Chances are you’ve heard of The Hurt Locker, but haven’t seen it. You possibly saw a poster somewhere for A Serious Man. And you’d have to have been detained in Guantanamo, or maybe a cast member of Jersey Shore to have missed the hype surrounding the new Tarantino movie, Inglorious Basterds. You didn’t see Inglorious Basterds, but you heard about it.
The best film of the year that you didn’t hear about (and should have) is Duncan Jones’ sci-fi flick Moon.
There were better films released in 2009 than Moon, but most of those were obscure foreign films that you weren’t going to see anyway, even if every reputable critic in America wrote you a personal letter explaining why you should see it. Those films probably had war-torn orphans, three hour running times, and deep things to say about the ethereal nature of the human soul. So let’s simplify things and pretend those other movies really don’t count for this award. (Really, they don’t. I didn’t see any pretentious three hour foreign films that were any better than Moon, anyway. And since this is my blog, we go by my rules. If you want to nominate something else, feel free to list it in the comments.)
Moon is a tidy little package, clocking in at what feels like a brief 100 minutes. It’s a simple story, free of pretentions, and yet it has plenty to say about the ethereal nature of the soul.
The story is simple. Sam (excellently played by Sam Rockwell) is working alone on the far side of the moon. He’s in the tail end of a three year gig, operating a mining facility. He’s alone except for GERTY, the wise and omnipresent robot who controls the facility. Then he has an accident and he’s rescued by… himself.
Each man believes the other to be the clone, and the argument over who is who -and more importantly, who gets to go home at the end of the tour – unfolds in ways both straightforward and surprising.
Steeped in the production design of classic science fiction movies of the 1970’s, the film deliberately evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and Alien. What’s delightful about Moon is that every time it teeters on the edge of becoming a predictable genre flick, it gently curves into new and surprising territory. The biggest spoiler for the film is not the identity of Sam’s rescuer, but the knowledge that it’s not a slasher flick, nor a predictable horror flick. The second half of the film is coyly suspenseful, building tension with strong, concise storytelling. There are no aliens leaping out of the dark. The omnipresent robot (slyly voiced by Kevin Spacey) doesn’t turn out to be malignant technology run amok. There’s no labored twists, just smooth storytelling. And every time you have the story figured out, writer/director Duncan Jones finds a nuance that keeps you thinking and a left turn to keep you engaged.
Sam Rockwell handles the dual role with a deceptive ease, and since he’s the only person onscreen for 97% of the film, it’s easy to overlook what a nuanced performance he gives. He’s always had a slacker’s ease on screen, acting as if he was a half-second behind the rest of the world. Watching him embody that age-old dilemma of “What would happen if I met myself at a party? What if I thought I was an asshole?”, that slight delay speaks volumes. Watching Sam try to figure himself out is some of the most effective on-screen philosophizing as you’ll find this year.
The effects work is satisfyingly tactile. Shot for about the same budget as The Hurt Locker, Moon unfolds in a world every bit as tactile. Unlike the tiresomely digital cartoons of Avatar, the questions about human nature have an immediacy to them and a quiet depth that will have you thinking about them long after the story has unfolded. In space, sometimes a contemplative whisper is more effective than a scream.