Thursday, July 9, 2009

Moon: Thoughtful sci-fi

Moon (2009) • View trailer for Moon
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.9.09
Buy DVD: Moon • Buy Blu-Ray: Moon [Blu-ray]

"The Cold Equations," a classic science-fiction short story written by Tom Godwin in 1954, concerns a space pilot in a one-man ship that has been sent on an emergency mission, to bring desperately needed medical supplies to the settlers on an outlying planet.

While en route, the pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: a feisty teenager hoping to visit her brother on the distant world ... a plucky, personable young woman everybody would love to have as a younger (or older) sister.
The monitor readouts rarely change, and this seems just like any other day
inside the lonely mining base dumped on the far side of Earth's moon ... but as
Sam (Sam Rockwell) is about to find out, this particular day will become
anything but ordinary.

Trouble is, the ship's fuel consumption has been calibrated precisely to the weight of the pilot and cargo: anything more  particularly something as heavy as a second person  and the ship won't reach its destination. The medicine won't arrive; countless colonists will die.

We readers, fully aware of what must be done, turn each page with mounting dread, hoping that Barton will figure out an alternate solution.

But no: The laws of physics and mathematics cannot be bartered with. Eventually, helplessly, Barton must cycle her out of the airlock.

The story's final two pages are chilling and instantly, permanently memorable.

So-called "hard" science-fiction rarely involves aliens, space battles or improbable time travel paradoxes. The futuristic setting is, instead, a reasonable extrapolation of modern society; such stories are driven by the same human conflict that would fuel a straight contemporary drama.

Sometimes the stories are parables: intentionally disturbing scenarios of what might result, if society continues to behave in a particularly short-sighted manner.

Movies made from such stories aren't vicarious thrill-rides such as I, Robot and the countless Star Trek and Star Wars installments.

Translation: They're rarely popular in the box-office sense that big studios demand, particularly in this 21st century. Which is ironic, considering how such films often have a far-reaching impact that exceeds their flashier, cotton candy-headed cousins.

I must confess surprise, however, that a film as cleverly scripted and persuasively realized as Duncan Jones' Moon has been marketed as an alternative "arthouse flick."

Are we to believe that arthouse/indie theaters are becoming the last refuge of thought-provoking drama, even when the trappings are science-fiction? What have those corporate Hollywood behemoths wrought?

No matter. Moon joins the ranks of numerous noteworthy hard sci-fi dramas  On the Beach, Marooned, Soylent Green and Colossus: The Forbin Project come to mind, along with Silent Running, Blade Runner and The Quiet Earth (the latter three being personal favorites)  that eschew pyrotechnics in favor of making viewers think. Most are terrific examples of human hubris  or greed  run amok, and Moon is no different.

The time is the near future, the setting a mining outpost on the far side of Earth's moon. Blue-collar "caretaker" Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the sole living being in a labyrinthine complex dubbed Sarang, has reached the final few weeks of his horrific three-year shift. The station is almost fully automated, as are the huge digging harvesters that lumber about the moon's surface, extracting Helium-3, which has become Earth's primary and desperately needed source of energy.

Sam is almost  but not quite  superfluous: on hand only to monitor the progress of the harvesters, make minor repairs as needed, and blast canisters filled with Helium-3 back to Earth. A second person would be unnecessary, except perhaps for company ... and what cost-cutting, bean-counting multi-national corporation would waste money on that sort of luxury?

Although able to communicate via delayed satellite radio feeds with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, back on Earth, Sam's only companion within Sarang's confines is Gerty  voiced by Kevin Spacey  the base's well-intentioned but rather uncomplicated computer. Gerty's "features" are limited to a small screen that projects a yellow smiley-face that changes expression  frowning, sad, pensive  depending on the computer's assessment of Sam's mood.

Spacey is perfect for this role, his already quiet voice modulated with even more focused sterility. We often detect irony in Gerty's comments because we expect as much, and because Nathan Parker's script  from a story by Jones  deliberately plays many of the computer's remarks for laughs. Even so, Gerty remains an unsettling presence: vaguely creepy in the same way that HAL hovered like a malignant mother hen over the human characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The familiarity probably isn't accidental. The basic look of Moon, with respect to the clanky, submarine-style Sarang complex, bears a striking resemblance to the massive ship occupied by Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood in 2001. This is true, we eventually realize, because production designer Tony Noble and the Cinesite effects team  lacking the budget for golly-gee-wow CGI work -— crafted this film the old-fashioned way: with cleverly dressed sets and miniatures.

Funny thing. The model work here looks significantly more "real" than much of the highly touted computer effects that highlight nearly all sci-fi movies these days.

And credible, persuasive reality is the key to this story. The partly dilapidated environment helps sell the concept; so does Rockwell's alternately touching and heartbreaking performance.

Sam, sadly, is growing increasingly unstable. Prone to headaches and hallucinations, heedless of personal grooming and exercising more as a nervous compulsion than because he needs to maintain good body tone, Sam is the picture of a man at the ragged edge of his tether. Judgment is impaired; he treats the mechanical Gerty as a de facto psychiatrist.

Who, we wonder, could have suggested and implemented such a lengthy work shift?

Something's got to give, and it does: A distracted Sam takes a lunar rover to check on one of the huge harvesters, and gets careless while approaching its trenching equipment.

And, suddenly, the very nature of Sam's mission gets exposed as something much worse than he could have imagined.

Ideally, viewers should approach Moon with virtually no sense of what's coming. As was the case with The Truman Show, the primary delight is one of surprise, as Jones and Parker's story gradually unfolds, with disturbing new plot points sequentially exposed like the petals of a flower opening to the sun.

Sadly, that's hard these days. I credit this film's trailers for not revealing the best surprises, but they still show too much. And I'm dismayed to note that most published reviews also give too much of the game away. Shame, shame, shame.

Rockwell is an intriguing, inwardly combustible actor with a spotty career that ranges from the excellent (Frost/Nixon, Matchstick Men) to the truly dreadful (Choke). He delivers a veritable tour-de-force performance in this film, however: a superbly shaded, one-man show absolutely on par with the similarly nuanced role Bruce Dern played in Silent Running.

Dern eventually wound up permanently identified with that film, and I suspect Rockwell will experience similar name recognition for Moon. We ache for poor Sam; we quickly bond with him, and soon find ourselves hoping  quite unrealistically  that he'll somehow solve a situation as remorselessly grim as what the pilot faced in "The Cold Equations."

Whatever the outcome, though, we also know that Gerty will endure with the same sort of quiet, chilling (loyal?) patience displayed by the little robot teddy bear at the end of A.I. (another thoroughly upsetting sci-fi what-if tale, it should be noted).

Stumbling upon the likes of Moon is what going to the movies is all about: finding a truly unexpected little gem.

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