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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Film Review | Moon

Space Oddity

by Thomas Delapa

Like a Frankenstein monster on steroids, the science-fiction film has mutated into “sci-fi” over the past quarter-century, juiced up with special effects, behemoth budgets, gore and gloom. It was in a Hollywood galaxy long ago and far away that thoughtful, speculative movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner were launched. With the genre near eclipse, 2009’s Moon—now out on DVD—is luminously retro, boldly going where few contemporary science-fiction films dare to go.

Produced on a relative nano-budget by first-time British director Duncan Jones, the futuristic Moon is a minimalist throwback to 2001, Silent Running and other far-out space classics. In what’s essentially a one-man show, Sam Rockwell delivers a bravura performance as Sam Bell, a lonely lunar miner nearing the end of this three-year stint on Moonbase Sarang. He spends his down time obsessively building a scale model of an all-American small town, only occasionally interrupted by nostalgic video transmissions from his beloved wife. Bell’s sole companion is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the base’s placid and paternalistic super-computer with robotic arms.

But this is no Tranquility Base. Houston does have a problem, and it starts with Bell’s ringing black-outs and apparent hallucinations. The miner discovers that he isn’t alone on the dark side of the moon. Or maybe he’s just as crazy as a lunar loon.

Like the best of science fiction from Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury, Nathan Parker’s script digs into a deep vein of ethical issues involving modern science and technology. If 2001 was the “ultimate trip,” Jones and Parker aim lower and modestly shoot for the moon, yet still manage to explore earthbound themes as universal as romantic longing and as enigmatic as human identity and memory.

With England’s historic Shepperton Studios (where Alien also landed) as their base, Jones and production designer Tony Noble craft a handsome homage, the studio sets boosted by quaint—but convincing—miniatures as well as modern digital effects. The stark, pockmarked lunar landscape hasn’t looked this good since Neil Armstrong first made his Apollo-like giant leap for mankind almost 41 years ago.

Despite the superbly economical backdrops, it’s Rockwell’s performance that really gives Moon its gravity. As the increasingly schizoid hero, Bell gets the opportunity to confront himself—quite literally—in a series of amazing sleight-of-hand doppelganger scenes that send the story hurtling off into what might be called an existential mystery. But this is no mere cinematic parlor trick. Working in a parallel universe to Philip K. Dick’s (especially in his novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the source for Blade Runner), Jones wants us to probe the deceptive dark matter of memory, and what distinguishes artificial intelligence from the real.

In a field littered with weightless space junk, this is intelligent and provocative science fiction. It’s made exceptional because of the way Jones tugs at the conventions of the genre, then flips your expectations, shooting Moon off on a heady orbit all of its own.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 6/1/10

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