Staring at the Final Frontier: ‘Moon’ (2009)

Duncan Jones’s Moon got rave reviews on its appearance last year, and, being a sci-fi nut, I knew I was going to have to see it at some point. Unfortunately, having heard on the grapevine that the plot hinged on clones, I reacted with panic, adopted a defensive position, and gave it a miss. Thanks to a certain big-name franchise, I am unable to hear the word ‘clones’ without mentally inserting ‘attack of the’. No-one needs that.

Still, time passes, and even the most unpleasant memories gradually fade. I got hold of the DVD of Moon last weekend and gave it a shot. Any film that dares to leave Earth’s atmosphere for plot purposes is already on thin ice. This is territory that, at least in fiction, is scarcely uncharted. Could Jones’s claustrophobic drama really dredge up anything truly original? As the film opens, the excellent model work in the long shots of the lunar landscape and the buildings of a human mining operation looming out of its wastes is reminiscent of nothing so much as the British sitcom, Red Dwarf (no bad thing) and Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 (possibly a bad thing, depending on your point of view). This impression was exacerbated by the fact that my dud copy of the UK DVD release became locked on the audio commentary. Hearing one of the crew describe ‘dragging Tonka toys around’ to construct the set was probably not the best way to preserve atmosphere – and yes, I know it wasn’t really filmed in space, but even so…

However, once we enter the base – and set the commentary aside for a later date – the atmosphere shifts. The moonbase’s one-man band is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) an unkempt mess of an astronaut with only his talking computer, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company, along with his vivid memories of his wife and daughter back on Earth. As he nears the end of a three-year contract, every minute of which has clearly been something of an endurance test, the achingly lonely Sam is getting more and more stir-crazy. Dogged by an odd vision of a young girl, he is becoming careless. After a bad accident in his lunar vehicle prompted by another sighting of the teenager, Sam slowly recovers, and all seems well. Until, that is, he ventures back outside and, within the unrecovered wreckage of the vehicle, finds… himself.

So far, so Twilight Zone meets Solaris meets 2001, I was thinking at this point. That said, Moon manages to recast some of its more obvious influences in a way that wrongfoots its slightly jaded audience. Gerty, the mysterious computer with a smiling face that helpfully changes to a frown or an image of confusion is less of a Hal for the emoticon generation than it seems. Spacey lends a wonderfully bland, schoolteacherish tone to the machine’s obfuscation, leaving us unsure whether it conceals menace or genuine compassion towards the man who is, after all, its only ‘friend’. The remaining members of the supporting cast are glimpsed, appropriately, at some remove. Sam’s wife and child appear either through the prism of his own imagination, or on low-quality, crackling video transmissions; never really present, never touchable. For novelty value alone, I particularly enjoyed the brief video-link cameos from British sitcom stalwarts, Matt Berry and Benedict Wong, both suitably slimy as Sam’s dodgy employers.

This, though, is Rockwell’s film, and his phenomenally compelling performance delivers the charisma and complexity necessary to keep us on board as Sam Bell’s sad story unravels. For much of the film he is, effectively, acting opposite himself. Most would consider it a triumph to create one nuanced, believable character in a film. Rockwell manages to portray two, and then blends their conflicting characteristics to leave us with a fully-rounded depiction of the multiplicity of emotions found in one human being. Jones’s screenplay, and Rockwell’s thoughtful, understated playing, remind us that this isn’t a space opera, more a character study. It’s not the first time that the contrast between all that terrifyingly open space – a universe of opportunity or a gaping, desolate void, take your pick – has been explored. Here, though, the real horror of space travel is hammered home. Without communications, human contact or real hope, there is absolutely nothing between Sam and the void but machinery and replications of himself. Nothing in the galaxy can be quite as terrifying as the neuroses and nightmares lurking in the darker recesses of the human soul. This particular spaceman cannot fall to Earth too soon.

RATING 8 / 10
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