While I think that 2010 has been a really bad year for film, 2009 was, IMO, a banner year. In science fiction especially you had the Star Trek reboot which was pretty good. You had the well written District 9 which was good enough as a foreign film to get an Oscar nod for Best Picture … an unheard of accomplishment. Avatar, which like so many of James Cameron’s work was as much a technological experiment (and a highly successful one at that) as it was a film event. Flying under the radar was Moon, which I finally got out to see (I don’t believe it was ever in wide distribution, or if it was it did not last long. In my opinion it easily earns the right to not only stand with those other three stand outs, but surpasses at least one or two of them.
Moon is not your standard scifi fare. There certainly is a science aspect to it, and according to one story when it was screened by the director at NASA’s Houston facility, several of the scientists gave positive marks for realistic scientific depictions. However, it is really not a film about science at all. It is a film that deals with a lot of emotion … at first about isolation and loneliness. The musical score echoes a feeling of melancholy that permeates the idea of living for three years alone. The film also deals with the idea of human identity and mortality.
As usual … there are spoilers … go see this film first. It is worth your time.
You’ll never guess where this film takes place! The film opens on a lunar mining outpost, and we meet its single employee, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). Sam is nearing the end of his 3 year contract with the company that owns the outpost. the outpost keeps an eye on four massive rovers that mine the moon for Helium-3. Every so often, Sam goes out and collects the Helium-3, and arranges for it to be shipped back to Earth, where it is used as an ultra clean source of energy. Sam has a beautiful wife and daughter. Communication is a problem since a solar flare has wiped out the only direct satellite link to Earth, so communication is relayed through a Jupiter satellite …. thus real time communication with Earth is not possible.
Sam is starting to have problems …. hallucinations …. and one strikes him while out servicing a large rover. There is an accident.
He awakens in the infirmary. There is a computer that helps Sam run the facility named Gertie (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Gerty informs him that there was an accident, and that he is still in need of some tests, but that he will be OK. Sam gets out of bed at one point, and overhears Gerty talking directly to Earth …. the suspicion grows that not all is what it seems. Gerty has been ordered to keep Sam in the station and on bed rest until he completely recovers. Sam’s suspicion leads him to sabotage the life support system so that Gerty has to let him outside to look for meteorite damage. Once outside, Sam jumps in one of the mini-rovers and comes upon the accident site where he was injured. He climbs into the damaged mini-rover …. and finds that he is still in there in his space suit, and very much alive.
What follows is the real story of Moon. Is this another hallucination, and if not, why are there two Sam Bells? When he receives messages from his wife on Earth, who is it? To ramp up the tension, the company is sending a rescue team to help Sam get the facility working again after the accident, giving the Sams 14 hours to find out the secrets of their lunar outpost.
I first remember seeing Sam Rockwell in Galaxy Quest where he played Guy Fleegman, the crazed actor who appeared as a security guard on one episode of the show and is convinced he will die as a result. He also played Zaphod Beeblebrod in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but I was really impressed with him the George Clooney film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where he played game show host/CIA assassin Chuck Barris. Here, Rockwell gets an amazing opportunity for an actor of his talent: a film where he is essentially the only actor seen on screen. For those who remember the long stretches of film in I Am Legend, where Will Smith had to carry the whole film as the only actor on screen, imagine an entire film like this, except that for much of the film, Rockwell plays two characters who are the same man. Kind of like Edward Norton, it is nearly impossible for Rockwell to give a poor performance it seems, and here he really gets a unique opportunity to shine. It is a worthy performance that will no doubt go down as one of the better ones in his already notable career.
To finish up, I need to note that Gerty, as will be obvious, is a cinematic descendant of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was undoubtedly done on purpose, right down to using Kevin Spacey to provide an emotionless voice, though with an interesting twist: Gertie has a small monitor on its roving interface which displaces a yellow face which displays various emotions so that the audience really knows what is going on … it removes some of the mystery that existed with HAL (and made HAL such an effective character), but in this case, I applaud the decision because in this film, it is more important to know where Gertie stands because, unlike in 2001, the focus needs to stay on the human, and not on the hardware.