Thursday, July 30, 2009

moon, by duncan jones; review

I saw Moon tonight, the debut feature by Duncan Jones. Set in a familiar, dystopian future, it is what all the best science fiction films are; a slow, thoughtful examination of isolation. What could be more lonely than being sent to space, so far from the people who begat us? (Except perhaps to be living in a city - where far more science fiction films ought to be set).

Moon gives away it's plotline early, so I have no compunction about revealing details, although I'll try to hold something back, in case you've not seen it. Following in a great tradition of stories about identity and the self, it's about doubles; Sam Rockwell - the beautifully calibrated lead - encounters no-one on his solitary posting on the moon - except himself. He's there on the last leg of a solitary posting to oversee a mining operation which supplies Earth with 70% of it's energy, alone but for a nostalgic portrait of a robot companion, voiced by Kevin Spacey (with more than a nod to HAL). And then an exact clone of himself arrives, ready to assume his post. Immediately he starts to disintegrate. And the process is painful and frightening to watch.

It must be hard being a first-time director. Everyone looks not only for evidence of genius but obsessively for immature flaws. So Moon has encountered its own doubling, its own dichotomy, in its reception. On the one hand, reviewers note, it's an emphatic triumph - a mature, thoughtful science fiction film, a loving homage to a lost era of film-making and a triumph of art over budget. On the other hand, we read, Jones gives too much away, references too many forebears, doesn't quite pull it off. Well - nonsense. I thought Moon was a perfectly weighted film, and a complex, haunting pleasure to watch.

Rockwell must take some of the credit. It's unusual to see a film where one actor alone carries 99% of the screentime, and more unusual still to see him make such a success of carrying not one, but two, distinct characters. For although Rockwell plays two clones of the same character, he imbues each with their own identifiable strengths and weaknesses.

And this is what the film is really about. The first Sam, the dying ember, slowly approaching the end of his shift, is self-aware, rounded, complete. Three years in space have allowed him the time to resolve his conflicts, make peace with his demons. By the same token, the dynamism apparent in his younger clone is altogether gone - his lifeblood drained by his isolation. As the drama unfolds, we begin to wonder - is he resolved, or is he beaten? And is his younger, more aggressive, more impetuous self, his only hope of escape?

Few dystopias, of course, have happy endings. The question, here, is what hope has man in the face of corporations? Sam is only a commodity to be exploited. And only humanity can save us. When GERTY, Sam's robot companion, first begins to exert his malign influence on his final days, we can see only the negative connotations of a computerised future. But soon GERTY, who is treated as a friend by Sam, begins to display not just emoticons - his screen displays them to denote texture to his monotone pronouncements - but real emotions, humanity is given a metaphorical shot in the arm. He helps propel Sam's clone to the film's semi-positive denouement. But we must be cautious; his sentience is sympathetic but not empathetic. Despite helping Sam, he declares himself happy to be re-booted, his memory wiped, the program to begin once again. Essentially, his 'humanity' is nothing more than a glitch in the program; albeit one that Sam is lucky to find, and exploit.

So perhaps this is the future - a future where we're forced to look for holes in the system, glitches to exploit. Corporations, governments, mean only to exploit mankind. But humanity is ingenious, humanity is persistent. Jones never quite gives resolution, and the film is ultimately upsetting and bleak. But Rockwell's Sam is so powerful, Jones's direction so focused, that Moon can only inspire. A sad, loving, hopeful, defeated - and defiant film. Best thing I've seen in ages.


Jo G said...

Thank you for reminding me to go see this, managed to catch it on its penultimate night at Cineworld at the marina. And very glad I did. Great review, Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

And a couple of posts before; I wrote a review on Moon! We're having synchronised lives perhaps -although I didn't give away the bloody twist!