Forty years, almost to the day, after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Duncan Jones’ directorial debut Moon (2009) was released. It is no secret that I am a big fan of both the moon and Sam Rockwell, so I went to see this (twice) as soon as I had the chance. There are probably spoilers in what follows, so read on with that in mind.
Ever since re-watching Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) recently, I’ve been wondering why Sam Rockwell isn’t way more famous. Maybe Moon will fix that. His performance is — as always — flawless, and although Jones wrote the role of Sam Bell specifically for Rockwell, it presented a challenging task regardless.
…and I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I
Don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying?
There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.
I never said I was frightened of dying. — Pink Floyd
“I have always been a fan of science fiction films,” Jones says. “In my mind, the golden age of SF cinema was the ‘70s, early ‘80s, when films like Silent Running, Alien, Blade Runner, and Outland told human stories in future environments. I’ve always wanted to make a film that felt like it could fit into that canon.” Moon definitely fits into that canon.
Moon tells the story of astronaut Sam Bell, who is on a three-year solitary contract harvesting Helium 3 from the far side of the moon. We catch him two weeks before the end of his stay and just before the daily routine of his mission starts to devolve into madness and second guessing. The clues mount slowly, but finally crest and cave in.
One of the most powerful aspects of the film is its ability to make you feel a slight sense of unease. In this way it reminds me of Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004). Just the subtle but unavoidable feeling that something here is not quite right. Referencing several sci-fi classics, Jones creatively borrows elements from the golden age and appropriates them. Pieces from films past include a resurrection of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the moon base’s in-house computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a nod to the hallucinations of Steven Soderburgh’s Solaris (2002), and a similar use of the memory implants from Blade Runner (1982). While Moon borrows elements from older films, it mixes them in new ways. Duncan Jones addressed his references online, writing, “As much as anyone I know, I revere sci-fi from the past. If anyone feels I have overstepped the mark in the homages I pay, I’m sorry. But I would say this: I have talked to two of the three directors that made the films I mentioned above, and both of them loved Moon, and are thrilled that someone of my generation would care enough about what they made so many years ago to want to pay them the compliment of making a film like Moon.”
Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do. — David Bowie
The aesthetics of Moon are timeless, situating the story anywhere in the near future and the movie itself anywhere in the recent past. It also manages to avert cliché in several other ways. GERTY, for whom we wait to go amok and turn on Sam, stays true and helps him till the very end — even when it means erasing his own memory.
Like Solaris, Moon is more concerned with inner space than outer space (and Clint Mansell’s score recalls Cliff Martinez’s best work). It was written and directed in the style of the “golden age,” and in many ways, it’s the polar opposite of modern-day action sci-fi like I Am Legend (2007) or District 9 (2009). As Jones put it, “…there were quite a few personal things I wanted to put into this film. My feelings about how people change over time, questions that I felt we all have about our sense of worth, feelings that you go through during long distance relationships. Personal and human things. Things that, like the Moon itself, we could all relate to.”
Here’s the trailer to Duncan Jones’ Moon [runtime: 2:07]: