Spoiler Warning: This review does contain spoilers about the film, but little beyond what the film’s trailer has already revealed, so read ahead only if you’ve seen the trailer (not something I necessarily recommend).
When I first saw the trailer for ‘Moon’, I was angry. It gives away the major plot twist in the film. I’ve seen trailers spoiling major plot points, but rarely as egregiously as this one. The trailer cooled my anticipation for the film, and made me swear off trailer for a little while (a good practice in general). Imagine my surprise to discover, upon seeing the film at the ICON festival, that the trailer is in fact an ingenious primer for the film! The filmmakers have an ace up their sleeves. The trailer does give away the film major twist. But that twist occurs only a third of the way into the film. I would have preferred to go in cold, but seeing and hating the trailer actually enhanced my experience in an interesting way.
So much of the film assumes that the audience knows what to expect. It encourages the audience to think two steps ahead…until it pulls the rug out from under us. It is extremely enjoyable manipulation. Director Duncan Jones manipulates in a way that assumes so much intelligence on the part of the audience that I found it impossible to resent.
Sometime in the future, Sam Bell is an employee of Lunar Industries, a company that harvests resources on the moon for the benefit of earth and its shareholders. Sam is the operator of a lunar outpost. He’s got two weeks to go on his three year contract and can’t wait to get back to his wife and daughter. His only companion is Gerty, the outpost’s computer that is absolutely supposed to bring to mind HAL 9000 and all the complications that entails (and is voiced by Kevin Spacey). Sam is feeling sick. He’s talking to himself. And he’s just found another person on the moon, who looks very similar to himself and is also named Sam Bell. It’s at this point that my expectations for the movie were absolutely confounded. This was the twist I knew to expect, but it happened so early in the film and in such a matter-of-fact fashion, that I had no choice but to sit back and submit to the story. Thankfully, what happens next is in fact a story, not an extended allegory. Because, though ‘Moon’ does have pertinent issues on its mind –a wide spectrum of things, from Corporate immorality to ‘What does it mean to be Human?’- it is first and foremost an engrossing narrative. That means that it may not deal with its moral and existential question in as penetrating a fashion as the films it is taking notes from, but it also does not get bogged down with philosophical rumination that we’ve seen before. We get a bunch of ‘Blade Runner’, a dash of ‘Alien’, a taste of ‘Solaris’, a bit of ‘Dark City’, a helping of ‘Capricorn One’, all in a general ‘2001’ setting (I also got an ‘A.I.’ vibe in there somewhere, but I haven’t a clue if Jones is one of the acolytes of that criminally underrated masterpiece). They are some of the building blocks Jones uses to create his story. He references the films, but not just by dropping them in. They’ve been fully integrated in his world- some have even been inverted, so that they pay homage to the original, but twisted to fit this story.
Navigating us through this is Sam Rockwell, who plays Sam. A wonderful offbeat actor in such films as ‘Matchstick Men’ and ‘Confessions of Dangerous Mind’ (to name two personal favorites), this is the definition of a tour-de-force performance. It is technically difficult- he’s often in scenes playing two different Sams- but more importantly, he is the audience’s surrogate. The film depends on us being with Sam every step of the way, with every new revelation. Rockwell gets the audience’s investment, and the film repays it simply by respecting the connection we have with Sam. At every point past the initial twist, we know exactly what Sam knows. We understand him, and he never does anything that feels like a plot machination (save perhaps for the ending, which I’ll get to soon). That may not sound so extraordinary, but consistent generosity and respect from filmmakers towards an audience is a rare occurrence…think how many times you’ve invested yourself in a film, only for it to go into auto-pilot toward the end, insulting the effort you put in.
Not only rewarding from a script standpoint, the film –made for roughly 1/40th the budget of ‘Transformers: The Rise of the Fallen’- is a credit to efficient and, not infrequently, sublime craftsmanship. The principal set of the outpost feels spacious and lived in. The effects are convincing, most notably the illusion of two Sams playing off each other in the same shots. I was also impressed with Clint Mansell’s (‘Requiem for a Dream’) score. It is at times electronic and minimalist, fitting for the sci-fi setting, but it also has warmth and melody in it. It helps the film in keeping the pace up, not getting too heavily into endless unmusical droning that some filmmakers seem to think is the only way to score existential angst.
Lastly, I would like to talk about the ending of the film. It is a surprisingly neat ending- right after I saw it, I thought it felt like a studio imposed ending. It can be seen as a cop-out, but like the film references in the movie, I found it to be (upon reflection) multi-layered in a satisfying way. It is a tacked-on happy ending (though where it leaves our character is debatable), but it is also an expression of longing for a real happy ending. Somewhat ironic in its presentation, it felt like the filmmaker saying “Yes, this is force and unconvincing…but wouldn’t it be nice to have some optimism here?”. It is not the natural ending of the film, but it expresses a blissfully un-ironic longing for happiness, a rejection of hipster nihilism. I know I’m reading a lot into it, but it raised the concept of post-modern sincerity in my mind, and I’m more content thinking that than writing the ending off as merely fake or ironic. Duncan Jones respected me as an audience member in the making of this modest, fine film…assuming the most generous reading of the ending is the least I can do.