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The Beating of Our Hearts is the Only Sound

By Seth Freilich | Film | June 15, 2009 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | June 15, 2009 |

As a former card-carrying scientist, and perpetual geek-nerd, I love science fiction. Which is why I hate most science fiction movies — like a fucking vampire, they suck all the goodness out of the genre and then take a big steamer on the leftover corpse. Science fiction done right isn’t just about high-gloss technology, aliens, dystopia, alternate histories, nanotechnology, clones, robots, time travel, space travel, spaceships and off-world exploration, etc. Sure, great science fiction often has one or more of these elements and, done right, that stuff is f’ing cool. But the best science fiction uses these themes and elements, or ones like them, as tools to explore. From Mary Shelley to Asimov, Pohl, Heinlein, and Gibson, from Kubrick to Ridley Scott to Joss Whedon, the science fiction genre, at its best, is put to brilliant use to study and explore not just science itself, but ethics, morality and the human condition.

Moon may not be right up there with the best that the genre has to offer, but it’s damn good. And given the usual crop of crap science fiction that’s thrown at us, it’s a welcome relief. No aliens, dystopic futures, or killer robots. Just a dude living on the moon. That dude would be Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a contracted employee of a company called Lunar Industries, which has mostly solved Earth’s energy crisis by figuring out how to harvest helium from sun-soaked moon rocks. Most of the process is automatic, but the company needs someone chilling out on the moon, overseeing operations and getting canisters of the wonderful He3 back to Earth.

As the film opens, we learn that Sam is anxious to get home to his wife and daughter, coming up on the end of his three year contractual term as the guy responsible for keeping the helium flowing. He’s on a little moon base all by his lonesome, save for the base’s sentient robot, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and his existence is made all the more solitary by the fact that something on the base is busted, so he can’t get live communication feeds to Earth. So he and his wife are forced to exchange one-way video messages, a sort of lunar/video version of phone tag. Sam, of course, goes through all the chores and rituals one must do when living alone in space, daily exercise to fight the effects of low-gravity, plant cultivation, etc. But when he’s not doing that, or going out to get helium-tubes from one of the automated harvesters, he’s trying to fight the boredom by watching reruns of “Bewitched” while whittling a wood village. Or getting very good at one-man ping-pong. Point being, he be lonely.

The daily monotony is broken up one day, however, when one of Sam’s trips to a harvester goes bad. He survives the accident, albeit a bit bruised and bloody, but when he gets back to the moon base, he falls down the proverbial rabbit hole. Now at this point, I’m going to give away a minor spoiler, but I’m not giving away much since it’s in the trailers and most other reviews. It’s not really any sort of major twist — since it’s the center of the movie, it happens relatively early on, and the film telegraphs what’s coming even before it happens — but if you want to go into the movie with a naivete of not knowing what it’s really about (although knowing it does not diminish your possible enjoyment of the flick), best skip the rest of this paragraph and the next paragraph. So, minor spoiler warning, after Sam wakes back up, he eventually finds that he’s not actually the only person on the moon. In fact, there’s another Sam Bell there. This throws both Sams for a bit of a loop and, as one might guess, the main thread of the movie from this point on is the pair figuring out why there are two of them and what to do about it.

A film like this, with essentially a cast of one, obviously relies heavily on the performance of that sole actor, and the premise sets Sam Rockwell up with the opportunity to deliver a great performance (or performances, if you will). And he knocks it out of the park — from the earlier part of the film, focused on Sam’s utter solitude and possible mental cracking, to the later exploration of individuality, Rockwell is simply a joy to watch. He manages to make each Sam Bell a distinct and interesting character (though the characterizations are largely driven by the ultimate why’s and how’s of the two of them both being there). In a just world, Rockwell would see some award nominations from this performance, but we all know how this game goes.

Aside from Rockwell, the only other actor with any meaningful screentime is Kevin Spacey, as the voice of the base’s robot Gerty. As one might expect when you’ve got a talking computer in space, Gerty is naturally reminiscent of 2001’s HAL. Director Duncan Jones and Spacey wisely use that to the film’s advantage, as many of the scenes between Sam and Gerty have an underlying tension because we, the viewer, don’t know what Gerty’s deal is — because Spacey voices him with just a hint of emotion, we’re left wondering whether he can be trusted. Is he simply an innocuous computer running the base, or does he have some underlying, ulterior motive?

The tension is subtle, but it’s still a nice addition to what is a rather slow-paced film. When we saw Moon back at South by Southwest, the Pajiba crew was decidedly mixed on it — while myself and some others really dug it, there were those who found it drearily dull. For me, Rockwell’s performance was just a pleasure to watch, and I was intrigued by where the movie was taking itself. There are also moments of humor, and little bits of cleverness here and there for the observant viewer. And while Moon could have been a very dark movie, it’s not. It’s not light, either. It just is. With a beautiful soundtrack and an out-of-the-way direction, Jones lets the flick breathe and move at its own pace, in a more-or-less neutral fashion.

This is the first film directed by Duncan Jones (who, yes, is David Bowie’s goofy-looking son), and he does a very clean job with it. A lot of the direction here seems pretty straight forward, given that the film was shot mostly in a closed, tight set with not a lot of stuff actually going on. But I could see a director trying to compensate for that by making the direction and edits quick and frenetic. Jones doesn’t fall into this trap, and if some complain that this makes the film too slow-paced, so be it.

In fact, my only real complaint with the film is that it feels a bit underdeveloped, thematically. I’m not sure if this is because Jones didn’t want to come off as pretentious, or if it’s because the first-time screenwriter (while the story idea came from Jones, the script came from Nathan Parker) just didn’t have the chops to take the idea any further. The premise offers the possibility for deep exploration of some fascinating topics, and Rockwell’s performance touches on some of this. But Jones doesn’t do more than stick his toes into the water and so, while I really like this film, I’m left with a little longing for what it could have been. Because I think the potential was there for this to be that rare breed of a truly fantastic science fiction film. Nevertheless, it is is a very solid sci-fi film, and scads better than the usual shit thrown at the genre.

The film’s only playing in Cali and NY right now, but it’s opening in most major cities over the course of the next month.

Seth Freilich is the one and only.