Thursday, July 23, 2009

Moonage Daydream

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 clich├ęs 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.


Anonymous said...

Great review, Chuck. I hope this comes to Athens soon. I think my robot testicle quota has already been met for the summer.

Would you liken this to Solaris in any way?

Tony Dayoub said...

I really need to see this.

Jacob, you live in Athens, GA? Or elsewhere?

Chuck W said...

Thanks guys. :)

Jacob - Well, perhaps--calling it Tarkovsky Lite would probably be a more accurate estimate. The visual design is similar to that in SOLARIS, but it's obviously on a much smaller-scale, with far more conventional plotting and pacing.

Tony - You do, Tony. You do.

Also--thought you'd to know that I finally took the dive into BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA. I'm currently six episodes into season two... and while I'm not ready to call it the best television show of all time, I will admit that I'm growing a bit fidgety waiting for the next disc to come from Netflix.

Tony Dayoub said...

Awww, Chuck. The potency of that show when you don't know what's going to happen prevents me from telling you when exactly it will start bowling you over. But suffice to say that it is soon, my friend... very soon.

After season 2, there will be lots of ups and downs in quality (but very minor as the series was pretty consistently good). And it's one of the only shows that has ever made me cry... more than once.

Now that it's gone, the grief I feel at the absence of those characters is profound. Deeper than even Twin Peaks.

Anonymous said...

Chuck - I figured that would be the case. Just wanted to make sure.

Tony - Actually Athens, OH. The now-defunct film magazine Wide Angle used to be run through my school.

Also, I was supposed to watch Battlestar Gallactica this summer, but it looks like I'm working my way through Six Feet Under instead.

Tony Dayoub said...

OK, so I saw this yesterday, and I purposely avoided reading your review until after I saw it.

I find that you are right on target. Definitely worth seeing, the film does have its flaws. But I was impressed with Jones' direction and the patience he displayed in letting the story unfold.

That being said, you're correct about the third act. I was digging the Solaris like philosophical implications before it took a turn to a warmed-over Twilight Zone-style resolution. And the movie comes this close to overstaying its welcome.

But thankfully, it never crosses that line, and I agree that it is a good recommendation as an alternative to the typical summer fare.

Chuck W said...

Tony - Glad we see eye-to-eye on this film. Again, I don't want to be too hard on it, since its good qualities outweigh the bad. But it's sort of a shame how it falls apart from the clumsy plotting. I mean, when the characters predict, in clunky, expository dialogue, all of the major plot points that are about to take place... well, that's sort of a letdown, frankly. Nonetheless, it's a solid film and I recommend it, if only because so much of this summer's big event films have disappointed.

As for Battlestar Galactica -- I eagerly anticipate the full-fledged conversion (an appropriate turn of phrase, considering the theological nature of the show). Just finished S 2.0, and I gotta say that I'm enjoying the show immensely so far. I just hope I don't turn into this guy:

Jacob - Six Feet Under is excellent, though some parts of its middle seasons grow a little masochistic and melodramatic, full of weepy historics and absurd plot threads (in other words--typical Alan Ball stuff). But when it's on, it's damn good. And Season 5 is probably one of the best things ever put on television (especially the final five episodes).

Chuck W said...

Also--if anyone else wants to talk about what television shows you're watching this summer, go ahead and use this thread as your excuse. :)

Tony Dayoub said...

Dwight is a tad too obsessed.

As for TV shows, I, my friends, am rewatching the entire run of Miami Vice and Crime Story again because I can't shake the Michael Mann out of me since I saw Public Enemies.

Vice is proving particularly nostalgic since I grew up in Miami while it was being filmed. I don't know if you guys have ever lived anywhere that's been used as a location for a movie, but the funniest phenomenon is when you see the characters start off in one location, then they turn a corner and end up at a location tens of miles away.