On the final stretch of a three-year contract mining energy from the moon for an ailing Earth, isolated astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) wakes up in his lunar base after a freak accident — and suddenly discovers that he’s not alone...
While J. J. Abrams’ Red Bull reboot of Star Trek has triumphantly pulled the Zimmer frame from a rusting franchise, the relaunch is pretty indicative of modern mainstream sci-fi — epic on the dazzle, easy on the brain cells. Given its pondersome heritage, Trek’s facelift as an action series is an invigorating way to go, but it does firm up the argument that the genre of Big Ideas is, nowadays, more about Huge Explosions.
Which is odd because, during the ’70s and early ’80s, American cinema was besotted with sci-fi, not as a rollercoaster ride, but as a vessel for exploring man’s place in the cosmic ink. Duncan Jones’ mesmerising debut is an affectionate throwback to the Blade Runners, Outlands and Dark Stars of the genre, not just in terms of the way it looks, but the way it feels and thinks. From the very moment we land on Moon, the future is sci-fi’s past. The year is 2024 but really, what with the chunky lunar bases, clinical interiors and spooky, mothering computer, its Casio watch is still firmly stuck on 2001. Endearingly lo-fi Tonka Toy lunar buggies bonk over the moon’s surface like it’s space circa 1999. The stranded space-hippy vibe screams Silent Running... And yet, just when you think you’ve seen it all before, Moon fuses a jumble of familiar elements and magics up something original.
The opening act follows all the beats of a castaway movie as we’re eased into the moon boots of Sam Bell, plodding solo around his lunar base, sharing tediously functional conversations with a Kevin Spacey-voiced computer, watching video messages from the wife and generally aching to get the hell out of there. Sedate camerawork and Clint Mansell’s spectral piano score compound the sense of unearthly isolation, but what makes it all so captivating are the lived-in details that ground his solitary confinement — the furry dice in the moon rover, the crumpled Post-it notes, the vac-packed baked beans he slobbily sucks straight out of the bag...
There’s also, however, a softly humming ominous ambience that’s always threatening a lurch into space oddity and when it hits, with the baffling arrival of Bell’s surly doppelgänger, the film warps genres — from character study to twisty-turny existential mystery, and it’s just too smart to spoil. Less a whodunnit, more a whothehellami, while the ingenious script keeps you guessing, a terrific turn from Sam Rockwell keeps you caring. It’s a deeply engaging one-man show and, crucially, puts a human face on some seriously hefty themes (memory, alienation, identity). When he finally cries, “I just want to go home,” hearts will break.
Shot in 33 days and working miracles with a $5 million budget, it’s a Sundance movie in outer space and a relief it escaped the studio black hole. Moon asks proper big, stimulating questions about what it means to be human, without being cold, aloof, poncy or even remotely boring. It also looks, in its own wonderfully Airfixy way, fantastic. If you like brainfood served with your eye candy, take the trip.
They do make ’em like they used to — a fresh blast of old-school sci-fi, bursting with ideas and a stellar turn from Rockwell.