Friday, January 29, 2010

Movie Review: Moon (2009) - 2 1/2 stars

Moon is the feature debut of Duncan Jones, and while it does offer a glimpse into a possibly bright future, it's certainly not without its flaws. Working with a budget of only $5 million, the visual accomplishments of Jones and his crew are more than noteworthy; they're stunning in fact. However, the story gets the short end of the stick. While the sets are detailed to a remarkable degree, the script is like a bare-bones skeleton. It has an impressive ideal outline, but there is not enough meat to it.

The film's saving grace comes in the form of Sam Rockwell, who plays the Lunar employee Sam Bell. Lunar Industries is a company that works to extract a type of helium from the moon and convert it into clean energy that is desperately needed on Earth. Sam has agreed to a contract -- I have no idea why -- to do this work for a full three years; to live on the moon and extract helium with only the comfort of a monotone robot and occasional video recordings.

This robot's name is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and an unexplained communication satellite failure doesn't allow this futuristic universe the courtesy of live video chatting. As a result, Sam is forced to listen to and watch his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and his kids, without ever truly interacting with them. In all honesty, his only conversations are with GERTY. Remind me again why Sam wanted to take this job?

At the start of the film, Sam has two weeks left on his contract, and he can practically feel his wife in his arms. He's doing solid work for the company, he has a steady exercise routine, and despite his immense isolation, has an honest optimism about himself. Then he starts to hallucinate. He starts to see things that might or might not be there, he becomes involved in a violent crash, and he wakes up on an examination table to the voice of Kevin Spacey.

What ensues is a series of plot twists and revelations that ultimately try to expand the film's initial theme to something more powerful and resonant. At the outset, Jones' film feels like some type of environmentalist picture, but by the end, it becomes an entirely different animal. We begin to learn things about Lunar Industries and the roots of Sam's job that try to explain the goings-on of this mysterious corporation. While a study like this makes for an intriguing foundation of a story, Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker never really get around to telling us anything new. The groundwork of the story is hardly built upon at all throughout the course of the film.

There is, however, a depth to Rockwell's performance that deserves to be seen. He takes a terribly underwritten script and makes something out of it. I can't say I'm surprised by his performance, but it's still reassuring to see an established actor take risks. I just wish the film would have done the same. The visual presence of Moon can be quite deceptive when reflecting upon the film's effectiveness. Yes, the performance and the sets are impressive and ambitious, but the story is the exact opposite. Jones and Parker take risks with the story, but they're sloppy risks, the kind that don't deserve commendation.

If only the film could have been as subtle as Clint Mansell's terrific score. Mansell, a master composer, does some excellent work here, and the film should have taken some tips from it. It's not an overbearing powerhouse of a score like Mansell did with Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain; it's much more like his subdued work in The Wrestler. With the small budget on hand, it's a shame that Jones didn't try to stay simple. When you've got a great look, a solid set-up, and a talented actor to bring a vision to life, more often than not, less is more.

In the end, Moon is simply one giant paradox. Trying to convey a simple, effective theme that has been told hundreds of times before, Jones resorts to a needless web of twists and turns that will leave you flustered rather than invigorated. Working on a modest budget, Jones accomplishes more than enough visually here to spark interest in his future, but this debut remains a philosophically restricted entry into the science-fiction genre.

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