BY MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009
7/10/09 at 4:07 AM
"Moon" is the kind of science-fiction movie rarely made anymore.
It's about ideas rather than images. It takes you to another world, and it inspires a sense of wonder about our own world.
It's also a nice bookend this summer to the action-packed excitement of "Star Trek," offering a chilly thriller of a man alone in space with nothing more than a sentient computer as a verbal companion.
If that sounds familiar, that's because writer-director Duncan Jones frequently pays homage to "2001: A Space Odyssey" with his cool, claustrophobic picture, a calculated, it's-quiet-in-space mind-twister that may remind of one of the many space-based "Twilight Zone" episodes of the 1960s.
But "Moon" is most memorable for the subtle excellence of actor Sam Rockwell. He goes it alone for the most part — outside of a robotic voice supplied by Kevin Spacey — and delivers a clever performance in which he must play multiple characters in this mystery.
"There was a time when 'energy' was a dirty word," a narrator informs at the beginning of the picture, explaining that a process of fusion energy discovered in our near future — trapped in rock on the far side of the moon and harvested by machines — will end a worldwide dependence on fossil fuels.
Sam Bell (Rockwell) is the man on the moon.
He's the only employee of Lunar Industries up there, recording data and maintaining the automated operation of collecting the helium energy. A dedicated worker, he's been confined to a ship and a small perimeter area of the moon for three years.
Sam is lonely, and he's ready to come home and rejoin his wife and young daughter. Sporting a beard worthy of a mountain man, he talks to himself when he's not bantering with GERTY (Spacey voices this robotic "2001" HAL-like device designed with long arms and a smiley-face graphic capable of changing to a frown.
Then something strange happens, with two weeks left on his contract, that changes everything halfway through the picture. Sam has an accident, and he's rescued by — ready for this? — Sam.
The beauty of "Moon" is that it leaves so many possibilities open as we watch one version of Rockwell's character, bloodied and broken, talking to another version of Sam in a mystified "What's going on here?" manner that is shared by the viewer.
I'm not going to spoil the mystery, which some may believe they can easily figure out. They are probably wrong.
The director — Jones is David Bowie's son, a fun note if one makes a Major Tom connection — does a beautiful job with the lunar photography, using small models on sets at Shepperton Studios, where portions of "2001" were filmed.
But the film's greatest asset is what appears to be a trusting relationship between Jones' patient, poetic (some will say slow, perhaps even slooooooow) screenplay and Rockwell's belief in the somber, often sad story of corporate detachment and isolation.
The actor, who continues to build on compelling performances from "Snow Angels" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," creates versions of the Sam character with a wide range of emotions, from ignorant bliss to obsessive truth-seeker to confused resignation. He makes the theme — the human curiosity that there's something out there besides us — and the plausibility of this out-there idea work.
Rockwell's work in "Moon" is almost twice as good as any performance on film this year.
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Dominique
McElligott, voice of Kevin Spacey
Theater: AMC Southroads 20
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Rated: R (language)
Quality: (on a scale of zero to
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