The conceptual richness of the lone figure stranded by himself has caught the imaginations of innumerable individuals. This is a particularly post-Enlightenment differentia of the west's general complexion—from Byron's Manfred to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, to the cinematic self-ostracized and stranded creations such as Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland in Cast Away—marking a noteworthy separation from antiquity. Greek and Roman societies predominantly viewed the threat of exile as a suitable alternative to capital punishment: the possibility of complete divorcement from civilization and community was an incomprehensibly awful fate. Asian readers of Byron's poetry and Defoe's novel would evidently recoil at the subject matter. The Aristotelian aphorism from his Politics, Book One, “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature and that man is by his nature a social animal,” is tested by these aforementioned works in the most literal manner.
Duncan Jones, son of rock star David Bowie, has set out to mount an eerily similar tale. Like previous science-fiction space opuses like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris, the physically infinitesimal human being, or human beings, set against the boundlessly illimitable backdrop of space, is at the forefront of Jones's essaying of the solitary man. How much of an impact Jones' father had on the idea behind his feature debut—Bowie's sci-fi-tinged music and his starring part in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth seem to preternaturally prophesize Moon. Fittingly for this moment, Jones swaps the components of the narrative insofar as he posits not the importance of the earth's properties—Roeg's film sprung from the realization that the earth was singular in its harboring of water—but in its possible deficiencies. Jones, who wrote and directed, begins his picture informing the viewer of a future in which earthlings are searching for sources of energy beyond their planet's atmosphere. Ergo, one man is sent to the moon on a mission whose time is determined by his signing a three-year contract with the energy/space travel company. (Almost humorously, NASA is conspicuous by its absence; apparently, in the future the United States federal government's multiple ongoing wars, and purchasing of car companies, banks and previously-governmentally-chartered mortgage behemoths has made the overseeing of a space program too exorbitant in cost to continue.) Astronaut Sam Bell is tasked with excavating the moon for Helium 3, the light isotope first hypothesized by Australian nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant in 1934. In Jones' lightly sketched future, solar-soaked Helium 3 will become a panacea for mankind, solving the quandaries of finite energy supplies on earth.
Sam Rockwell plays Bell, and contributes to Jones' vision a performance of nearly startling emotional complexity and breadth. The words “nearly startling” should not take away from Rockwell's turn; it is only nearly startling because for those who have experienced Rockwell's performances, his starring tour de force performance in Moon will not be seen as altogether surprising. There is already a doomed existentialism to Rockwell, which at its fiercest is unshakable. Especially desperate moments in films such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Snow Angels are punctuated by Rockwell's fidgety earnestness and convincing verisimilitude. Here is an actor who always possesses an air of doom and attrition. Rockwell's isolated self is an amazing performance, worth seeking out.
The film brushes up against and in actuality embraces many cliches of science-fiction. A resourceful robot named “Gerty” (voiced quite well by Kevin Spacey) aids astronaut Bell. “Gerty” is an intriguing creation. Much of the creepiness of 2001's HAL remains, but “Gerty” is not the boringly hackneyed malicious computer that HAL enormously helped to usher into the genre or from other recent computer-dominated pictures like Eagle Eye. “Gerty” is doctor, chef, friend and almost paternal figure, a multitasking entity which may both beautifully and frighteningly describe the end of the rainbow for human beings increasingly relying on technology for convenience. The blending of sci-fi and religious allegory is posited through the names Bell assigns his robots, rovers and antennas. One is named Luke, and another is Judas. Bell seems to mark time by drawing a simple face on the metallic wall. The faces appear to represent his daily moods—sadness, happiness, ambivalence, imperfectly represented through Bell's little black-marker avatars. The happy-face image is flashed back from machine to man as well, with “Gerty” smiling and frowning depending on the emotional situation for Sam Bell.
Moon's production design is quite dazzling in its chromatic, partially sterilized environment. (Though plant life is lovingly depicted as surviving on Bell's otherwise inorganic base of operations.) The use of models is the film's most lasting and memorable effect, creating a visage of recurring potency. The mobile rover of Bell's moving about the surface of the moon, mining and harvesting the Helium 3 for the “Lunar” company, is a repeated, visual soughing, the philter between man, device and the action of movement. Jones' reliance on the models pays off in a meta-commentary on filmmaking without it being too ostentatious: Bell nervously works on a sprawling model of “Fairfield,” (Fairfield, California?) Bell's hometown at a workstation table.
Unfortunately, Moon, ironically, seems to run out of energy in its sagging denouement. Once Bell has discovered some painful, shattering truths about his own existence, the film seems to lack a cogent philosophical destination—or even a basic narrative one. Rockwell is given less and less to do at this point, but he remains strong. It is the screenplay which slackens. Moon partly tells the tale of Plato's shadows on the cave wall, though through the anomalistic mirroring between self and id. Here, Moon brings about questions of alter-egos and projections of such. Having done this, however—from an eye-catching “flash-forward” of a female specter aboard the base to Sam recognizing himself in one being only to consider the attitudinal and psychological gulf between the two—Moon is almost too reticent for its own good. Raising many questions and points about these matters, Moon finally disintegrates, its conclusion dissatisfying in its uncharacteristic conventionality. A last-second voice-over, doubtless intended to be piquant and acidic in its black humor, seems to help the film merely wrap things up too neatly, avoiding a large number of the issues it had earlier broached. Nevertheless, Moon is too engrossing for much of its existentialist odyssey to dismiss or ignore.