Moon

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

The film Moon, like Spock in the retconned Star Trek, is a member of an endangered species. Made by first-time writer-director Duncan Jones, Moon is an SF film that’s also an earnest, serious drama, aimed at people who preferred Gattaca or Silent Running to Star Wars. I was slightly underwhelmed by it on first viewing, but that was before I saw the new Transformers, beside which Moon is counter-programming heaven.

Moon’s bold premise is that it’s a largely one-man film, following 1972’s Silent Running, in which Bruce Dern was a rebellious eco-astronaut protecting the last forests of Earth. In Moon, the actor is Sam Rockwell, who previously offended many SF fans with his bellowing Zaphod Beeblebrox in the film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This time, Rockwell has a darker, more nuanced role as a lonely maintenance man, supervising the mining of the moon, sending video messages to his wife and kid, and waiting tiredly for his three-year tenure to end. Then a funny thing happens…

Amusingly, the press-notes for Moon have a whole page on the reality of the energy-source that’s being mined in the film. (It’s called Helium-3, an isotope which might be used to generate a nuclear-fusion reaction). It’s window-dressing; Rockwell’s character (also called Sam), could mine cheese as far as the story goes. But it’s clearly meant to impress us that (in the words of the press notes), Moon’s hard science is rooted in fact…

… which goes straight out the window once the actual story starts, with a hoary plot device recycled umpteen times in SF film and TV. But it’ll be new for non-initiates, and it’s a good plot (so I won’t give it away, though the press-notes and trailer do). It has enough possible permutations to keep the ending uncertain, and it lets Rockwell show his chops as a brittle, stir crazy hero from the Philip K Dick school of paranoia. I liked the clue in the Chesney Hawkes pop song that wakes Sam each lunar morning, though the idea that anyone listens to Chesney Hawkes in the future is disturbing. On the other hand, we will be listening to David Bowie, who’s the Moon director’s dad, though the press-notes forget to say it.

The film’s moonscape is bleakly convincing, blending miniatures and CGI, though I did spend the first part of the film wondering how much benefit there was in watching this sparse space drama on a big rather than small screen. Actually, there probably is an advantage to seeing it in a darkened cinema, so that you’re fully immersed in Sam’s situation. There’s a magnificent moment where Sam sobs to himself in a lunar vehicle, alone on a plain under a beautiful and unreachable Earth.

But Moon’s sparseness makes you more aware of its irritants, especially Sam’s gormless AI companion Gerty, who’s voiced by Kevin Spacey, looks like a hydraulic crane and displays cute emoticons. Let’s not even start making blasphemous comparisons between Gerty and his great predecessors HAL (from 2001), or Huey, Dewey or Louie (the toaster droids in Silent Running). Gerty is remarkably helpful as Sam uncovers the story, which is a twist on our expectations about bad SF computers, but it’s also slack plotting that should have been fixed. Last year, Pixar’s WALL-E got away with an evil computer doing implausibly silly things because there was so much else to delight and distract, but it won’t wash here.

Rockwell is great, though Moon makes you imagine all the alternative versions you could make with different lead actors – Tom Hanks? Jack Nicholson? It’s equally easy to envision Moon as a book, the kind of slim standalone SF novella that built the genre in past decades. Moon’s no classic, but an honest effort to use the SF genre to sell a film, not relying on branded franchises, name directors or imported action-fantasy formulae. It cost $5 million. The new Transformers budget is rumoured to be pushing $200 million, so maybe the recession will do some good.