I think my initial hesitation with the independent sci-fi film "Moon" lied in two factors. The first was that it starred Sam Rockwell, an actor who had failed to impress me on numerous occasions ("Choke," "Frost/Nixon," and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.") The second was that its premise was Rockwell as an astronaut isolated all by himself on a moon base.
It seemed like "Cast Away" on the Moon except with Rockwell instead of Tom Hanks. Instead of the volley ball Wilson he'd have the HAL 9000-esque computer GERTY (Kevin Spacey.) No thanks.
That the film ultimately ends up as a success is a testament to Rockwell as a genuinely talented performer and writer-director Duncan Jones as an inventive filmmaker. So this is why Rockwell has the reputation he does within the independent film world.
Think you have a crappy job? Try this one on for size: Sam Bell (Rockwell) is the sole employee at Lunar Industries' moon base. He's up entirely by himself on the moon for three years. He has to monitor the mining of a helium gas which is now used to provide 70 percent of the world's energy. His only companion is the base's computer, a robot tasked with keeping him safe and sane named GERTY.
The film begins as slow and dull as the job it presents. Bell fights boredom and loneliness as he goes about his often dangerous work of overseeing operations. During his down time he spends time building elaborate models.
I was about ready to dismiss the film as another Rockwell misfire performance when Jones threw an intriguing twist into the narrative. Then the film took off and assumed its rightful place within the tradition of intellectually deep, thematically rich science fiction.
"Moon" has many obvious inspirations. Spacey's GERTY is a nod to the famous monotone computer HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking "2001: A Space Odyssey." And Jones exploits this comparison. When the film is at its most mysterious we never know quite what to think of GERTY. Is it really Bell's ally? Or is it engaged in conspiring against him?
Like all great science fiction - from "2001" to "Star Trek" to the novels and short stories of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison - "Moon" is most interested in addressing social and philosophical issues. It uses the setting of the future and the props of advanced technology to rip us from our modern day settings to reconsider important issues in a fresh light. (I won't specify because to do so would be to give away some of the film's key surprises.)
These intellectual ideas can only go so far on their own, though. Jones makes them accessible through fashioning an entertaining thriller narrative which Rockwell can utilize to create a sympathetic, everyman character. That the film is artistically stunning with the cinematography of Gary Shaw and the always-reliable score of Clint Mansell ("Requiem for a Dream," "The Fountain," and "The Wrestler") only increases the effectiveness of its ideas and drama.
According to an interview with Suicide Girls Jones has plans to make "Moon" into a trilogy of films exploring the new futuristic world he's established with his first picture. Let's home these sequels come to fruition. He's really onto something here that should be encouraged: the revival of intellectual, philosophical science fiction. Hopefully he and "District 9" director Neil Blomkamp won't be alone in bringing brains back to a genre which has all too often served as little more than the setting for action pictures.