On Mondays, we look back at 50 great science fiction films. So far we have looked back at Alien, The Thing and Sunshine. This time out we look at Duncan Jones 2009 debut feature, Moon.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of a three-year contract in solitude overseeing a mining station that produces Helium-3, on the dark side of the Moon. When communication with Earth stops Bell has to try and survive the last few weeks until pick up with his sanity intact with only the stations super computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to accompany him. Although stressed and lonely, all appears to be going well until an accident changes everything.
A premise that we have seen many times before in the genre of a lone astronaut a few days from returning home before things go wrong for him. However, Jones is able to subvert this expertly with its following twists and turns. Showing that humans will go to the greatest of lengths to survive.
Where Moon performs best is when it plays on the audience’s emotions with Sam Bell’s predicament. When we see Sam struggle to realise what is happening and how to handle the situation, to see the truths being thrown at him we can’t but help but feel for the character and while the writing has to be strong for this to work, it is the performance from Rockwell that elevates it further.
Jones supposedly wrote the character of Sam Bell for Rockwell and the gamble certainly paid off. This very demanding role brings out the very best in him and allows him to show his full range as an actor. We see him perform as the wry charming character we have seen often from him and then to also play it seriously when required. Add this to the previously mentioned emotional scenes you are connected. When Sam makes his phone call the emotional punches that come again and again throughout the call are unbearable for the viewer to get through. It feels like a once in a career performance and the fact that Rockwell was not nominated for the major awards (in a year that Colin Firth (for A Single Man) and Jeremy Renner (for Hurt Locker) were nominated for Best Actor and somehow Rockwell was excluded? Unforgivable really, Moon is effectively a one-man show that has a performance that has next to no faults.
The inclusion of GERTY unquestionably adds to the story, using just his voice and emoticons to communicate with Sam. This disconnect from showing a human face or to have full communication with Earth is the first glimpses of how little the company feel towards Sam as a person. The fact that they do not even attempt to fix the communication line for Sam in his final weeks should be enough for him to realise. Writer Nathan Parker and Jones wisely allowed GERTY to be close to other robots/computer systems (you know the one) but to also be sentient enough to try and communicate to Sam that not everything is as it seems. GERTY shows more empathy towards Sam than those back down on Earth and to have a multi-dimensional computer/robot instead of a Bishop character really helps show the loneliness Sam is suffering.
We are to expect from past science fiction films that GERTY is on the companies side, they are programmed after all, so audiences were pre-programmed to distrust him throughout the film, yet GERTY never truly lies to Sam and by the end of the film is essential to him, not the company. The lack of awareness from the company that GERTY himself could become sentient enough to do what he wants, show either how little they carried about their mission or how much they underestimated absolutely everyone and thing involved. A great subversion of the A.I, and possibly one of my favourite A.I’s in cinema.
The simplicity of the designs in Moon is another one of its strengths. The white bland design of Bells Lunar space station accentuates the premise of how alone he is. All around him is white blankness, on the walls, ceiling, and floor. He is completely enveloped by it that it may as well be darkness. His only option is to plaster things all around these walls. Images of his family and others are spread throughout the station to try and cover the blankness of his surroundings. The added touches of dirt around the station (and on GERTY) help show how much Sam had stopped caring for himself, just wanting the contract to finish up so he can go home.
Also underneath all of the wires and metal in spacecraft such as the ISS, the predominant colour is white. White typifies space travel. The comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey are apt. Jones was greatly influenced by it and other science fiction films such as Alien and Silent Running, melding those and others to become its own unique world.
For a first time director, Jones was not afraid to be bold with his visual style. The use of miniatures that are enhanced by CGI in postproduction was a nice touch as he was able to utilise his budget wisely here. He is able to hold that sense of doom on Sam and ramp it up the further the film progresses, allowing Sam to see more and more of this world that he was unbeknownst to just a few days prior.
Jones and Rockwell expertly navigate this side of science fiction and are able to tell a story that is very much an underappreciated gem. An unmissable performance from Rockwell and a science fiction film that truly packs an emotional punch.
For previous Mondays of Sci-Fi please check them out below: