||This first feature from Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie who made his mark directing ads, isn’t timid about emulating the classics. “Moon” is an intellectual sci-fi tale that unabashedly takes its inspiration from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Unfortunately, it resembles the Kubrick masterpiece less than it does an episode of “The Outer Limits” (the second series, not the first). A pretty good episode, but not much more.
Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, the sole human at a base on the dark side of the moon where lunar rock is mined to serve as a power source back on earth. His only company at the complex is the computer Gerty 3000, voiced by Kevin Spacey, and after his contractual three years of isolation he’s weary and desperate to return to his wife and daughter. His physical and mental exhaustion leads to an accident as he investigates something outside the camp—an apparent hallucination—and when he awakens back inside, he finds a stronger, more aggressive double of himself who insists that he’s the real Bell. The rest of the picture is about the two of them trying to puzzle out who’s who and what the whole mining operation entails.
“Moon” is obviously a story about identity, with a strong philosophical streak, and Jones, working closely with editor Nicolas Gastor, stages it coolly and deliberately, as befits what amounts to an existential exercise. And he, production designer Tony Noble, art director Hideki Arichi and cinematographer Gary Shaw compose the individual scenes carefully to create stark, crisp images but with a lived-in feel. Visually the picture is an impressive accomplishment, especially as it was made on an obviously limited budget. Only the miniature effects of moon-rovers operating outside the installation look distinctly less than state-of-the-art.
The film also is a tour de force for Rockwell, an actor who never chooses the easy roles and here challenges himself again. Acting against oneself is difficult, even in small doses—the technical demands alone are numerous. But Rockwell maintains the illusion over the long haul, and manages some truly remarkable moments, the most notable being a ping-pong game he literally plays with himself. A claustrophobic picture like this depends largely on its star, and Rockwell delivers beautifully.
But he does get strong vocal support from Spacey, whose inflections are imaginatively—and amusingly—matched by a collection of smiley-face, sad-face emoticons that reflect “his” attitudes toward “his” charge(s). Gerty, of course, is intended to remind us of HAL-9000, though Spacey’s tones are more human than Douglas Rains’s were; and Jones toys with the viewer’s expectations about the machine’s motivations, depending on our knowledge of Kubrick’s film to undermine them. It’s one of the script’s most savvy elements.
Unfortunately, the rest of the construct isn’t nearly as clever. “Moon” is posited as a puzzle, but when it arrives the solution turns out to be pretty prosaic. Though Jones tries to spruce it up with some cloak-and-dagger machinations designed to generate suspense, it really boils down to the question of what makes one truly human. And there’s “The Outer Limits” analogy again; it’s precisely the sort of obvious point you’d expect that program to build a show around.
Still, one shouldn’t be too hard on “Moon.” It’s a young man’s movie, and from that perspective quite a promising one. But to draw another comparison that works only loosely yet is still valid, it’s like “THX 1138,” not “Star Wars.”