover new information as Sam does. The movie takes a huge turn when Sam, whose health is deteriorating and who suffers an accident, meets another version of himself — but healthier, angrier, and about three years younger-looking — at his station. The movie approaches this twist slowly, and allows its implications — what this means about the company that Sam works for as well as what it means for Sam’s own psyche — to percolate before it reaches its conclusion. (Rockwell turn sin multiple amazing performances. He has to play essentially the same character, but with subtle differences that would creep into a personality after three years of isolation and self-reflection.)
The same slow-build tension is present in Whistle, a half-hour short film by Duncan Jones that’s the best of the features included on the DVD. Also like Moon, Whistle takes place in a world where future technologies are not always used for the best purposes — the protagonist operates machinery that can accurately assassinate people from great distances away (he doesn’t have to leave his house to carry out his orders). And like Moon, Jones simultaneously evaluates what the character’s situation means for the world at large as well as what his choices means for his personal life. (In this case, the main character’s family is upset about a recent move.) Jones tackles both storylines with a deliberate pace, letting them evolve naturally so their ideas have a maximum impact.
Both Moon and Whistle use this considered, measured method to accomplish much using very little, and to impressive and thoroughly satisfying ends. As Avatar creeps up the list of top-grossing movies of all time, Moon is a perfect reminder that you don’t need 3D, CG, motion-capture, or a $300 million budget to tell a good story. Moon proves that you just need interesting ideas and the patience to develop them gradually.