Thursday, June 11, 2009

In Theaters: "Moon"

The opening sequence of Ducan Jones’ Moon sucks you right in; this is how you start a movie. The exposition is handled, quickly and efficiently, with a slick commercial for “Lunar Industries,” which has solved the energy crisis by harvesting an energy resource from the moon. We then go to their lunar base, manned by a single astronaut: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is at the tail-end of a three-year contract and counting the days. This opening is stylishly shot and powered by an intense, driving Clint Mansell score; I was all but bouncing in my seat with giddy enthusiasm.

Thankfully, the film lives up to its promise. Moon is a rare sci-fi flick with a brain and a heart, and while some of it is clearly inspired by other material, director Jones spins this yarn into something unique and fresh and new and exhilarating. You give yourself over to it as it hurls intriguingly from one scene to the next, occasionally recondite but never detached.

Sam is assisted in the day-to-day operations of the base by the on-deck computer, called GERTY and voiced (perfectly) by Kevin Spacey. One day, while Sam is in his lunar rover, checking out a problem with one of the harvesters, he crashes. He wakes up a little disoriented, but basically fine—until a few days later, when he finds the rover and finds a man inside who appears to be… well, himself.

Moon works as the best sci-fi does—by using technology and special effects and cool sets to compliment a genuine, thought-provoking, human narrative. Throughout Sam’s story (of which I’ll reveal no more), he is faced with questions about life and death and memory and the difficulties of his own personality; he sees things in himself that he doesn’t like.

What’s most refreshing about the picture is that it’s got its head in the right place. To a degree, it apes the look and feel of a 2001, but without all that deadly solemnity. Moon is a film with a sense of humor; part of that is in the script, part of that is in the ingenious casting of Rockwell (an actor who can turn on a dime from good-natured goofball to morose manic-depressive), part of that is in the screenplay and direction, which are full of little throwaway asides—like the various icons used on GERTY’s display screen and the “kick me” post-it on the back of the unit—that give the film a lived-in, grimy feel. The once-sparkly white uniforms are discolored and a little dirty; so is Rockwell’s brilliant performance. The scenes he doesn’t play against a computerized voice, he’s playing off himself (thanks to seamless double work)—and he masterfully creates two distinct personalities (Jones also creates clever visual cues to help us determine which one is which).

Jones takes on some weighty issues, but his touch is light and he’s not afraid to let his film show a little bit of heart (though a couple of jerks around me chuckled smugly when it went to those places). His direction is alarmingly assured (particularly for a first-time director), whether dealing with special effects—the model work and overall design are stunning—or tone. A sense of dread permeates the picture as it edges towards its climax (complete with a well-executed ticking clock); the more Sam finds out, the more nervous the audience gets, because this is clearly a film where damn near any nutso thing could happen next.

Some will complain that its tonal shifts could be smoother, that too much of the material is familiar from other films, or that the philosophical and psychological elements of the story are skimmed but not explored. Strangely, I was aware of those problems, but not bothered by them. Good films do that to you—things that might drive you mad in a film that isn’t working are forgivable, perhaps even enjoyable, in a film that does. I, for example, didn’t mind the cribbing from 2001 and Solaris and Outland and Alien—it’s a picture that knows its roots and knows our expectations, and sometimes (in the case of the HAL-ccenteric GERTY), Nathan Parker’s screenplay slyly subverts those assumptions. That’s good, smart storytelling, and Moon—involving, hypnotic, and altogether spellbinding—announces the arrival of a major new talent.

"Moon" opens in limited release on Friday, June 12th.

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