Monday, July 20, 2009

Alone Against Tomorrow

It's been a long, long time since I saw a science fiction movie that engaged the intellect rather than the viscera, so imagine my surprise at the nuts and bolts hard science and intellectual rigor in Moon (2009, directed by Duncan Jones). It's not a deep, philosophical film along the lines of a 2001 or a Solaris, but neither is it a whiz bang entertainment. Like its central character, it's a blue collar kind of science fiction, of the sort once practiced by the writers in John Campbell's Astounding, salted with a bit of Philip K. Dick. It has an intimate scale--it really has two characters, and they're more or less trapped in a microcosm--but the devil is in the details. It poses some interesting questions about work, exploitation, identity, and loneliness.

The story concerns a mining tech on the far side of the moon, whose job is to keep vast strip-miners looking for helium-3 running. Helium-3 is necessary for cheap fusion driving the economy back home on Earth (this is actually fairly sound scientific extrapolation; helium-3 is real, as is its role in the fusion reaction that fuels the sun). Our hero, Sam Bell, is nearing the end of his three year stint on the moon. His only company is GERTY, the station's computer, and taped messages from home. He's beginning to come unglued. He's seeing things. On a trip out to service one of the mining rigs, he sees a ghostly image in the churning moondust, and wrecks his rover. When he awakens in the station's infirmary, things have changed slightly, and he finds that GERTY isn't as cooperative as he would like. There's something waiting for him out at the wrecked rig, and more than that I shall not say. It's best to discover the film on its own terms.

I'm not going to claim that this is a great film. It's NOT a great film. But it is a very good film, and it makes most of what's in the current science fiction film firmament look very, very bad by the mere fact of its good qualities. First and foremost, it doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. It assumes that the audience knows something about science, that the audience cares about the existential problem it poses for its hero, and that the audience can follow its plot. There are special effects in the film, but they are modest. As a matter of production design, this is a very good-looking film, taking its cues from any number of 1970s-era science fiction films. The film it most resembles to my eye is Silent Running, which shares its solitary protagonist doing a dirty job (and rebelling against that job), but it's better than that movie. That it accomplishes its effects on a modest five million dollar budget is a bit of a miracle, but it shows how the economies of scale on special effects have come down. The film's combination of model work and CGI creates a very plausible environment for the story. The film goes back to the "used future" look of those seventies films, and it's entirely convincing.

The thing that makes the movie tick, however, is Sam Rockwell, who plays the lead. He's given a difficult role that essentially devolves into a one-man play in which he goes through several stark character transformations. He holds the camera through the whole movie. It's a rare science fiction film that's a showcase for an actor, but this film is such a beast. Kevin Spacey gets the unenviable role of GERTY, with it's echoes of Hal-9000.

One other thing the film gets right is that it's creepy as hell. The cold, futuristic environment clashes mightily with the disintegrating intellect of its hero, and the film incorporates a couple of images that are as haunting as anything you'll find in a ghost story. This is a deep well of alienation, and that carries a powerful kick. Maybe it has more in common with Solaris than I thought.


Unknown said...
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Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Jackson. Thanks for stopping by. That's a weird search result. I've never written a word about Medium. Hopefully you've found what you're looking for. I would imagine that you can find them on Hulu, if nothing else.

Good luck.

J Luis Rivera said...

I have to wonder if there's a connection between this movie and Major Tom... it's a space oddity...

krisenthia said...

jluis, good ref to major tom. have you seen darkstar? this movie reminded me of it.

Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: This really sound great. I'm going to get it as soon as the DVD gets released. Thanks for clueing me in!

Great post. -- Mykal