Forty years after its groundbreaking debut, 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to cast a long shadow, its influence so pervasive that it’s nigh impossible to craft a contemplative sci-fi saga without at least subtly paying homage to Kubrick’s classic. Rather than fleeing that monolith in the genre, director Duncan Jones (a.k.a. Zowie Bowie, son of David) warmly embraces it with Moon, an assured, mesmerizing tale of intergalactic loneliness, self-inquiry, and man’s innate, enduring hunger for life which repeatedly and openly tips its hat to 2001 and its progeny (Solaris, Silent Running).
As a pitch-perfect introductory commercial elucidates, in the near future, Earth’s energy and environmental dilemmas have been solved by Helium 3 solar energy harvested from rocks on the far side of the moon. The station established to accomplish this vital task is manned by one man, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who at film’s start is two weeks shy of finishing up his three-year tour of duty alone in the echoing base, which boasts the all-white décor of a space station from a ’70s-era movie, is shot by Jones in deliberate, ominous widescreen compositions, and is also populated by Gerty 3000, a robot with the soothing HAL-ish voice of Kevin Spacey and a rotating series of smiley-face emoticons for expressions. When a routine maintenance checkup on a roving harvester goes awry (thanks, in part, to a distracting and gorgeously wrought hallucination of a girl standing amid a shower of dug-up rubble), Sam awakens in the sick bay, where he discovers—spoilers herein—that the station has a new resident: himself. Except that it’s not exactly himself, as the new Sam is a far healthier, more temperamental mirror image who initially keeps his distance and silence but eventually forms a tentative relationship with the injured Sam, who is desperate to return home to the wife and young daughter he communicates with via taped messages. How two Sams have come to suddenly coexist in this lunar domicile is the prime mystery of Moon’s first third, one that’s unsettling in a manner less horror cinema-scary than existential.
Jones’s measured aesthetic, complemented by Clint Mansell’s typically melancholy fusion of orchestral and electronic melodies, creates a mood of philosophical pensiveness that casts genre mechanisms—such as Sam’s early vision of a girl sitting in his room, or the threat implied by Gerty’s overly soothing speech and the robot’s clandestine conversation with Earthbound HQ—as pieces of a haunting puzzle about inner reflection and identity definition in which man proves instinctively compelled to ensure his own survival. While his story could have naturally veered into Big Brother/corporate malfeasance territory, Jones refuses to play the easy card, instead patiently detailing the Sams’ increasingly traumatic struggles to comprehend, and then come to grips with, their unique situation, and how it speaks to their conception of reality. Moon’s explanation of its conceit isn’t a stunner, but Jones’s intimate consideration of his protagonists’ attempts to reconcile dueling psychological and empirical truths nonetheless has a quiet, empathetic grace.
Such is Moon’s lyrical understatement that even the central special effect that allows for two Sams (who, in one striking scene, play ping-pong against each other) quickly becomes an afterthought. However, that trick ultimately has less to do with computerized deftness than with Rockwell, whose dual performances as suffering original Sam and surly, detached new Sam are treated not with caricature superficiality but tormented physical and spiritual somberness. Alternately bearded, goateed, and clean-shaven, his eyes morose and yet always alight with a flicker of self-determination, Rockwell is as snark-free human and compassionate as he’s ever been. And in a shot of him tenderly embracing himself in a bare hallway, the actor dexterously conveys the means by which life—though here depicted (à la 2001) as evolving toward the artificial, and thus in the opposite direction as that of technology—remains, despite all obstacles, fundamentally autonomous, irrepressible, dynamic.