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TBTS Reviews: Moon

July 16, 2009


I hope and expect that this movie will be studied in Film Appreciation classes, as much for what didn’t work and why as for what did.  In either case, this is a hell of a debut for director Duncan Jones, whose only other work (listed on IMDB, at least) is a short 2002 film called Whistle.

The movie features Sam Bell, the lone caretaker of a lunar mining outpost that harvests Helium 3, the substance that has essentially solved the Earth’s energy problem.  He shares the facility with a soporifically-voiced robot GERTY, whose job is apparently to insure that everything runs smoothly.  Sam has only two weeks left in his three-year contract, but he starts to see things, wrecks a lunar rover, and then things really start to get funky.

Jones does a fantastic job creating atmosphere with lighting, set, and sparse ambient sound.  He makes the surroundings stark and utilitarian, but not as Spartan as other space station movies—a ping-pong table, tiny greenhouse, model-making supplies, and mini sound system help alleviate the boredom.  The set looks like it was designed by a corporate industrial-organizational psychologist with an eye toward keeping employees sane, but as cheaply as possible.  Soft, indirect white light is meant to mimic natural light, but it comes across as artificial and sterile.  White take-out style meal containers are stacked vertically in one wall, with the food in clear bags.  (I have to mention Clint Mansell’s soundtrack, which dovetails perfectly, and helps create, the oscillating mood.  The slightly tinny and cacophonous piano pieces recall later Nine Inch Nails pieces, and fit the film’s melancholy and isolation.)

While the evil-corporation and extraterrestrial mining colony devices don’t really break new ground, the sense of menace and urgency do when you realize that Sam has only two weeks left, and he’s just on the moon, not marooned on, say, LV-426.  The set, camera work and controlled violence accomplish this, as well as the introduction of a “rescue” team that you have no doubt is a hit squad.  Also, Sam’s excursions on the lunar surface hint that although he is free to drive anywhere he wants, where can he go, really, on the moon?  Especially with the brilliant, colorful earth—home, only two weeks away—in the background?

Jones has a gift for little visual and aural details: pictures of the moon show strip-mined tracts, and the song that creates tension between characters is “Walking on Sunshine”.  However, a lot of the exposition—especially opening and closing voice-overs—feels forced and clunky, and the middle of the film drags just slightly when it appears it might devolve into a buddy pseudo-comedy.  And to be honest, the “hallucinations” serve as nothing more than a clumsy narrative device to advance the plot, which could have been done in a more thoughtful fashion.  These are minor gripes, though, that don’t detract from the film overall.

Yes, Jones keeps you in your seat with neat twists: the early reveal (you’ll know it when you see it), but also later when GERTY surprises us with its true (?) purpose.   Moon is a smart film, though, with explorations of identity, human rights, and subjective realities in a pretty original and entertaining way.

Verdict:  Watch it.

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