Thursday, July 23, 2009
Modest Marvel: Moon
There are loud science-fiction films (think: J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) and there are quiet ones. Moon is one of the quiet ones. So is 2001: A Space Odyssey. So is Solaris, either by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) or Steven Soderbergh (2002). That isn’t a coincidence. Over the first half of Duncan Jones’ debut feature film, from a screenplay by fellow newcomer Nathan Parker, Moon routinely quotes those celebrated genre ironclads – pays homage to them, riffs on them, rips them off, however you want to put it. Its influences are unmistakable. For at least 45 minutes of this 97-minute film, I knew less about the film Moon wanted to be than I did about the kind of film Moon wanted to be like. It was an imitator, a sycophant, a façade. But then an interesting thing happened. Without me noticing, Moon took a detour toward A.I. and toward, of all things, The Truman Show. And the more Moon emulated, the more its inspirations overlapped and blurred together, so that by the end Moon had managed to craft its own distinct personality.
That isn’t to suggest that Moon’s ancestors are ever forgotten, of course. Jones doesn’t want that. What first seems like lazy imitation turns out to be, in addition to a tribute, a clever bait-and-switch. Jones lulls us into complacency, allows us to develop a false sense of confidence that we know what’s ahead, and then subverts our expectations. Oh, make no mistake, Moon isn’t The Sixth Sense. There are no jaw-dropping, gravity-shifting surprises in store. Moon isn’t nearly that ambitious. It’s as small as it is quiet. And considering that the movie is about the lone man working at an energy harvesting outpost on the moon (don’t ask) whose only available two-way communication companion is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the HAL-9000-esque computerized outpost manager and concierge, Moon is pretty damn quiet.
This is, as much as anything, a mood picture. It is content to feel familiar. It is disinterested in redefining the genre or stretching the limits of our imaginations. (Heck, it takes place on the moon – the most accessible piece of real estate in our solar system.) Instead, Moon’s more modest mission is to hover around us, to be the kind of cinematic experience that we don’t romanticize but that we can’t quite put away. It wants to linger unobtrusively, like its namesake. And it does. The film’s allure is indeed out of reach yet persistent. I saw it a week ago and haven’t been able to shake it, nor have I managed to put my finger on exactly what I’m responding to. But I do know this: Sam Rockwell deserves the lion’s share of the credit.
(Spoilers ahead) Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who is the lone human occupant of the moon’s energy mining outpost … until it gets another human occupant: a familiar looking guy named Sam Bell, who of course is also played by Rockwell. That isn’t a typo. Impossible as it may seem, there are two Sam Bells – two versions of the same man sharing the same space in the same space station. Mystery abounds. Is the original Sam, nearing the end of his three-year stint of solitude and starting to feel stir-crazy, imagining this twin? Has our moon fallen under the spell of Solaris? Something else? We’ll leave all that for later. The point right now is that Rockwell impressively carries the film as its only on-stage character (other human characters pop up briefly in recorded video messages and dream sequences) right up to the point that he even more impressively carries the film as both of its only two on-stage characters. You’ve never seen anything quite like this. And Jones knows it.
Thus, after the second Sam shows up, Moon treats us to the perfunctory Scene In Which Two Different Characters Played By One Actor Are Made To Magically Share The Same Shot. For Moon’s first special effects trick, Sam and Sam play ping-pong. Yep. Seems silly, doesn’t it? Because why on, um, earth would a space-station built for one human have (1) a ping-pong table and (2) a pair of ping-pong paddles? I would have assumed that an arcade version of Ms. Pac-Man or Asteroids would have been more appropriate, but I digress. I wanted to roll my eyes at the shamelessness of Moon’s Wet T-Shirt Contest approach to showing off its cosmetic enhancements, but here’s the thing: the sight of two Sam Bells (and thus two Sam Rockwells) playing ping-pong together didn’t look cool, it looked convincing. Real. Even rudimentary. Subconsciously I knew it was nothing more than a dog and pony show for special effects artists, but it sure didn’t feel that way. And so before the ping-pong match was over, and long before the Sams began wrestling one another, the gimmicky element of the filmmaking was forgotten. My mind wasn’t focused on how Jones managed to put two Sam Rockwells on the same screen. It was intent on puzzling out how there could be two Sam Bells.
The answer to that riddle, I won’t reveal here, despite the previous spoiler warning, in the hopes that people take a peek at this slick but not showy mindbender before it’s overlooked and forever forgotten. What I will say, however, is that Moon’s justification for the multiple Sams is plausible enough to suit the film’s purpose. Could Jones and Parker have explored it a little more? Unquestionably. But the benefit of their restraint is that the audience is encouraged to fill in the gaps, to make sense of the limited clues. Besides, I never got the impression that Moon was out to blow my mind anyway, and yet, sacrilegious as this will seem, I’m not entirely sure that its ideas are any smaller than 2001’s. Moon is just less pretentious about its themes, whereas nearly every single frame of 2001 (and there are a lot of frames) is designed to announce its Immensity and Importance.
Moon might seem like it’s trying to rival 2001, but eventually it becomes clear that those two films aren’t playing the same game. Moon shouldn’t win any awards. It shouldn’t make best-of lists. It shouldn’t become a cult classic. But it should be seen, if for no other reason than this: it’s worth thinking about. Sharply crafted and always engaging, Moon is like a maze. To navigate one mystery is to find another. In regard to the multiple Sam Bells, Moon does successfully provide a complete (enough) and satisfactory answer to the question of “What’s happening here?” As for the mystery of what will happen next, well, you tell me.