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Review: Moon

Duncan Jones's debut is more alienation than Alien
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 19, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Moon

Moon | Directed by Duncan Jones | Written by Nathan Parker based on the story by Duncan Jones | With Sam Rockwell, Matt Berry, Robin Chalk, Dominique McElligott, Kaya Scodelario, and Kevin Spacey | Sony Pictures Classics | 97 minutes
Duncan Jones (a/k/a Zowie Bowie, son of David and Angela Bowie) begins his first feature with an infomercial for "Lunar Industries, Ltd" that celebrates Lunar's solution to global warming: strip-mining the surface of the moon for "Helium 3," an isotope that can provide a limitless source of non-polluting fuel. The TV-ad device recalls such dystopic Paul Verhoeven thrillers as Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) — and those are just the first of many films that Moon might bring to mind. Even so, this movie stands as an original, fully realized work by an accomplished new talent. And of all the anxieties that it taps into, global warming might be the very least.

Since the moon is a dead entity, Lunar Industries needn't worry about protecting the environment. The human element is another matter. Jones draws on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by having Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) run on a treadmill in the stark whiteness of "Mining Base Sarang." (The name is in English and Korean, Lunar being a true multinational corporation.) The sole operator of this outpost, Sam will reach the end of his three-year contract in a couple of weeks. Soon he'll be heading back to his wife (Dominique McElligott) and daughter, leaving behind the attentive ministrations of Gerty (silkily voiced by Kevin Spacey), a version of 2001's HAL 9000, except with emoticons.

But Sam is in tough shape. He has headaches and is getting jumpy and accident-prone, a condition that arouses the solicitous Gerty's concern. Loneliness has taken its toll. Since the communications satellite went down, Sam can only send pre-recorded missives back to Earth like messages in a bottle, and in one of these he confesses that three years of being alone might be too much. He passes the time by carving a wooden model of his home town, watching '60s TV sit-coms, and lingering over videos sent by his wife and daughter. But even two more weeks might be too long for him to keep himself company — in more ways than one. Something doesn't seem right, and he's compelled to figure out what it is.

This familiar, or perhaps archetypal, set-up offers Jones many options from similar films in the canon, and part of the reward of Moon is trying to guess which way he'll go. In a director's statement, he's acknowledged his debt to such cerebral sci-fi classics as Silent Running (1971), Solaris (1972), Outland (1981), and BladeRunner (1982). Of these, perhaps the last, Ridley Scott's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel, is the most important. Dick wrote obsessively of the fragility of human nature, about how memory, identity, family, love, and hope can be distorted, manipulated, and lost. They are resources that the powerful can exploit to serve their own purposes.

And so it is in Moon, which posits a system whose alienation of labor Karl Marx could never imagine. But unlike the machine tyranny of the Terminator series, the nature of the beast here is all too human.

Moon entertains by posing a puzzle whose solution opens into disturbing existential truths and paradoxes. Jones doesn't bury his lucid little fable in jargon or sci-fi gimcracks. He relates it with deceptive simplicity, shooting exteriors that are empty and vertiginous and interiors that are glaring and claustrophobic. In lieu of thundering special effects he has Rockwell putting in one of his best performances as an Everyman who in order to learn the truth must grapple with the system, and himself.

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