Duncan Jones’ “Moon” – 2009 Tribeca Film Festival Review

For better or for worse, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” has inextricably altered the genre of spacefaring movies. Themes of isolation, psychological breakdowns and malignant computers have become touchstones of space-bound science fiction. Director Duncan Jones pays tribute to these tropes while delivering a fresh new take on the genre in his first full-length feature, “Moon.” The result is a darkly funny and cerebral sci-fi story that is buoyed by a great performance by Sam Rockwell.

In the movie, mankind has turned to nuclear fusion to power the Earth and now harvests the moon for Helium-3 isotopes. Lone astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell) is the sole operator of a moon base on a three-year contract for a large energy corporation. Unfortunately, he has spent the duration of his contract unable to connect to Earth, so Bell must rely on video mails to communicate with his family and superiors. His sole companion is a friendly talking robot GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). However, as his long awaited trip back to Earth nears, Bell’s health begins to deteriorate and he starts hallucinating.

What follows after the big first act twist is a slow-burning survival thriller with a fascinating philosophical subtext about identity. Bell is a slightly kooky blue-collar type who is woefully unequipped to handle the enormity of his situation, but begins to slowly piece together the reasons for his predicament. Rockwell is the only major actor on camera, and his portrayal of Bell runs the gamut of emotions from humorously pathetic acceptance to tragic victimization. It is, at times, harrowing.

A sci-fi movie is made or broken on its set design, and for an independent film with a paltry $5 million budget, “Moon” delivers in spades. The interior and exterior shots of the base and the moon are stunning. A combination of CGI and miniatures, mostly used for outdoor sequences, provide effective special effects. An excellent, haunting soundtrack is provided by Clint Mansell.

For its pluses, Moon does sometimes bog down with its homages. Its set feels like a cross between the medical bay from “Alien” and the coldly lit space station of “2001.” GERTY has more than a passing resemblance to the infamous HAL9000 from 2001, although it’s difficult to see GERTY as malicious when it uses emoticons on a small screen to display its emotions. But these are minor quibbles. Ultimately, what “Moon” proves is that effective genre stories can be told on a diminutive budget. Hopefully the movie will inspire other fledgling filmmakers to take a chance on sci-fi.

“Moon” screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and will hit theatres in June of this year.