Friday, June 18, 2010

Moon (2009) A Film by Duncan Jones

It's rather fitting - and almost parodic - that the debut feature of young English director Duncan Jones, the son of famously intergalactic rock star David Bowie, is set in space. Much less groovy than Bowie's sinuous pop music but equally out there is Moon, a film intoxicated under the influence of classic Sci-Fi, namely Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris. Though the film takes place as far as possible from any inkling of society and human interaction, it's more fundamentally about a man remote from himself, using the moon mainly as an elaborate metaphor through which to investigate loneliness, ephemerality, and the burden of time. But this is not all the film takes on; it's also about corporate exploitation, technological progression, and the frailty of human life. Presumably, it's even about a bunch more that doesn't quite seep through the cracks by the end, as Jones overflows his debut with more ideas than some directors manage in a whole career, all communicated through a slick, self-described "mainstream" gloss. As ambitious as Moon is, it could have used some serious thematic editorializing, for it often drowns under the dense pressure of its semi-coherent inquiries, which fire on all cylinders but never quite connect in a satisfying manner.

The film cannot really be sufficiently boiled down to an all-encompassing premise, for its central mystery is so inexplicable to begin with, and what shaky base of logic it has is only constantly abstracted as it chugs along. The only facts that I can pronounce without wavering skepticism is that an individual astronaut named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is involved in a lengthy business trip on the moon with the transnational corporation Lunar Industries, mining for Helium-3 in an ambiguously distant future where the precious isotope is crucial to Earth's energy supply, and thus, its continuing survival. Sam's alone with the exception of his hulking supercomputer companion Gerty, who is essentially HAL 9000 replaced with a straightforward emoticon and the familiar ghost of Kevin Spacey, and his excruciating desire for human companionship is augmented by the fact that the lunar base's satellite is damaged, leaving only the potential for sending recorded video messages to his wife and baby daughter. Yet even these supposed building blocks of the story are uncertain as Jones begins to layer on the mystery. Furthermore, Moon's almost aggressively deliberate lack of contextualizing - other than the internationally and environmentally conscious Lunar commercial that opens the film, the only glimpse of the film's relative Earth is in the form of a neighborhood miniature set Sam has been constructing - seems to suggest this is a film resting squarely within the confines of one man's harried psyche.

Early on, Jones makes sure to establish Sam as a man whose mind is playing tricks on him as a result of alienation and monotony. He's getting headaches, vaguely Lynchian psychosexual nightmares, and invariable hallucinations of an enigmatic dark-haired girl who looks approximately 16 years young and might have hobbled in from Solaris. In fact, the latter seems to be the film's most casual head-scratcher, two quietly foreboding images whose mysterious power quickly subsides when Jones decides to never give the girl her cue again, as if she was forgotten as the script progressed. The second time she appears as a spectral silhouette behind layers of raining rock and lunar residue during one of Sam's missions, it has a disastrous and curiously metaphysical effect. Sam crashes his roving device, which subsequently is poured on by dust and rock while he sits unconscious. Next thing he knows he's back at the infirmary being nurtured by the questionably malign Gerty, who minutes later is witnessed having potentially sinister discussions with corporate officials back at the naval base on Earth about their plans for Sam. Against Gerty's droning insistence not to go outside after his accident, Sam explores the scene of his crash only to find that the incident set off an inexplicable procreation of selves, a rabbit hole involving his own body as it was before being salvaged.

This first act disruption of logic, the beginning of the film's many twists, is as nakedly speculative as any of the great paranormal predicaments in science fiction history. Jones' treatment of it, however, is actually nonchalant, even tinged with an ounce of humor, rather than stoic and eerie so as to elicit fear and enveloping mystery. Paradoxically, this method develops its own unique strain of discomfort, a feeling of tension between the expected strategy and the strategy Jones really applies, showing the two Sam's - who are soon after cohabiting the same base with the same story - interacting on oddly dysfunctional terms. They even play a game of ping pong, shot from a horizontal perspective and involving two Sam Rockwell's in one frame (to achieve this, Jones and his effects crew had to do some painstaking synchronization work), that humorously crystallizes the split psyche of the lonely astronaut. But where Jones gains originality and style points, his film also loses a great deal of dramatic momentum, signaling its first doppelganger too early and taking too long to move on into new territory. Is this a clone like Gerty says, suggesting a greedy, insensitive company playing tricks on the individual, or is it simply a visualization of an angrier, more pensive Sam and a restless, chatty one?

Questions like these are not normally answered in Moon, only obscured by more mysteries. In this sense, the film rightly continues a long lineage of probing science fiction works that do less to illuminate universal truths than to place things in bewildering contexts and prompt questions, seek new and unexplored inquiries when all boundaries have been stretched. It's difficult to go further into Moon without utterly laying bare its central enigmas and disconcerting questions, which are certainly more interesting in the film than they could possibly be in writing. Yet even for all its suspenseful red herrings and psychological complexity, Moon is peculiarly uninspiring, perhaps too subtly fraudulent to be entirely sincere and too sure of its own ideas to really put them on screen in an effective way. Its admirable old-fashioned effects, Clint Mansell's typically majestic score, and Sam Rockwell's sprawling one-man show all suggest a film of epic achievement, yet they really belie a work that, promising as it may be, fails to fully connect as intellectually stimulating science fiction or escapist entertainment.

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