Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) works on the dark side of the moon. He’s approaching the end of a three-year stint monitoring the mining of helium-3, a mineral whose solarized properties have provided a solution to our energy crisis. Bell has the beard of a Robinson Crusoe and a Friday companion in the form of a computer named Gerty. Gerty is voiced by Kevin Spacey, doing his best paranoid android. In one of the film’s many smart touches, the computer’s face is a stiffly animated emoticon. In spite of the company, Bell is going a little stir crazy. He creates dialogues for his plants and works on building a matchstick model of his hometown that he can’t remember starting.
The first part of director Duncan Jones’s debut feature has an eerie quality. The strange nature of satellite time is created using temporal ellipses, strangely placed fades and sound bridges. These early scenes sometimes end too early or go on too long, which makes sense. Bell is a one-man show where there’s no audience and no one to play off. He watches video messages left for him by his wife Tess (the very attractive Dominique McElligott), but we’re not sure if he’s watching them in chronological order. He can’t communicate earth directly due to faulty mechanics.
Then he begins to see things. First it’s a girl sitting in his moon base lounge area. Then it’s a figure in a hail of moon detritus. The audience starts playing memory games along with Bell. Why is there a missing spacesuit? What happened to the drawings he put up on the wall? Why is there an edit in the middle of Tess’s latest message?
Jones is the son of David Bowie. He may have put the name “Zowie” behind him, but it’s tempting to view his handsome sci-fi teaser as a spin on Dad’s “Space Oddity.” The song is about a marooned astronaut who decides he likes it up in the cold void. Bell’s estrangement from his family and the rest of humanity may represent that estrangement between father and son. But there’s a surprise in store. Bell wakes up after an accident to find another Sam Bell has appeared in the station. This Sam Bell looks younger. He’s a little more hot-headed and impatient. Maybe the kind of guy Bell was three years ago before he started playing with matchsticks.
As it turns out, there is an industrial explanation for Bell’s multiplying identities. Once that becomes clear, Moon starts to resemble more and more a short which has been stretched out to feature length. Having involved us so thoroughly in the mystery of the first third, Jones faces the old screenwriting saw that the audience is usually 20 minutes ahead of the rest of the film. As Moon plays itself out, it drags in a mood so heavy the action might well be taking place underwater.
Jones keeps himself amused with in-jokes–Bell’s alarm is Chesney Hawkes’s “The One and Only”–and nods to thinking person’s science fiction films. There are references to stuff like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and even the Sean Connery film Outland. The moon base is low-rent, with malfunctioning machinery and a master computer that is endearingly clunky. Gerty responds to every situation which lies outside of its programming with the question, “Are you hungry?” The shabby interior contrasts with the outside, which is imagined through a combination of models and CGI, and is shot with all the spectacular gloss Jones’s training in advertisements can provide.
Sam Rockwell is very good in a role that, as in Adaptation, requires him to play off of himself. While lacking any hint of star power, he manages to hold the screen as an Everydude. He also has to take a lot of punishment as Sam Bell 1 begins to fall apart. It is hard to tell whether his stumblebum quality is part of his onscreen persona or just a product of lunar entropy. Like Sam Bell 1, the film outlasts his usefulness. The ironic final line, though, underscores that the earth’s surface can be as uninviting as the Sea of Tranquility.