Moon: A Superior Space Oddity

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Mark Tille / Lunar Industries / Sony

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell in Duncan Jones' Moon.

By 2026, Earth scientists have discovered a way to solve the planet's energy crisis: harvest an element called helium-3 from the Moon. Apparently this vast effort requires only one human: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who's nearing the end of a three-year contract working alone in a station on the lunar surface. All that time alone, with only a talking computer and some old TV shows as company, has made Sam edgy; he can't wait to be picked up and taken back to Earth, to his loving wife and child. His anxiety escalates to horror when he discovers someone else in the station: another Sam Bell. Yikes, there's a clone on board. Or could the clone be our Sam?

Just from this synopsis of Moon, a searching and worthy first feature by Brit fashion maven Duncan Jones, you'll glean that the writer-director has maybe watched Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey once or twice, and is familiar with the stories of SF master Philip K. Dick, who wrote frequently about guys who don't realize they're robots. But Jones, 38, isn't just riffling these oeuvres in order to riff on them. He's long been fascinated by the evolving identity of man in the cyber-era. In 1995, as a philosophy major at the College of Wooster, he wrote a thesis entitled How to Kill Your Computer Friend: An Investigation of the Mind/Body Problem and How It Relates to the Hypothetical Creation of a Thinking Machine.

We also must raise the matter of Jones' pedigree — he is the son of David Bowie, and as a child was called Zowie Bowie — but only because there is an tantalizing connection between a song of the father and the film of the son. Bowie's Space Oddity, from 1969, takes its punning title from the Kubrick movie the year before. Released nine days before the Apollo 11 moon landing, and played by the BBC in its coverage of the event, it describes the communication of a lonely astronaut: "This is Major Tom to Ground Control... / Here am I sitting in a tin can / Far above the world./ Planet Earth is blue,/ And there's nothing I can do. / Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles, / I'm feeling very still... / Tell my wife I love her very much. / She knows." Maybe Bowie ought to get a story credit.

Jones adds to this familiar elements from many a space epic or action movie. Sam might be the cop who is just days from a well-earned retirement, and who is bound to get bumped off so the hero can avenge him. There's also the ticking-clock mechanism of an expedition that's coming to fetch Sam, and the private multinational corporation, Sam's employer, that simply must have nefarious motives. Yet the movie isn't interested in suspense tricks or conspiracy theories so much as in investigating Sam's mind/body problem: he has a surplus of the latter and may be losing the former. Indeed, the picture could be called Lunacy, since its protagonist's mind drifts between moony and loony. Is Sam really facing his doppelganger — and later his tripleganger and possibly googolganger — or is it all just a lunar phase?

Like the 2001 astronauts, Sam has a chatty computer, named Gerty, which comes equipped with a metallic arm, as in the arcade claw games, three expressions (smiley-face, frowny-ace and deadpan) and the would-be soothing voice of Kevin Spacey. Like Socrates or a rabbi or a shrink, Gerty annoyingly answers questions with questions. (Sam, agitated: "Am I a f---in' clone?" Gerty, trying to deflect the issue: "Are you hungry?") Unlike HAL-9000 from the Kubrick movie, however, this computer is not totally the slave of his programmers. Sometimes it will aid Sam as he rises from impotence into insurrection.

In strong supporting roles in The Green Mile, Matchstick Man, Snow Angels and the Brad Pitt Jesse James movie, and starring as Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rockwell has honed his specialty of runty ranters. His standard character is the kind of highly caffeinated punk who, in any group, would be voted most likely to screw up the mission. He brings some of that chip-on-shoulder orneriness to Moon — at times you wonder how Sam aced the screening process and got the job — and to the second Sam, a Top Gun-type who fulminates while the first one mewls. But there's a tenderness, too, in Rockwell's depiction, from the inside, of a man out of his shallows, one little guy against the whole galactic system.

Around Rockwell, and on a low budget, Jones has created a plausible environment — sterile on the inside, grungy on the lunar surface — that would drive anybody nuts. He guides the film at a tempo that is both measured and assured; here, it's clear, is a director who knows how to get the viewer on his pensive wavelength. Mass-audience action fans may plead for more stuff to happen, but they should attend to the tensions within the silences, in a place where no one can hear Sam scream.

Jones hopes Moon to be the first of a trilogy, and he's already shown the promise that further episodes could bring to fulfillment. Here's hoping it happens, and that, in a few years, David Bowie is the answer to the trivia question: Who is the father of famous director Duncan Jones?