Paying homage to the science-fiction films of his youth, where space-base bulkheads and otherworldly landscapes were more likely to be styrofoam than CG, story writer and director Duncan Jones’s debut feature, Moon, is a surprisingly effective–even moving–story of isolation and alienation on the lunar surface. It’s one of those science-fiction movies made on a spartan budget that gives it a special kind of low-key tension. The closest forebear I can think of offhand is Shane Carruth’s time-travel drama Primer, which had a bargain-basement aesthetic that only amplified the general air of desperation and dehumanization. Moon, with its carefully-designed sets and frugally-executed visual-effects work, is a much more expensive proposition than Primer, but still dirt-cheap by multiplex standards. Moon may not be the best science-fiction film of 2009, yet it feels the most personal, its loving, handmade quality smoothing rough patches in the storytelling and landing the film’s essential emotional blow.
Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the lone human inhabitant of a Lunar Industries moonbase established to mine Helium-3, a rare isotope that’s absorbed by the lunar surface and is being used on Earth as a fuel source for nuclear fusion. He works with the assistance of Gerty, a robotic computer (voiced, a little distractingly, by Kevin Spacey) given the run of the base and able to glide from room to room on rails built into the ceiling. Nearing the end of his three-year contract, Sam stays in touch with his wife and daughter back home solely through pre-recorded video messages. But something’s wrong with Sam: shades of Solaris, he’s starting to see ghosts. He spots a pensive young woman first sitting in a chair at the base, then again when he’s out in a lunar rover. Spooked, Sam crashes his vehicle, only to wake up back at the base, in the care of Gerty.
If you’re spoiler-sensitive, you may as well check out of this review here, because it’s impossible to discuss the film in any detail without divulging what happens about a third of the way into it. In short, Sam heads back out onto the moon’s surface–despite admonitions from Gerty that he’s not allowed outside–and finds his wrecked rover. Peering through the window, he spots his own battered but still-living body, which he carries back to the base. Now there are two Sams, and both of them are wondering just what the hell is going on.
Having Sam Rockwell and Sam Rockwell in the same frame demands a bit of fancy footwork from the VFX team in scenes that range, stylistically, from the deadpan to the nicely droll. (A bit where the two Sams are playing ping-pong is a highlight of seamless digital doubling.) A couple of exchanges are nearly wrecked because Rockwell’s eyelines don’t match up between characters, but it’s easy to forgive the slips. In fact, although you’d expect the film to be dominated by the novelty spectacle of Rockwell’s sustained interactions with himself, it still works as drama, partly because screenwriter Nathan Parker has managed to split Sam into two similar but quite different personas. One Sam is muscular, composed, and assertive, the other has a more lived-in look and worse-for-the-wear demeanour, sporting sweats and a backwards baseball cap and limping huffily around the base. One of them is a bit of a paranoiac and conspiracy theorist, while the other seems eager to pretend it’s business as usual. And both of them are seething at the realization that one of them may not be the real Sam.
Anyone watching Moon knows that a limited number of SF tropes could explain this circumstance, including cloning, time travel, or some kind of crossover in alternate realities. Sam 2 could even be a fantasy character–a Tyler Durden projection of a solitary astronaut turned schizophrenic. This is not at all an ambiguous film, nor is Jones trying to blow your mind with an especially complicated or original premise. Indeed, I’d wager the audience is going to figure out what the deal is long before Sam does. The point of the film isn’t what’s happening. The point of the film is how Sam ends up reacting to it. Traveling far out into forbidden territory, beyond the shadow line marking the dark side of the moon, one of the Sams confirms his worst suspicions in a discovery wrenching not for how imaginative it is, but for how recognizably human the feelings it engenders are.
All of this might come across as supremely silly in a movie that looked like it was held together by cardboard and scotch tape, but one of the things that’s fascinating about Moon is how inventive it is in maintaining a credible SF vibe. I don’t know if audiences who grew up with computer animation will consider the extensive (if CG-enhanced) work with miniatures more or less “realistic” than the effects they’re used to, but for viewers of a certain age, the presence of tangible objects up there on screen will be like a breath of fresh air. More to the narrative point are the panoramas of a massive lunar landscape with incongruous markings across the surface–telltale tracks of Helium-3 mining that recall the barren vistas left by strip-mining operations back here on planet Earth.
The film begins with a mock corporate PR reel–complete with stock footage of smiling children–that purports to explain how Lunar Industries is creating a better world through its lunar operations, which it says provide the fuel that generates 70 percent of the world’s power requirements. Unsurprisingly for a movie that counts in its ancestry such cautionary tales from the working-class future as Silent Running, Alien, and Outland, Moon eventually puts a sinister spin on those activities, with the narrative driven as much as if not more by the ethically bankrupt (but financially lucrative) practices of labour’s corporate overlords as by the head-butting among Sam’s multiple selves. In the best science-fiction tradition, Moon‘s scenario is extensible by metaphor to that of any number of corporate drones toiling for their wage in a situation that keeps them several steps removed from the experience of their own lives. In its ultimately terrifying expression of ontological angst, it’s a parable of the existential dread of the working man.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Because Moon’s imposing sense of space, scale, and desolation is so important, it pays to watch it on the biggest screen available. If you’re watching it at home, then, it makes sense to get the Blu-ray, where the details of Rockwell’s performance and the film’s meticulous production design will be apparent in Sony’s typically sterling release. Encoded in MPEG-4 AVC HD and letterboxed to 2.40:1, the presentation has a natural grain structure and retains enough fine detail (down to occasional specks of dirt and dust, probably from the camera negative and a first-generation intermediate element) to allay any fears that the picture has been overly tweaked with noise-reduction algorithms. The image is nearly monochromatic and distinctly on the cool side for the bulk of the film; brief flashbacks/dream sequences depicting Sam’s home life are much warmer in appearance, boasting richer, more saturated colours and skin tones; and shots of the moon’s surface are, basically, a drab grey. Moon won’t deliver the crispest video in your collection, but crisp isn’t really what it’s after–if Jones had wanted crisp, he would have shot in HD instead of on three-perf Super 35 blown up to anamorphic. This is an excellent, film-like transfer.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1-channel soundtrack (available in English, French, and Portuguese) is surprisingly strong and enveloping. Even with my system’s smallish speakers (and listening only to the 1.5 kbps core of the DTS-HD MA track), there’s a breadth and depth to the mix that is impressive. I got the clear illusion of fairly heavy bass from the percussive score (by Clint Mansell) as well as from the sounds made by the mining vehicles that cause it to rain moon-rocks as they tear up the lunar surface. Of course, during the long sequences set inside the lunar base and consisting mainly of dialogue and ambient sounds, the audio is less outwardly impressive.
Extras are copious to the point of some redundancy. First up are two separate audio commentaries. One of them teams Jones with producer Stuart Fenegan and is recommended for those who saw something in the movie that puzzled them and are hoping for a little explanation of how it fits in, storywise. Jones and Fenegan also make an effort to explain which FX shots use CG objects and which use props. The other yakker likewise features Jones, this time in a jovial and occasionally raucous group session with cinematographer Gary Shaw, concept designer Gavin Rothery, and production designer Tony Noble. This track is heavy on discussion of the film’s 360-degree set design, the lighting strategy, the work on the miniature lunar landscape (turns out it was 32ft. by 24ft. in area and covered with around 10 tons of sand), and, for example, the appearance at the right-hand edge of one shot of that guy holding the boom mic. I particularly enjoyed an anecdote about the difficulty Jones had convincing the team to get an important shot of two rovers leaving the base as the clock approached quitting time on the last day of model-effects photography. (Faced with objections from a crew that complained they didn’t have a proper wire to guide the rover, an exasperated Jones apparently instructed them to “pull the toy car across the table with a string! Pull it! Pull it!”) While each commentary discusses the challenges of miniatures photography in addition to general issues of design and VFX work on a tight budget, choose the second if you’re a bit more technically minded, or if you just feel like hearing a cheerful filmmaking team talk shop. Only Moon’s biggest fans will want to consume the pair of these from beginning to end.
“The Making of Moon” (16×9 SD, 16 mins.) is a fairly standard making-of enlivened by some cherry-picked behind-the-scenes footage, like the moment where, standing in front of a laptop on set, Rockwell got to see rough composites of his own performances. The quality of the images here (mainly handheld DV with a generally queasy, greenish colour-balance) leaves something to be desired, but then again it’s nice that a low-budget film ($5 million) has quality B-roll available in the first place. “Creating the Visual Effects” (16×9 SD, 11 mins.) has Cinesite’s Simon Stanley-Clamp speaking in voiceover about the digital VFX work as scenes from the film–including illuminating breakdowns of various VFX plates–play on screen. Stanley-Clamp never actually appears, and he’s obviously talking into a fairly cheap microphone, though both the footage chosen and his narration are so completely on-point that it hardly matters. This is a comprehensive and very efficient look at the film’s CG work that anyone with a sufficiently nerdy interest in digital VFX will find engrossing.
Somewhat less absorbing are the Q&As from two different screenings of the film. The first, from the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (MPEG-2 HD, 11 mins.), isn’t especially interesting, although it does bring to the stage a few other members of the production along with Jones and will give you an idea of the exuberant, celebratory environment that often accompanies premiere screenings at Sundance. The second was recorded at Space Center Houston (16×9 AVC HD, 21 mins.) and, while only Jones was present, the audience’s questions are conspicuously better and sharper. (What is it with film-festival crowds and their listen-to-me! questions, anyway?) Should you only want to invest your time in one Q&A, this is the one to pick. For what it’s worth, the actual asking of the questions is elided and replaced by on-screen intertitles, presumably either for logistical reasons or because of clearance issues.
Finally, the disc contains the theatrical trailer for Moon (MPEG-2 HD, 2 mins.) plus HiDef previews of District 9, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Black Dynamite, Zombieland, It Might Get Loud, The Damned United, Coco Before Chanel, Snatch, Close Encounters of the Third Kind 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition, and Blood: The Last Vampire. Also on board is the current version of “Blu-ray Disc is High Definition,” Sony’s tenacious in-house Blu-ray promo reel, on fucking autoplay. (District 9, The Boondock Saints II, and This Is It also autoplay on startup.) There are purported BD Live features, but they were unavailable for advance preview.