“Moon,” one of the most meditative films of its kind, arrives at these conclusions not through domineering special effects or jolts, but through the stillness of simple visuals that reveal the unease of a central figure in a moment of shocking discovery, who walks through his own existence like a witness to unshakable realities rather than an active participator. He is, furthermore, made delirious by answers so disquieting that they seem to whisper greater purposes beyond just the story’s own frame of reference, and in a vital moment of revelation his plight is absorbed directly into the consciousness of our own watchful eyes. That has much to do with the point that its themes are of importance in our times, yes, but the result doesn’t entirely rest on that particular prospect either. Many movies are made about relevant topics and yet never earn enough of our trust to include us in the arguments; for first-time director Duncan Jones, that kind of reality is the antithesis of critical thinking, and he rejects the possibility in a picture of cautious intentions and almost audacious simplicity. It acquires our respect by rejecting all those modern urges to absorb philosophical challenges in loud and senseless action.
Indeed, much of that prospect is so precious to discover as a moviegoer that there is a very significant difficulty in discussing specifics in writing. For the purpose of reference, here is mandatory information. The film starts Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut for Lunar Enterprises who is stationed on a moon base in order to oversee a lengthy mission in which minerals are harvested, consolidated and then transported back to Earth – an initiative that is heralded in the opening shots as a revelatory benefit to a world in need of cleaner fuel sources. Sam’s involvement in the agenda, we gather, is simply contractual; he knows what he is there for and follows through like a dedicated contractor, but doesn’t supply the obvious initiative to suggest he truly enjoys what he is doing. That may, in part, come down to the exhausting nature of the job. Astronauts are contracted to a three-year-long stay on the base for said mission – a good cost-saving measure in a world where space travel is probably still rather expensive – and their only source of contact is a monotone computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and occasional video files from distant loved ones.
A few days away from returning to Earth, Sam’s mind begins to wander beyond the sphere of his monotony, usually in conjunction with strange circumstances. He sees random human figures in the corner of his peripheral vision, and burns his hand on a hot water spout. One of the harvesting rovers experiences problems, and when he goes out to check, he is nearly killed when the air cavity is destroyed by crushing boulders. Later, during a moment when Gerty believes he is still unconscious from the accident, he hears it exchanging ominous instruction with someone on the other end of a video feed, suggesting hushed agendas. And then when he decides to take it upon himself to go and investigate the crash site again, the computer protests. Why won’t it let him leave the central base? Movies as far bas as the dawn of science fiction have flooded our consciousness with the realization that an artificial intelligence almost never does anything out of concern for a human life, and immediately our senses are overwhelmed in a skepticism that proves all too true in the ensuing escape.
The secret that Sam is about to uncover isn’t just a skillful plot twist, but a very original sleight of hand trick that the movie pulls on us to inspire a plethora of visual and narrative discussion points. Much of that is driven further by very perceptive dialogue, which is no easy feat in a film that features very few speaking parts (including one that is computer-based); when voices engage one another, it is seldom for something frivolous, and almost always on point with the notion that their shared existence is cast in the shadow of a broader point that they are only just beginning to understand. Yet this isn’t all used merely to the effect of investigative character study, either. The movie is about the audacity of existence, the perseverance of consciousness against a vicious cycle, and about the question of what place a soul has in an existence that has reduced its meaning to assembly line precision. And by modulating it all with a gradual pace that directly echoes the great “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Jones’ technical artists take collective strides in keeping that sense of perspective in the foreground; to them, special effects are only necessary to implicate a setting (albeit in a very clean, convincing fashion).
Why do I avoid going into more elaborate detail concerning the dilemmas that Sam faces? Because to do so would be to undermine the savory context of what audiences must discover for themselves. Some surprises are necessitated by their secrecy, others enriched by the jolt of their arrival. “Moon” insists that quality on details that are not just used for momentary shock value, but for an overreaching point that is deep, thoughtful, and rather important in this age of scientific advancement. Duncan Jones admits to be an avid champion of the genre’s core values, and his enthusiasm shows in dual respects: as a director he often hones in on his figures in long and unbroken passages that inspire the obligatory surface wonder, and the screenplay which he devised is precise with its points without overwhelming them in lengthy passages of characters talking in circles. There is not one moment of the film that exists for something other than strategic contemplation. And while few moviegoers saw the picture when it first came out in 2009, it has nonetheless inspired more mainstream filmmakers in more general ways. An example of that reality is the uneven Tom Cruise vehicle “Oblivion” from 2013, which didn’t just rip off the underlying idea of Jones’ film, but actually placed it at the center of a series of startling plot twists.
In terms of many of the recent benchmarks in science fiction, “Moon” predates Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful “Gravity” by four years, and yet utilizes the same passionate philosophy of a director who sees his setting and technique as a conduit for quiet wonder rather than ambitious spectacle (albeit on a much smaller scale). So often the films of this volatile genre spend a great deal of time showing us things we haven’t seen rather than contemplating what goes into them, especially now; it’s as if the lessons of the great film architects, like Lang and Kubrick, have been made into footnotes by the very directors that looked to them for their baseline inspiration. The most blatant irony of Jones’ film is that it took such comparatively little money to result in moments that look and feel more genuine than what shows up in more mainstream endeavors (the movie’s budget reportedly was a mere $5 million). Notice how genuine the harvesting drone looks, for instance, when it silently ripples across the moon’s rough terrain, and then contrast that image with any two seconds of one of the loud “Transformer” pictures. Which one is giving us more opportunity to meditate on what we are seeing, much less the time? A genuine sci-fi guru wants to deliberate, while most of today’s action pictures deny them the fundamental right. “Moon” is a cue to the responsibility of filmmakers in a time when most seldom trust their audiences to think about answers, and asks questions that paralyze us in intricate fascination long after the final shot has left an imprint.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Sci-Fi (US); 2009; Rated R for (); Running Time: 97 Minutes
Sam Rockwell: Sam Bell
Kevin Spacey: GERTY
Dominique McElligot: Tess
Kaya Scodelario: Eve
Produced by Trevor Beattie, Nicky Moss, Bil Bungay, Stuart Fenegan, Mark Foligno, Alex Francis, Michael Henry, Justin Lanchbury, Steve Milne, Deepak Sikka, Trudie Styler, Julia Valentine and Bill Zysblat; Directed by Duncan Jones; Written by Nathan Parker; based on the story by Duncan Jones