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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MOON: Hard Sci-Fi Meets Psychological Horror

It's days like today when I'm actually thankful to have so much free time on my hands this summer. I had the opportunity to go check out a brand-new sci-fi/horror film that has completely blown me away. The film I'm talking about is Moon (which, incidentally, was the inspiration for the last list that BJ-C and myself put together over at Bloody-Disgusting), a superb picture directed by second-time auteur Duncan Jones and starring Sam Rockwell, probably best known for playing Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

First off, for those who don't enjoy the privilege of being my Facebook friend or following me on Twitter, let me reiterate my initial reaction to watching this movie: Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, and I dare the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to look past their notorious genre bias, and do the right thing. In the lead (and basically, only) role of Sam Bell, Rockwell is a revelation. This is, I believe, what is known as a "star-making turn".

Now I love Douglas Adams as much as the next geek, but I in no way saw this coming when I first discovered Rockwell playing the role of Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (although I will admit his decision to play Zaphod as a two-headed Dubya was inspired). Rockwell's performance is gut-wrenching, multi-layered, and especially challenging (spoilers ahead) due to the fact that he is essentially playing the same character twice--and usually in the same scene!

The film is set in the near future, and Bell is an astronaut stationed on the far side of the moon for years at a time, with his duty being to mine a special substance that is being used as a new renewable energy source for much of planet Earth. Along the way, he makes some startling discoveries about himself and what he thought was his life--specifically when he comes face to face with a different, slightly younger version of himself inexplicably on the same lunar base. It's shocking, claustrophobic, poignant and completely gripping. The best way to describe Bell would be a cross between Keir Dullea in 2001, and Tom Skeritt in Alien.

After we establish Bell and his surroundings, the pace does drag ever-so-slightly immediately after the big revelation of his mysterious twin--and for some reason, the reactions of the two doppleganger Bells doesn't quite ring true at first. One would imagine the suitable reaction to discovering a clone of yourself wandering around would be complete and abject panic, as opposed to the mild head-scratching and almost comedic mugging that goes on. But fortunately, the drag is very temporary, and I was pulled right back into it once the two Bells start to put the pieces of the puzzle together to figure out exactly what the hell is going on.

On board the base with Bell is the all-knowing computer GERTY, voiced by the always-excellent Kevin Spacey. Thanks to the Oscar-winner's performance, the computer becomes a fully-fleshed out character in this film, and a very pointed reference to the infamous HAL of Kubrick's aforementioned 2001. In fact, lovers of that film will enjoy so much about GERTY. For example, in place of HAL's ambiguous red light is a screen boasting a giant emoticon that expresses GERTY's "state of mind" at any particular time.

Plus, since Duncan and his co-screenwriter Nathan Parker (in his first screenplay effort) are well-aware of the expectations ingrained in us by HAL, they have a little fun playing with those expectations and turning them on their head, including a particularly powerful moment that was almost "stand-up-and-cheer" worthy.

It's very rare these days to still find quality "hard science fiction" in cinematic form--our moviegoing tastes have been directed almost exclusively at space opera ever since that little George Lucas movie in the late '70s--and there are many who have given up hope that true, intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi movies could still be produced in a culture that equates genre flicks with popcorn fare. But this is a film that would do any of the giants of classic sci-fi literature proud.

I've always felt that out of the genre's "holy trinity"--Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke--that is was Heinlein who was most concerned with the human and the personal (with Asimov focusing on the cultural perspective, and Clarke the scientific). As such, I believe it would be Heinlein--author of Stranger in a Strange Land, Red Planet and Starship Troopers, who would best identify with this film, and whose work most inspired it.

I'll freely admit this movie is more sci-fi than it is horror, but the horror is certainly there, and in a finer, more sophisticated form than you'll find in most of the pablum being passed off in the genre these days. It's been said that hard sci-fi does not mix well with horror, since the latter is usually intended to provoke a strictly emotional response, while the former dwells on the cerebral. However, in the grand tradition of Ridley Scott's Alien, Moon pulls it off. And like Alien, there are times where it has the feel of something ripped right out of the pages of Heavy Metal magazine.

Even moreso than with Scott's masterpiece, the elements of horror here are subtle, yet powerful. There is no monster on the prowl. There is very little gore, aside from the strictly circumstancial. The horror here is better described as terror, or better yet--dread. It is the horror of what goes on in the human mind. Unfortunately, it's probably also horror of the kind that will go over the head of moviegoers looking for the usual jump scares and blood-and-guts extravaganzas. This is the horror of Dave Bowman trapped outside the Discovery bay doors; of Taylor held prisoner by mad, sentient apes; of Ripley trying her best not to scream.

Kudos to Jones and Parker for crafting a script that eloquently communicates the existential angst of long-term off-world habitation. I'll submit that Alien is still the benchmark in that department, but this is nevertheless some fine work, pulled off by Rockwell and Spacey in what could essential be done as a stage play. I also give heaps of credit to Cinesite, the company which provided some refreshingly realistic and restrained special effects, especially nice to see in this age of CGI overkill (and surprising from the same firm that has produced some of the worst CGI I've ever seen for the Harry Potter series). This is a real throwback to the likes of 2001, and that's a real pleasure for this old-school sci-fi nerd.

The proceedings are marred slightly by the presence of a beautiful, but strangely out-of-place piano-driven score by Clint Mansell. The composer is certainly more than capable--this is the guy who wrote the iconic music performed by the Kronos Quartet in Requiem for a Dream--but his stirring keyboard strains very rarely conjure up the kind of creeping dread the material requires.

That relatively minor quibble aside, Moon is an outstanding thriller, and I strongly recommend it for those who like their horror cerebral and their sci-fi intelligent. This is that rarity of rarities--a restrained piece of genre entertainment. Truly a breath of fresh air in an era when most genre entertainment resembles nothing so much as the cinematic equivalent of a sack of dead fish to the jaw.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review, I can't wait to see this. Along with Grace, I missed out on my opportunity to see it at the Dallas AFI Film fest due to being sick. :kicks self:

Frank White said...

I disagree about the score (I thought it was sublime) but think you are pretty much spot on with everything else.

I too was thrown for a loop by the calm(ish) initial reactions to the situation, but it makes a little more sense when you think about all the time he has on his hands and how that would affect one's patience.

Brad said...

Good review, though I disagree with a number of points you made. In no way did I feel this film could be likened to anything horror-related. It was science-fiction drama through and through. There really was no suspense, save for the "scratch your head" variety that elicited a heartu "what da fuck?" from me a couple of times.

I agree in regard how someone should act when they run into the doppelganger. That, along with the first Sam's vision of who I presume was Eve, were my two biggest problems with the film. They never really delved into it, and it seemed like it was there just to set up the crash.

The score was gorgeous, if a little too minimal for what I feel Clint Mansell normally does. It was, however, quite appropriate, and managed to accentuate the drama - not the tension - quite well.

All in all a wonderful film, and a good review.

B-Sol said...

Thanks guys. Brad, I hear you about the horror element. I found it unconventional, and not what i'd normally define as horror, but still couldn't help but classify it as psychological horror.

gord said...

Mansell's score was much better in The Fountain than Requiem. Just saying...

It's actually one of the only instrumental scores that I can listen to. Minus of course Goblin's stuff.

Also, I've been dying to see Moon but sadly it is not yet released here. And I live in Ottawa, the motherfucking capital of Canada!

Anonymous said...

Really great work....

Thanks for sharing...


Tiffani said...

Great review =) I felt the same way about Sam 1's reaction to Sam 2. The only explanation I could come up with was perhaps he believed his mind was starting to slip & it was just a hallucination? Which sort of made sense since he was beginning to hallucinate prior to the accident. But, other than that I absolutely loved the movie.

John W. Morehead said...

An intelligent and refreshing piece of science fiction, reminiscent of earlier works like 2001 and Alien, and in the ranks of contemporary works like District 9. Indie sci-fi has given us a gem in this piece.

B-Sol said...

And criminally overlooked! I agree that District 9 is equally refreshing, but I think that movie got a bit more attention because it had a lot more action. Moon was a return to good ol' fashioned pre-Star Wars thoughtful sci-fi.

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