It is the near future. Astronaut Sam Bell is living on the far side of the moon, completing a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to mine Earth’s primary source of energy, Helium-3. It is a lonely job, made harder by a broken satellite that allows no live communications home. Taped messages are all Sam can send and receive.

Thankfully, his time on the moon is nearly over, and Sam will be reunited with his wife, Tess, and their three-year-old daughter, Eve, in only a few short weeks. Finally, he will leave the isolation of 'Sarang," the moon base that has been his home for so long, and he will finally have someone to talk to beyond 'Gerty," the base’s well-intentioned, but rather uncomplicated computer.

Suddenly, Sam’s health starts to deteriorate. Painful headaches, hallucinations and a lack of focus lead to an almost fatal accident on a routine drive on the moon in a lunar rover. While recuperating back at the base (with no memory of how he got there), Sam meets a younger, angrier version of himself, who claims to be there to fulfill the same three year contract Sam started all those years ago.

Confined with what appears to be a clone of his earlier self, and with a 'support crew" on its way to help put the base back into productive order, Sam is fighting the clock to discover what’s going on and where he fits into company plans.

Ground control to Major Tom: We have lift off.

Taking a cue from one of his old man’s biggest hit songs, director Duncan Jones takes us to the dark side of one man's mortality in his debut feature, Moon. His 'Major Tom’ is lunar mining engineer Sam Bell; his star is Sam Rockwell, who can start making space on his mantelpiece – he’ll need it come Awards season.

Jones, a.k.a. Zowie Bowie, is obviously enamoured with the decade that his dad David ruled. Moon pays homage to some of the great science fiction films of the period – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981) and the cult TV series Space:1999 (1975) are all referenced and invoked in Jones’ existential odyssey. Alien, in particular, has inspired many aspects of Moon, most significantly production designer Tony Noble’s mining station interior - a sparse, dirty echo of the cavernous halls of the Nostromo, the mining vessel in Scott’s masterpiece.

Sam Bell has done a long three-year stint as the sole astronaut manning Lunar Industries helium-3 mining outpost. With no direct communication link to Earth, his only immediate companionship is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an intricately-programmed computer that cares for him and the mining station but who also serves the corporation's directives at all times (and a further referencing of Alien).

Paranoia and hallucinations start to take their toll on Sam, for whom three years away from his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and daughter Eve (Kaya Scodelerio) is emotionally and psychologically taxing. His waning mental state results in an accident on the lunar surface that leaves him frail, disoriented"¦.and in the mysterious company of a second astronaut that resembles him perfectly.

The roles of the corporation and GERTY become evident and the corrosive effects of madness, reality, isolation, deceit and illusion fuel paranoia then introspection in Sam (both of them). Questioning the importance and purpose of his own existence, Sam (and him too) struggles with a life-and-death resolution that takes Jones’ space odyssey beyond the realms of smart sci-fi and into the stratosphere of the great ruminations on the human condition.

At the film’s core is Sam Rockwell. As the only onscreen presence for the entire film (co-stars McElligott and Scodeleiro are only seen in video footage), Rockwell creates two fully-realised versions of Sam in a mesmerising acting turn. A charismatic onscreen presence, Rockwell has some wildly flamboyant performances to his credit: lead roles in George Clooney’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002) and Clark Gregg’s Choke (2008); and scene-stealing support work in McG’s Charlie’s Angels (2000), Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men (2003), Garth Jenning’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (2005) and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (2008).

But Sam is something far more grounded for Rockwell, in spite of the outer space setting. This is a working-class guy with simple, honest values based on family life and work ethic. Drawn into a deeply philosophical cat-and-mouse game that cuts him to the core, Rockwell exposes his pain succinctly. One scene in particular – a dark side of the moon sojourn that puts Sam in live communication with his family for the first time in what he believes to be three years – is achingly sad.

Duncan Jones has declared himself a major directing talent with Moon, and that is an encouraging development. For the last 20 years, filmmakers have taken the technology that has surged within the industry and exploited it – the MTV school of filmmaking has cut the three second edit to 2.5 seconds; the films of Michael Bay, Tony Scott and Stephen Sommers (to name just a few of the worst offenders) have emphasised visceral jolts over all else.

But Jones and his contemporaries – filmmakers like Britain’s Steve McQueen and Australia’s Andrew Dominik – are embracing the values of Hollywood’s last golden era, the 1970’s, when the best genre films employed depth and stillness and layered storylines. Moon, no less a mind-bending thrill ride because it is also an emotionally-resonant film, may be the dawn of a new era in commercial film direction.

(Reviewed at the Melbourne International Film Festival) 


Wednesday 13 November, 9:25PM on SBS VICELAND

UK, 2009
Genre: Sci-Fi
Language: English
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Dominique McElligott, Kevin Spacey (voice)
What's it about?
Astronaut Sam Bell's (Rockwell) three-year shift at a lunar mine is finally coming to an end, and he's looking forward to his reunion with his wife (McElligott) and young daughter. Suddenly, Sam's health takes a drastic turn for the worse. He suffers painful headaches and hallucinations, and almost has a fatal accident. He meets what appears to be a younger version of himself, possibly a clone. With time running out, Sam must solve the mystery before the company crew arrives. 

Moon Review