You could easily dismiss Moon out of hand: it’s a film largely starring just one actor (Sam Rockwell) who, in a near-future setting, has only a robot for company. The line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred, philosophical questions get asked. And it’s directed by David Bowie’s son.
So far, one would assume that Moon is a facile rip-off of sci-fi classics, sprinkled with the kind of gaudy set dressing you’d find in Ziggy Stardust videos. Yet Duncan Jones’ film confounds these expectations: far from being an extroverted event of a movie, his picture is at its heart a debate on the nature of humanity and the culture of big business, featuring a truly incredible performance from Rockwell.
The only human worker on a mostly automated lunar fuel-mining facility, Rockwell is Sam Bell, an astronaut nearing the end of his three-year solo shift on moon base Sarang, sending fuel back to an ailing Earth. Struggling through the final two weeks of his contract, he’s longing for the wife and daughter he’s left on Earth, and more interesting company than the base’s advanced computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) can provide. Whilst out checking on one of the vast helium-3 mining machines, Bell sees a wispy figure in the dust and crashes. When he wakes up in the infirmary, he has no memory of what’s happened, and when checking on the wreckage of the lunar rover, Sam Bell finds the critically injured body of, well, Sam Bell…
Jones’ movie, as may already be clear, is entirely planted on the performance (or indeed performances) of Sam Rockwell. Playing two different versions of the same character, albeit with three years’ difference, Rockwell acts against himself, Jones and the crew using video overlaying to enable the dual performance which Rockwell provides brilliantly.
It’s a tremendous display from Rockwell, harking back to an earlier cinematic age where one star could really be the whole show. He grasps the leading man role with both hands and a firm grip, and fully deserves his name-above-the-title credit: his performance is all nuance and no nonsense. Where scenes involving heavy emotional trauma and borderline mental breakdown occur, Rockwell makes these moments so unbelievably humane it feels more like reality than fiction. One particular sequence involving a phone call home is heartrending in the extreme, and a chat between Sams about a shared memory is charming and fantastically well-acted. The biggest compliment that can be given to Rockwell’s performance is that it doesn’t really feel like just one actor is playing both parts, such is the depth of creativity and pathos the leading man gives to his multiple forms.
Even in such an ambitiously one-man movie, Rockwell can’t do it all alone. The script, co-written by Jones himself, takes elements of genre classics and reworks them into an innovative new vision, so we get Solaris‘ hallucinogenic qualities mixed with 2001‘s computer-human interactions and brilliant white interiors. The topics handled are marvellously complex, but Moon‘s intelligence never becomes smug and Rockwell’s ability to lift and deflate the spirit gives the film a beating heart to accompany its active mind. Injections of humour break up what could easily become a lengthy, maudlin treatise on the human condition, and the vignettes of life back on earth (due to technical problems, Sam can only send and receive recorded messages) are short but assuredly composed.
Ostensibly a character study of just one man, Moon manages to eschew the pretentious when discussing philosophical matters of huge import and focuses on the humanity of its lead character rather than flaunting its clever central conceit. Once the penny drops about just why there are 2 Sams, the existentialism of the piece gets a touch too intense – a scene where the two Sams come to blows seems a bit showy – but for the most part Jones discusses deeply intriguing ideas without a whiff of egotism or self-aggrandizement. This same reveal also proffers an interesting take on business culture, how far companies will go to save money and manpower, and could also be seen as an extreme comment on outsourcing if you’re so inclined.
All in all, it’s gripping stuff. Rockwell’s natural charm and charisma, not to mention his considerable acting talent, humanises what could easily become a cold commentary. Pair this with the excellent, sparingly used effects shots, a wonderful futuristic vision and some brilliant direction, and you get a film which is both delightfully original and classically composed, paying homage to past titans of the genre whilst carving out a new vision for intelligent sci-fi movies.
9/10: Simultaneously a pioneer and a throwback, Moon is one of the most intellectually engaging films of the last few years, making a star not just out of its leading man, but also surely of its director. At times heartbreaking, at others triumphant, it has more ideas than films with one hundred times its budget, and an excellent, singular vision of our future at its core. If Oscars were given out for sheer gumption, Moon likely would have made a clean sweep. As it is, it will be remembered as an original piece of sci-fi in an era of big money and overblown effects, and an acting masterclass from Sam Rockwell. Entertaining, thought-provoking cinema at its best.