Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Moon (2009, directed by Duncan Jones)

Some of the most thought provoking, powerfully human, beautiful, entertaining, haunting, and heart breaking works of fiction I've ever seen on film or read have been science fiction stories. 

There's something about science fiction that seems to be more well suited to adeptly capture so many elements of what it is to be and the experience of being human than any other genre of fiction. I may have a soft spot in my heart for horror films, a kind of gooey, giddy, unfettered, sloppy teenage romance with horror films that's continued into my adult years, but good science fiction gets my admiration and respect. Added to that, film seems as if it were almost specifically created for science fiction story telling. Few genres are served as perfectly by a visual medium.

I feel that way because of films like Moon. Directed by Duncan Jones and starring Sam Rockwell, this is excellent science fiction. I'd wager it will be considered a classic, and part of the cannon of "must see" science fiction films. It's hard to say much about Moon without spoiling the experience for people who haven't  seen it. I'd absolutely suggest that if you haven't seen Moon you go into it knowing as little as possible about it. That being said, I knew more about it than I probably should have, and obviously, I still think it was a great film. I'm giving you the choice by not revealing anything that would take away from the impact of the film. If you want to know more of the actual story than that, you'll have to look elsewhere.

What I can tell you about the story is that Sam Bell is the sole technician in an almost completely automated operation extracting an element from the surface of the moon that has solved Earth's energy problems. Sam has been at this base on the moon, attending the machines, collecting the element (Helium-3) when cannisters on the harvesters are full and sending it back to Earth. When we meet him, Sam has apparently been on the moon, alone, for three years. In two weeks his contract will be up, and he'll be able to go home. Unfortunately, while heading out to collect a full cannister of Helium-3 from one of the harvesters, Sam has an accident, at which point, things get interesting, really, really interesting.

To some of you, that might sound like the kind of geektastic, hard core science fiction stuff that makes certain varieties of science fiction so very unattractive to most adults. I understand that, but what that synopsis doesn't tell you is that those details are the set up for the story. The real story is what happens from the accident on, and it is a very completely human story, more about Sam Bell than the moon, some made up element, harvesting on the moon or any of that. It's about Sam, our ideas about identity, what it is to be human, how it is we relate to ourselves and each other and it does all of it with authentic heart, subtle intelligence, and exquisite film making.

Moon is able to take on some big, heady, adult themes and make them personal in way that gets them away from being purely intellectual exercises. I enjoyed Richard Kelly's The Box, but I recognize that one of it's problems is the fact that it's intellectual nature doesn't make for the kind of compelling film making that a general non science fiction geek can identify with. Moon is an utterly compelling piece of film making, in the most human storytelling tradition.

You can not discount the importance of Sam Rockwell's performance to the success of this film. Rockwell has literally ninety eight or ninety nine percent of the screen time in the film. Other than a few minutes of video feed coming from Earth, and Kevin Spacey as the disembodied voice of Gerty, the robot/automation which has been Sam's only companion over the past three years. There just isn't another human being for the audience to start taking this journey with or sympathizing with, it's that simple. The thing is, Rockwell is absolutely phenomenal. I posted something earlier today on Facebook about having watched this last night, and that I couldn't stop thinking about it today, and a friend commented that the he would probably not have enjoyed the film if anyone else had been in Rockwell's role. I think that's a good call because not only can I not think of any other actor possibly having played this role, I can't think of an actor I would have sympathized or empathized with more than Rockwell. That authentic and honest heart in this movie is half to seventy five percent Rockwell's performance. I'd have to give credit for the remaining percentage would be due to the storytelling choices Duncan Jones makes, but there isn't enough praise available to me for Rockwell's performance. It is just so honest and so real and so understandable, it's completely disarming. I'm honestly disappointed Rockwell wasn't nominated for an Academy Award. This is the kind of role which the Academy usually trips over itself to give away awards to and I honestly think Rockwell is the victim of the Oscars trying to answer a very large and very loud community that has been increasingly critical of it. Too bad Rockwell is better in this role than most of those past Oscar bait nominations could have dreamed of being.

It's fairly obvious that a great deal of time, effort and care were put into this film. The production design is wonderful. The inside of the moon station is believably functional, and well designed because it continues to be interesting even though we spend the majority with it and it never gets boring or overwhelms the story or character. And the special effects are awesome. Not necessarily in the big, splashy, "look at how cool my special effects are" kind of way, but just in their subtle beauty and the fact that they all do have a very palpable reality and weight to them. All of it works together and is so deeply integrated that it makes me excited to see what Duncan Jones will do in the future. One of the problems that often comes up in sci-fi films or films that involve effects is that they don't seem to be a part of or integrated in the world the film exists in. Moon succeeds at avoiding that pit fall so well, I honestly didn't think about the effects until I was thinking about writing this. The fact that I was watched a film set in a near future, in a moon base, and didn't think about the effects at all, is a huge testament to the effects department, specifically because Moon is not the kind of film who's effects you should be thinking about. It should never be taking attention away from the character work in a film like this and it never does, while still being beautiful and interesting.

In the past year few years, we've had a few very good science fiction films. The Star Trek reboot was well done, exciting and fun. But, it was definitely more popcorn and action film than real, adult science fiction film. District 9 was the perfect middle ground film. It was exciting and fun, action packed, but also had a real story with great character development, an awesome character, great effects and the whole nine yards. Moon follows in the path of earlier classic science fiction like Blade Runner, the original Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, Moon as much as it is in keeping with the thoughtful, honest nature of those films, it is much warmer and more heart felt and warm.

I can't recommend this highly enough.

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