The very first science fiction movie was Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon. A fourteen minute epic in which a group of explorers go to the moon, walk onto the surface (no space suit needed), find a group of moon men, beat them off with umbrellas, then return home. The film is probably best known for a moment in which their ship crashes into the man on the moon’s eyeball, he doesn’t look pleased. After that the moon was the number one destination for fictional space travel, at least until we went there for real and realized it was kind of a boring place. In fact it quickly dawned on us that none of the planets in this solar system are really destinations for high adventure and since then we’ve been setting our science fiction stories in distant galaxies. The problem with this is that after a good fifty-some years of space travel it’s become increasingly clear how far away we are from being able to get to Mars, much less a new solar system. In fact the closest planet that might have life on it is 150 trillion miles away. That’s not a problem if you’re making a Space Opera like Star Wars or Star Trek, but it’s not all right if you’re making what you’d call “hard science fiction,” stories that predict very realistic and plausible future technology. Those kind of serious Science fiction movies have been looking back toward our home solar systems. Danny Boyle’s 2007 hard science fiction film Sunshine had the sun as its destination, while this latest entry of the genre is bringing the genre full circle by returning to our closest celestial neighbor, the moon.
Rather than having a twist ending, this film has a major twist about a third of the way into it. It would be ludicrously hard to talk about this film without giving away this twist, so this review is going to be a bit more spoilerish than most. I won’t give away any of the later developments, but be warned that I will be giving away some key surprises from the first act or two.
The film is set an indeterminate number of years into the future at a point where humanity has finally found a clean source of energy by mining a substance called Helium-3 from the surface of the Moon. A base has been established on the moon but travel there is still a slow and unwieldy process, and as such there is only one person manning the operation, a man named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). His main job is to drive to the automated harvesters mining the surface, remove the full capsules of Helium-3, and then launch them off to Earth. His only companion is a robot/computer system called Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey). One day Sam sees a strange vision while driving the lunar rover and crashes it right into the automated harvester. He wakes up the next day in the ships infirmary. Gerty wants him to stay in bed, but Sam convinces the computer to let him leave. He immediately drives out to the site of the crash, and looks into the rover where he finds his own body still in there and still alive. He runs the body back to the base and resuscitates it. Now he must discover why there’s someone else who looks just like him on the base and then must find out what the company plans to do about it.
A lot of this movie rests on the shoulders of Sam Rockwell as this is essentially a one man show; or rather a two man show in which Rockwell plays both parts. Rockwell is a great actor who, for whatever reason, has never really been able to break the A-list. He has everything a mainstream actor needs but has never become a household name, possibly because he’s attracted to more challenging material than some actors. His double role here is reminiscent of Nicholas Cage’s double role in Adaptation, he must play two people who look alike but who have fairly different personalities. The original Sam is the slightly more Rockwellish of the two, he’s a laid back person albeit one who’s gone through three long years of moon work and is rather tired from it. The second of the two is a bit more stern and aggressive, he hasn’t been beaten down by his situation and he’s less easy-going. There are physical differences from which you can tell the two apart, the first has a bandage on his hand and a black eye, but for the most part it is Rockwell’s acting which differentiates the two. Quite impressive. My one problem with the characterization (and I mainly blame the script for this) is the fairly unperturbed way Sam reacts to his “twin” at first. There is a portion shortly after the twist where the characters are way too calm about the fact that their staring at someone who looks just like them. If I was in that situation there would be a lot more swearing and more demands to know exactly what the hell is going on.
The robot here is a cross between HAL 9000 and R2-D2. I’m not exactly sure whether it is an independent robot or if the floating console is a manifestation of the base’s main computer. He floats around, has what looks like a camera lens for an eye and there’s a screen on him which displays various smilies in order to convey emotions. One usually expects these kind of robots to be nothing but trouble, especially when he’s been programmed by a seemingly conspiratorial corporation. This robot plays with that convention, his allegiance is never entirely clear, at least not until very late in the movie. That was an interesting take, but I would have liked a better explanation as to why the robot took the side he did. As it is he just takes a side because he does, I expected that to be resolved better than it was.
Visually the film is perfectly competent but never exceedingly great. The film was made relatively cheaply for a science fiction film of this sort, and I’m sure a lot of ingenuity went into the production. The production leans toward physical effects more than CGI, a decision I certainly approve of, though it was a bit annoying that a few shots of the moon’s surface seemed to be recycled at times. The most impressive element of the production was the space base’s highly detailed interiors, which seemed to share elements from some of the better spaceships of the genre like the Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s Alien or the Icarus II from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
I think the concept at the center of this is Chaos Theory. Admittedly, everything I know about this theory comes from the book and movie Jurassic Park, but bear with me. The idea behind Chaos Theory is that no system is perfect because the initial conditions will not remain the same continually. One example given in Michael Creighton’s novel is that of a billiard table on which a ball rolls with enough force to continue rolling forever. Deterministic Theory predicts that the ball would continue along the same pattern forever, while Chaos theory suggest that the felt of the table would eventually deteriorate, imperfections would form on the ball and eventually the conditions would change enough to throw the ball off course. Another film which I think shows chaos theory in action is Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, in which a television network has found the perfect way to keep an unsuspecting man living in their elaborate town-sized city for thirty some years, but bit by bit the illusion was destroyed and an evolving suspicion in the man’s mind about the solution eventually trumps the best laid plans of the producers. There is a similar situation in Moon, though I won’t spell it out for fear of giving away more than I already have, but like The Truman Show this is about a seemingly fool-proof house of cards that finally collapses partly because of an unforeseen accident but mostly because of the unanticipated factor of human curiosity and questioning.
Now, this theoretical interpretation is fine on an intellectual level, but it never really strokes any of the emotions that I expect great cinema to stroke. This film is neither as technically or intellectually ambitious as something like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, both films with a certain sense of awe that Moon lacks. Aside from my coldly intellectual chaos theory interpretation, I’m not sure this really amounts to much more than an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Of course, an extended episode of The Twilight Zone is certainly worth watching, but I really wish this had amounted to more. Some of the earlier portions of this movie really seemed to be leading to something grander than the eventual explanation; I looked forward to a really profound explanation for Sam’s visions and for Gerty’s strange behavior. But the solution turned out to be the most mundane of all possible explanations. That was disappointing. Ultimately I believe this is a movie that draws inspiration from all the right sources but which does nothing to push its genre forward in any meaningful way. Still it’s a very well crafted and intriguing 97 minutes of cinema that never seems to drop the ball in a major way; I just wish they tried to run with the ball when they had it instead of standing still with it.
*** out of Four