There are two kinds of science fiction films: those that use the trappings of the genre for escapism, and those that use it more philosophically. There have been plenty of examples of the former lately. Some have been good (Star Trek). Many could politely be called an acquired taste (think Death Race, Jumper or Meet Dave, if you’re nasty). The more high-minded ones, though, the ones that pipe-smoking folks prefer to call “speculative fiction,” are a rare breed.
Put Moon squarely in that latter camp. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is a contractor for Lunar Industries, a company that has solved Earth’s energy crisis by harvesting fuel for nuclear fusion from the dark side of the moon. For three years, Sam’s only companion has been a robot named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), whose smiley-face emoticons are charming, but no substitute for real human contact. With two weeks left in his contract, Sam is eager to get back to Earth — but an accident in his rover and the appearance of a younger doppelgänger puts his journey home into question.
Unlike a lot of modern films, Moon isn’t particularly secretive with its twists. Both Sam and the audience figure out what’s going on relatively early, and while that does hurt the film’s momentum, it gives it plenty of opportunity to explore its pet issues. The script, written by Nathan Parker and director Duncan Jones, is both narratively straightforward and philosophically complex, dragging up issues of morality, identity and even the very nature of humanity.
That’s a lot to pin on what’s essentially a one-man show, but Rockwell is more than up to the task. Provided the film gets the right kind of attention, this is exactly the kind of role Oscar voters eat up. Spacey’s role as Gerty shouldn’t be underestimated, though. With its soothing voice and the robot’s crude but appealing “face,” it’s easy to picture the robot moving into HAL territory, but the filmmakers have grander commentary in mind. That Spacey can make Gerty as sympathetic as he does shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is, especially since it’s been a while — over a decade, actually — since he’s been in a genuinely good film.
Visually, Moon is heavily indebted to decades-old sci-fi films like Outland, Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jones heavily favours miniatures and keeps the CGI to a minimum. It’s a decidedly low-budget approach, but it never feels cheap. Instead, the scrappy physicality of the set actually helps to ground the film’s more philosophical wanderings. The score by Clint Mansell is also quite wonderful, accentuating the mood without ever manipulating emotions.
The low-budget, minor-key approach is entirely appropriate considering the lunar setting. Flashy CGI and broad emotions might work for locations beyond our imaginations, but humans have been to the moon. It’s within our reach. And this is a Moon well worth visiting.