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The last place you'd ever expect to find yourself.
The intelligence of sci-fi films released in 2009 seems to be dictated by their budget. Specifically, the bigger the budget, the dumber they get—bigger explosions, more pronounced special effects, annoying CG characters, etc. Moon was made for $5 million dollars and, suffice it to say, was one of the smarter sci-fi films of 2009.
Facts of the Case
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, Frost/Nixon) is the astronaut in charge of mining much of the world's energy. He's an employee of Lunar Industries LTC, the company responsible for extracting Helium 3 from the Moon's surface, refining it, and saving Earth from its oil-based energy economy.
Sam's spent three years of his life working on the dark side of the Moon. With the exception of the occasional video message from home (the communication satellites are perpetually broken), his only friend is GERTY (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty), a soft-spoken robot who communicates his mood with smiley-faced emoticons. Sam only has a few weeks left to endure, but his years spent in solitude begin to take their toll: he's seeing things; he's getting sick; and he's becoming overrun with paranoia. These changes come to an apex when Sam wrecks his lunar rover and makes a horrifying discovery.
Moon is a crafty, and very endearing, little sci-fi movie. Made on a miniscule budget, the film combines old fashioned space aesthetics with an arresting character study. It's not really a thriller, or a comedy, or a drama—broad categories aren't necessary—but it certainly has elements of all three.
Moon opens with Sam running on a beat-up treadmill. It's a subtle allusion to the film's low budget attitude towards the epic stylings of 2001: A Space Odyssey—a film that seems to inspire this movie in spirit, despite the director stating he was going more for Outland and Alien. From here we meet Sam, who's been alone long enough to be comfortably talking to himself. He's also clearly been living in this base: his photos are all over the place, the walls and computers have his writing on them, and his computer friend, GERTY, has a "kick me" Post-It on his back. Sam's stayed in this glorified "space dorm" long enough, and he's ready to go home to his wife (Dominique McElligott).
Sam Rockwell is remarkable in this film. With only the soothing drawl of Kevin Spacey's "GERTY" to talk to, Rockwell has to carry the entire film on his shoulders. He does so with a wide range of emotions and plenty of nuance, especially in the film's second and third acts. While the twists in the film aren't similar in content, the emotions and character growth that Sam experiences are reminiscent of Jim Carrey's performance in The Truman Show. Rockwell's performance turns this "hard science" narrative into a relatable, emotional discussion about a man's worth.
Moon isn't all Plato's Cave, of course. This is Duncan Jones's directorial debut, and he exhibits a striking visual style. Moon's practical effects and structural design may harken back to the sci-fi classics of the early '80s, but its premise and isolationism feel much older. It's not about the special effects (although subtly great), or laser guns or aliens (there aren't any). Instead, it's using the reduced gravity of the Moon to tackle existential crises and the value of human life.
Nathan Parker's script is smart, and his dialogue, especially with GERTY, can be fairly witty. When things start to feel a little too bleak or preachy, Rockwell is able to quip some good one-liners and shine a bit of light in some otherwise dark scenes. It's the film's pacing that occasionally feels tottery: the third act gets bogged down in some repetitive moments, and the ending narration is a little underwhelming. These points, however, are minor complaints in an otherwise enjoyable and thoughtful film.
Moon's transfer to DVD is a solid one. The picture looks very good, and the slight bit of digital effects blend perfectly with the practical models, sets, and actors. The digital artistry on display in the latter half of the film is spot-on and completely unnoticeable (I mean that in the best way possible). The sound is also strong, with a great mix of sound effects and the Clint Mansell score, in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.
The disc comes with a nice selection of special features. There are two commentary tracks: a more traditional, insightful, track with writer/director Duncan Jones and producer Stuart Fenegan, and a second, more conversational and chaotic, track with Jones, Director of Photography Gary Shaw, Concept Designer Gavin Rothery, and Production Designer Tony Noble.
Also included are two "making of" featurettes. The first is a basic overview of the production, which includes interviews with the cast and crew. The second is an in-depth look at the film's visual effects. Both provide a fair amount of insight into how Moon was made under such a tidy budget. Lastly, there are two different Q&A sessions, one from a screening at the Houston Space Center and the other from Sundance. They're a tad redundant, so if you're only going to watch one, go for the Space Center Q&A.
Moon is an indie movie that never feels cheap, and a sci-fi movie that doesn't look fake. An impressive feat, to say the least. Duncan Jones has crafted a film that relies on a strong lead character, and Sam Rockwell delivers fully. And for fans of the film looking for repeat viewings, this DVD (with its dual commentary tracks) certainly provides incentive.
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