Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009): UK

Reviewed by Colin Marshall. Viewed on Air New Zealand flight NZ5.

Moon‘s advance press raises one’s hopes, but then, this is a day when hopes for science-fiction cinema are easily raised. Rumors of high aesthetics, deep psychological resonance and CGI eschewed for elaborate miniatures make the it sound like the formidable yet implausible love child of 2001, Solaris and Silent Running, and in fact Jones hired one of the latter film’s effects men. Such a pedigree admittedly prompts impossible expectations, but with the genre’s recent standard of substance set by the likes of J.J. Abrams’ entertaining but unexaminable Star Trek reboiling, we take hope wherever we can find it.

Much of the movie’s buzz regards it as a twist delivery system, as if M. Night Shyamalan had finally made his inexorable way into outer space. Since Jones all but lays out his cards quite early in the film’s brief runtime, these attempts at plot-point concealment seem unwarranted. At the tail end of a three-year stint maintaining a mining site on the moon and jonesing to return home, Lone astronaut Sam Bell wipes out in his lunar rover. He wakes up in the infirmary of the space station Sarang, his home for the length of the job. But since he’s supposedly the only human on the entire rock, how did he get back there? Did someone drag him all the way? But who? The film raises a suite of eerie questions.

It answers them quickly: Sam did. Or at least he will. Out of bed, he sneaks over the the crash site, out of which he pulls a body, only to discover that it appears to be his own — and it’s alive. It seems both Sams hold equal claim to the name, though the rescuing Sam has less in his short-term memory than the rescued. Accepting the situation with a strange degree of equanimity, the twins go about trying to determine what’s going on. Hence the second volley of questions: Is one of them the “real” Sam Bell? Are there more? Is the original Sam Bell perhaps elsewhere? Is he even alive?

The explanatory mechanism here turns out, alas, to be an Evil Corporation, or at least an amoral one that’s discovered how much labor can be extracted from an indefinitely long series of clones if you tell them elaborate enough lies. Sam One and Sam Two make a stab at putting one over on their employer by having one of them actually return to Earth rather than file themselves away in Sarang’s below-ground morgue, but personality differences roughen the road. Yes, they’re technically the same person, but it’s all about nature and nurture, I suppose.

Portraying both main Sam Bells, one more the station brings aboveground and presumably the voice of another still, heard over a moon-to-Earth videophone, Sam Rockwell, the living midpoint between leading man and character actor, puts on essentially a one-man show. (The only other major character is a placid robot assistant, like HAL but more benevolent, voiced by Kevin Spacey.) His Sam One is a skittish, obsessive shambles on the brink of disintegration — these clones only need three-year life spans, after all — while he plays Sam Two as more of a cockily hostile Tom Cruise type. He creates two clearly different individuals who are also, it seems, the same individual.

As an actor’s showcase as well as a proof of the concept that a modern futuristic movie can look even more compelling without the aid of CGI, Moon is impeccable. (As space films go, it’s the best-looking in years.) But establishing Sam Bell’s experience — or, rather, the Sam Bells’ experience — on film requires the utmost steadiness of hand, and here the hand falters. The histories of both science-fiction and psychological cinema insist that this sort of situation simply can’t come across in 97 minutes, and they’re correct. That Jones paces several stretches of the picture expertly, especially those before Sam Two’s appearance, underscores the uncomfortable jerk of the inevitable instances of compression.

The movie does a fine job of acting as if it’s always well-paced, but ultimately it simply doesn’t have enough time to make the audience’s experience anything like Sam’s, to make us feel what he feels, to conjure the environment of Sarang beyond its sights and sounds. All narrative films are, in some sense, visual summaries of an experience, but when Moon rushes, as it does through its abrupt ending, it’s as if it’s providing us with the Cliffs Notes when it knows full well we want the text.

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