Movies: Dan Zak Reviews a 'Moon,' in Which a Man Confronts Himself

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

The future, as depicted in "Moon," is utilitarian and familiar. Televisions are turned on and off by clapping. Hair is cut by Flowbee. Sentient computers use emoticons to convey feeling. Reruns of "Bewitched" still show up on TV. And big corporations cut corners at the expense of their employees.

This is the reality of Sam Bell, an employee of Lunar Industries Ltd., which has stationed him on the moon to oversee the mining of clean energy from moon rocks. He's been there for three years, a glorified janitor beaming power back to Earth. The planet's energy crisis has been solved, but there's still no technology to reverse cosmic loneliness.

Sam kills time by running on a treadmill, building a miniature model of his home town, watching TV and chatting with the base computer, Gerty, who drones soothingly about this or that. There's only two weeks before Sam's contract is up. Only two weeks before he can see his wife and child back on that green-blue orb up in the sky. Then he finds something on the surface of the moon that throws everything into doubt -- his job, his journey home, his own self and, tragically, the film's logic.

"Moon," a moody sci-fi morsel, has the right look, the right sound and the right feel. Everything's a dusky white. The interior walls of the mining base are the same hue as the granular surface outside, which is reflected in the pallor of Sam's face. A man is living on the moon, but he's more a blue-collar Joe than a Captain Picard, and the day-to-day technology is believably pedestrian (breakfast is beans in a bag). Clint Mansell, the best film score composer at work, uses a gorgeous, repetitive piano arpeggio to italicize the workaday monotony. Actor Sam Rockwell, as Sam, has the aw-shucks charisma to carry a movie entirely on his own, and director Duncan Jones demonstrates deftness within the confines of one monochromatic set.

But storywise, "Moon" fails to live up to the promise of its premise. There's plenty of atmosphere, but little gravity.

It's impossible to write about its failures without revealing more of the plot, so let's start with a twist that has already been exposed in the film's trailer: Sam's discovery on the lunar surface is a doppelganger of himself, unconscious in the wreckage of a vehicle crash from which he himself had previously escaped (or did he?). Suddenly, after an epoch of loneliness, Sam has company. And it's himself. Each Sam believes he's the real thing.

Watching Rockwell share scenes with himself is a pleasure, and that's almost enough to compensate for the film's diminishing returns. At one point, the two Sams reminisce about meeting their wife, and it's here that "Moon" comes closest to the movie it could have been. Maybe Sam, lost in his own isolation, has gone mad. Maybe his psyche has splintered. Maybe this man's outer-space environment throws him into a rabbit hole inside himself.

These are compelling notions to ponder, but only for the first half of the movie. Screenwriter Nathan Parker's explanation for Sam's doppelganger is too mundane, doesn't entirely make sense and comes too quickly. It sucks the wind out of the movie.

Existentialism in space is not a new frontier, and it's because of the legacy of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Solaris" that we expect so much from "Moon." Jones borrows tones from these movies. Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey, seems like a beta version of HAL 9000; Sam's humanity and love for his family become more phantom after the doppelganger shows up.

But the explanation for the film's central mystery narrows its scope significantly. What could've been an intimate, industrial companion to the pristine, astro-existential epics of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky -- Who are we? What is real? What do science and the cosmos have to do with it? -- is instead an all-too-literal drama about the worst job in the solar system.

Moon (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language.

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