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.


Joshua said...

Interesting review, as per usual.

I think I was so impressed with Moon because it had so many options on where it could go from the premise alone --a man finds his duplicate-- (mental condition, fatigue, clones, twins, etc) that I was surprised in a very pleasant manner. I was hoping it wouldn't devolve into a masturbatory picture of pseudo-psychology, and it didn't. Instead it paid homage to some of the frontrunners of the 70s science fiction movement, like you say, but then finds a way to make it all a little different, a little quieter, a little more intense than simple pastiche could provide.

And I have to add that I also was impressed by the no-nonsense usage of the twinning effect. Like Dead Ringers it's shot as if they are two different actors, interacting as two separate beings would, rather than demonstrating an unusual amount of contact to prove the depths of their science, or a lack of contact to prove the shallowness.

Tony Dayoub said...

I really want to read this review, but I can't because I plan on seeing Moon this afternoon, and I really want to go unspoiled.

So I'll be back.

Jason Bellamy said...

Joshua: I'm with you. I'd seen one trailer for Moon, and I feared it might descend into a kind of Jacob's Ladder-y headtrip. That's fine and good. But I appreciated the simplicity, which, in my mind, makes Moon a more emotional picture than I expected.

Tony: I'll look forward to your thoughts! And, presuming, your review!

Richard Bellamy said...

Your opening paragraph says it all! Well said!

I was very impressed with this film. In a film-year of many disappointments, this little film comes around from behind and thrashes the big film flops. I really enjoyed seeing what can be done with a simple set, intriguing writing, and basically one actor. I really liked the big surprise about the two Sam Bells because I didn't predict it and it wasn't spoiled by the preview. I was able to experience the mysteries of the film unfolding and to wonder why one Sam seems to be decaying and the other seems all chipper and healthy. I also liked how Rockwell plays two different sides of basically the same persona. This is a very enjoyable film, much like the best of Twilight Zone (which also employed small casts on minimalist sets - but with great writing!)

Tony Dayoub said...

Loved the first half, even with its blatant "homages," because of the philosophical tone it struck a la Solaris.

Second half was less successful for me because it felt a little more like warmed-over Twilight Zone.

Still, Jones shows remarkable assurance for a first-time director. And despite the film coming very close to overstaying its welcome in terms of running time, it never gets the point where it feels overlong. Jones shows nerve in letting this one-man show unfold at so measured a pace.

Daniel said...

Great review, and I particularly love your thoughts in the last two paragraphs. I have to admit that I would have liked to see the themes explored a little more deeply, but you're right that there's something to be said about open-ended conclusions.

Incidentally, how, pray tell, can any discussion about this movie continue without gushing praise for Clint Mansell's score? It almost made the movie for me!

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: It does "thrash" many of the big films this summer. But so would a can opener. Glad you enjoyed the flick.

Tony: Interesting. We both liked the movie but I was drawn to the second half while you were enticed by the first half. I agree with you about Jones' "nerve." Well sad.

Daniel: I increasingly admire the closing shot the more I think about it. It's so fun to imagine what's next. Oh, and you're right: I should have mentioned Mansell. It's a great score.

Thanks for leaving comments, fellas.

Term Paper said...

I gotta hand it to whoever wrote this, you've really kept me updated...