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Rockwell's Performance Orbits a Distant Moon

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2009 17 Jul
Rockwell's Performance Orbits a Distant <i>Moon</i>

DVD Release Date:  January 12, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  July 17, 2009 (wide)
Rating:  R (for language)
Genre:  Science Fiction
Run Time:  97 min.
Director:  Duncan Jones
Actors:  Sam Rockwell, the voice of Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligot, Kaya Scodelario, Matt Berry, Robin Chalk, Benedict Wong, Malcolm Stewart

Sam Rockwell has performed well in supporting roles in several powerful dramas recently—Frost/NixonThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Snow Angels—but Moon is his coming-out party, an announcement that he's ready for the big leagues. For most of the running time, Rockwell is the only actor on-screen, and his performance is enough to move the story forward and keep the audience interested.

It's too bad, then, that the film isn't quite as good as Rockwell's performance. Spellbinding for much of its first half, Moon lays out themes and ideas that are not developed as fully as they might have been. That failure is the difference between the intriguing but somewhat frustrating drama that exists, and the sci-fi classic that Moon might have been.

Rockwell stars as a character named Sam Bell who's nearing the end of a three-year tour on the far side of the moon. He's there as an employee of Lunar Industries to harvest clean energy for earth in the form of helium-3, which, we learn in the film's opening moments, supplies 70 percent of earth's power needs. The slick corporate advertisement bragging about the change in the earth's level of pollution seems like a good thing from the perspective of our current debate over global warming, but the film's concerns are personal, not environmental. The cost of harvesting energy on the moon is isolation and loneliness, established by the shots of Sam interacting with nothing more than a series of computer screens, and with Gerty, a roving, computerized assistant given voice by Kevin Spacey, and whose only other expressiveness comes through a series of smiley-face/frowny-face icons on his display monitor.

Sam's video communications with a wife and daughter back on earth are strained not only by hints of unresolved problems, but by a technological glitch that causes a delay in sending and receiving those video messages. Under the strain of the time away from his family and other human beings, Sam begins to crack. His fragile mental state contributes to an accident aboard a lunar rover, after which Sam wakes up in the infirmary.

Soon Sam will be led into a deeper mystery about his role as a Lunar Industries employee. His search for the truth becomes a race against the clock, as a repair team draws closer to the base, ostensibly to fix the rover, although Sam's growing questions about his employer make him skeptical of the team's stated intentions.

Seeking answers to his urgent questions, Sam turns to Gerty, whose motto, "Helping you is what I do," begins to sound questionable to Sam. When Gerty informs Sam that he's under orders to keep him from returning to the rover, where Sam suspects he'll find answers to his questions about what happened to him, Sam takes matters into his own hands.

The presence of a robot companion of sorts for Sam has led to comparisons between Moon and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, although Moon, directed by first-time feature filmmaker Duncan Jones, whose prior experience has been in the realm of commercials and music videos (Jones is the son of rock star David Bowie). The scale of Moon doesn't match the scale of 2001, but in its own, more personal way, Moon explores questions of individual identity and purpose—and possibly, faith. Sam has spent years building a model of a church and a Salvation Army building. His daughter is named Eve. He speaks of a ping-pong game as being very "zen," and of second chances in personal relationships.

Is he a theist? A mystic? Religion is never far from the center of the action in Moon, although that action is contemplative and ideas-based, not built around space battles, aliens or anything else modern audiences might associate with science-fiction films set in outer space. Moon is more interested in where our ideas originate, and just how much control we have over our destinies and past memories. The answers are not comfortable, although the film's embrace of personhood in the face of technological upheaval is a hopeful note amid the distressing realities Sam comes to face as the story unfolds.

Nevertheless, these themes are not well worked out. Moon suggests them but then settles for a rather hackneyed climax, driven by loud, pulsating music and a beat-the-clock, edge-of-your-seat tension that comes out of nowhere and which represents a break from the careful, studied tone of everything that comes before the finale. The result is that the film's climax feels rushed, and less than satisfying. Here's hoping that time, and a few repeat viewings, will uncover further clues to the meaning of Moon and the intentions of its filmmakers, but viewers let down by the film may be unwilling to give it another chance.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; several instances of foul language, including the "f" word.
  • Smoking/Drinking:  A character says, "I don't know what you're smoking.'"
  • Sex/Nudity:  Backside male nudity; Sam tells Gerty he needs "to get laid"; Sam dreams of making love to his wife; they take each other's tops off; a father says his daughter "might be the milkman's."
  • Violence/Crime:  A vehicle accident puts Sam in the infirmary; two men fight, causing one man's face to bleed; vomiting; a man's tooth comes out as his health deteriorates; blood comes from a man's nose.
  • Marriage:  Sam's wife back on earth talks of needing time apart.
  • Religion:  God is not mentioned, but Sam's daughter is named Eve and he builds models of churches. He also refers to the game of ping-pong as being "zen."