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Sole Man

Sam Rockwell journeys to the center of the self in this daring, sparse sci-fi flick

You talking to yourself? Sam Rockwell suits up.


Director:Duncan Jones
Cast:Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
Release Date:2009
Genre:Drama, Science fiction

Opens July 10 at the Charles Theatre

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/8/2009

Directed by Duncan Jones

Director/co-writer Duncan Jones takes science-fiction back to its exploratory, socially minded 1960s and '70s era with Moon, his minimalist exercise in human isolation. And it feels downright revelatory at first: Set at some unspecified time in the near future, Moon focuses on the mental and emotional state of its only character, a man whose three-year work contract has him stationed on the dark side of the moon to harvest the radioactive isotope Helium-3 for energy production back on Earth. That Moon feels more like an undercooked short story than a fully realized novel or movie is only a mild quibble, given how refreshing it is to chew on a sci-fi story of ideas rather than an orgy of whirligig special-effects aliens morphing into toasters or fembots or whatever.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is that lone lunar worker. He's bearded, shaggy haired, and hitting the treadmill as Moon opens, cinematographer Gary Shaw's camera patiently taking in the entirety of Sam's life on the moon: The Sarang Mining base is a self-contained, interconnected series of geometric rooms lined in the familiarly antiseptic white of movie space stations. Sam sleeps in one nook, monitors the three harvesters and receives the taped messages from his employer and his wife Tess and daughter Eve back on Earth in a control-type room, and waters and tends to his plants in another area. Food is provided in what looks like freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped portions. Sam's one companion is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a computer with a series of icon-like smiley faces that it uses to interact with Sam and an articulating robotic arm.

With only two more weeks left on his contract, Sam looks forward to seeing his wife and daughter (a damaged satellite means that he can only bounce taped messages to and from Earth, as the base can't establish a live link). As he counts the days until his departure, though, he begins to experience headaches, has a few odd dreams, and even hallucinates a woman sitting in his chair. And when he gets in a rover to venture out to collect a He-3 load from one of the harvesters, he has a wreck, knocking his head inside of his spacesuit and losing consciousness. Jones fades out before moving to the next scene.

The fade is, in fact, Jones preferred edit for transitional segues here, and it's an ingenious move. It's an ambivalent and vague edit, suggesting some kind of passage of time and space but never quantifies that transition specifically. It feels more like a brief pause, and by using them between scenes, Jones both establishes what Sam's existence is like--time passes, things happen, but it all takes place without any familiar frame of reference to the days of the weeks, time of the day, or even what year it is--and pulls you into the odd rhythm of this life. So when Sam wakes up in the infirmary following the accident, you're as willing to accept GERTY's explanation for his drowsy state, slight memory loss, and need to be monitored and confined to the base as he is. He receives a message from Earth saying that an Eliza team is being shipped up there to take care of the wreckage, and Sam believes they're coming with his replacement. He quickly grows restless, though, and invents a possible hull breach that requires him to go outside and check the base's integrity. And once outside, he takes another rover to the crash site, where he finds the wrecked rover--and another Sam injured but alive inside.

To say more would spoil the few but integral surprises Moon offers. Needless to say, Sam is no longer as confident about his work contract as he once was, especially after Sam No.1 and Sam No. 2 start comparing notes about what they do and don't remember. Rockwell does a superb job at creating two different versions of the same person, where certain personality traits are sometimes more pronounced in one than the other, and convincingly carries on involved conversations with himself. Almost as good is Spacey's voice work: his affectless deadpan is ideally suited to a computer-generated voice, making GERTY an almost wry computer.

Less surefooted is Jones' and screenwriter Nathan Parker's story, which becomes more and more predictable and facile as the movie progresses. While it wears its movie inspirations on its visual sleeve--2001, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, and Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running come to mind immediately--it seems to be aiming for more Philip K. Dick territory where technology, stolid corporate power, and the sometimes delicate and self-deceiving human psyche intersect, examined in a consideration of the future that pushes moral and ethical buttons.

All the right elements are in place for just such a journey in Moon, but it never comes together in a satisfying manner--perhaps for its surface misdirections. Superficial Biblical allusions pepper this story--Sam's daughter is named Eve; the three harvesters are nicknamed Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the first three books of the New Testament; Sam's contract is a Trinitarian three years. Even the name Sam Bell could be parsed into quasi-religious parts, Samuel being one of the Hebrew judges and the surname suggestive of altar bells rung during communion to signify transubstantiation. (Names feel like they could be instructive here. Tess is a diminutive of Teresa, which comes from the Greek verb "therizein"--to harvest--and ELIZA was an early natural-language processing computer program.)

All of which is mere speculation, though, as none of the above reference chasing generates a grander theme or point, even though the movie does slouch toward something resembling a tidy conclusion. And perhaps that's Moon's biggest flaw: It raises a number of questions and tries to answer them. But, again, that's a minor fault in an otherwise subdued and ambitious attempt to consider what it means to be human.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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