Movie review: Space oddity in 'Moon'

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2009 - 11:29 PM

Sam Rockwell shines as the man in the "Moon."

Sam Rockwell in "Moon"

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics, Star Tribune

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The outer-space indie "Moon" puts the alien in alienation.

Ever-interesting Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, a contractor running a one-man mining operation. His employer is LUNAR Corp., a benign enterprise that supplies Earth's energy needs with Helium-3, a precious gas extracted from the moon's surface. Nearing the end of his three-year term, he's eager to be reunited with his wife and young daughter. He talks to the moon base's resident computer, GERTY, as if it was human, but otherwise he seems unaffected by his long solitude.

Alert viewers will suspect that something more worrisome is afoot. The video communications from Sam's Earthbound bosses are condescending and unconvincingly supportive. The seemingly friendly computer is voiced by Kevin Spacey, an actor who couldn't tell you the time of day without seeming duplicitous. Sam's quarters are unkempt, and Rockwell is renowned for playing wack jobs. He gives hints of psychological wear and tear. When he takes a rare drive in a lunar rover, he crashes and loses consciousness. Waking up in the base's medical facility, he's confused and comes to believe he's not alone up there.

It's difficult to do the film's clever script justice without revealing facts you should have the pleasure of discovering for yourself. Ostensibly, he encounters a younger version of himself; the two Sams strike up a resentful relationship that gradually evolves into a brotherly bond. The film keeps you guessing about what Sam is really experiencing; for a while viewers are as uncertain as Sam himself whether he is hallucinating another presence on the base. Gradually, cleverly, the issue resolves itself and Sam begins to grapple with the very notion of identity and human nature. Is he a free agent or a replaceable, standardized cog in LUNAR's machinery? The answer suggests that future generations will not be any more charitable toward working men than our own.

In what is essentially a one-man show, Rockwell delivers a bravura performance that paraphrases the cycles of the human lifespan. He brings a hardscrabble realism to the character of a blue-collar repairman isolated on a cold, pitiless space rock. His cabin fever spikes and subsides, his mentoring relationship with his hotheaded younger "self" is humanly warm and persuasive. He may be wearing astronaut gear, but he is as emotionally truthful as a Cassavetes character.

Fans of "dirty future" science fiction will thrill to the film's painstaking production design. The sets and vehicles look entirely realistic, dinged and dingy from use. The moon-surface sequences incorporate lens flares for an added touch of you-are-there realism.

Directed with a sure hand by Duncan Jones, "Moon" is the anti-"Transformers," a science fiction tale that owes as much to fiction as to science. At a time when the genre is given over to big stars and bigger explosions, here is a film that uses the form to create speculative philosophy in the form of fantastic fiction. It tells the truth, even though it is about things that never have been and, hopefully, never will be.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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