by Chuck Williamson
Each summer, sci-fi cinema becomes more and more vulgarized by the bombastic, near-pornographic aesthetic imposed by the blockbuster template: the shaky cinematographic foreplay and explosive pyrotechnic money-shots, marked with sloppy soul-kisses and the lubed-up afterglow of computer generated graphics. With films like Transformers and Terminator: Salvation, the consummation comes with the requisite kicking and squirming, turning our routine moviegoing practices into sordid, shameful fetish play. For many, the so-called “genre of ideas” has been degraded into a vehicle for base gratifications. But in the center of this orgiastic mess is Moon, a modest, ascetic alternative to the norm that, for all its shortcomings, breaks away from the obscene summer aesthetic. Although far from perfect, Moon is an intimate, contemplative science-fiction tale, a breath of fresh air that reminds us that the genre can do more than prop up loud, lifeless spectacle.
Directed by Duncan Jones (son of the original space oddity, David Bowie), Moon ripples with complexity, embracing both formal and narrative paradox; the film adroitly melds its muted, slow-burn aesthetic with wry humanism, logic-puzzle plotting with intimate drama. Moon begins with a languorous, claustrophobic montage where the camera drifts through the empty, sterile interiors of a lunar mining outpost positioned on the far side of the moon. Inside, the world contracts into a small, insular space, a location of stagnation and inertia dominated by the dull, moment-by-moment routine experienced by Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the moon base’s sole occupant. Through enclosed, antiseptic cinematography, the film forces the viewer to identify with the isolation and half-crazed loneliness experienced by Bell. Outside, the cold desolation of space exists as a monochromatic daydream, a phantasmagoric landscape filtered through muted, soft-focus photography. Visually, the film is a stunner, a lyrical, lugubrious travelogue that makes its protagonist’s longing and loneliness near-tangible.
But this aesthetic design, a pitch-perfect visualization of the seclusion and alienation central to the narrative, does not drown out the subtle humanity of its characters. Instead, these cold and sterile spaces function as the backdrop for an unexpected shaggy-dog humanism that effectively contrasts the film’s oppressive visual design. Filled with an unassuming warmth and low-key humor that, in a lesser work, could implode and turn the film into a dissonant mess, Moon effectively balances the two. Rockwell’s loquacious, wiseass persona fits perfectly within the film’s framework, grounding the cosmic, contemplative sci-fi trappings with a very human presence. In a fascinating performance, Rockwell plays a man trying to retain his humanity in the most hopeless of circumstances. His interactions with the lunar base’s advanced computer system GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) blend sardonic humor with unexpected tenderness, and the pained, at times prolonged scenes of Bell viewing prerecorded videophone messages from his wife effectively recreates the trauma of isolation. This combination of the cosmic and the seriocomic gives the film the right balance of gravity and levity that, for all its occasional missteps, makes for some entrancing viewing.
Although Moon strikes this successful balance between these disparate elements, it nonetheless craters a bit under the weight of its leaden plot, a one-note museum piece of musty sci-fi clichés and mothball covered genre tropes. Despite its heady, well-conceived beginnings, Moon’s narrative grows a bit tiring near its conclusion. While the film remains engrossing even during its most unfortunate fumbles, the narrative dross that dominates its third-act—a jumbled mess of predictable plot-points and banal revelations—spoils what could have been a more contemplative and complex science-fiction drama. Even its most engaging narrative twists—Bell’s chronic hallucinations, the unexpected doppelganger—conclude with a forehead-slapping turn of events that ultimately diminishes their cumulative impact.
But Moon still preserves enough of its formal and narrative energy to remain both transfixing and surprisingly moving by its ambiguous conclusion. Despite its minor blemishes, the film is moody, melancholic, and quietly affecting, a hushed, meditative sci-fi yarn that doubles as excellent counter-programming to the exploding robots, post-apocalyptic shoot-outs, and time-traveling starships that dominated this summer. Like its protagonist, Moon represents an unassuming but human presence in an otherwise lifeless cinematic universe.