Moon (2009); Dir. Duncan Jones

It’s hard to make a space movie without being burdened down by all those who have gone before you. How do you approach it in any way that is original? How do you separate yourself from, say, 2001? I’ve often thought that worrying about being “original” is a waste of time. It has led many a filmmaker into truly pretentious and boring waters. Besides, there aren’t 1,000 stories to be told in the world. There are, maybe, 10. Every story is a variation on a theme that’s been done, ad nauseum, since man sat around the campfire telling tall tales about how he kicked the ass of the woolly mammoth. There are valid things to worry about: avoiding cliche, avoiding shortcuts, avoiding easy sentiment. Creating characters that live, whether we like them or not. Casting well. Staying true to your convictions in terms of the story you want to tell. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail. It doesn’t matter if we’ve seen 100 movies set in space. If the story you have chosen to tell has some human element, some universal theme, we won’t mind that “we’ve seen it before”.

And that’s one of the best things about Moon, directed by Duncan Jones, and starring Sam Rockwell. They approach the challenges of the piece head-on. They are unembarrassed about the fact that everyone and their grandmother will think of 2001 when watching the movie. They are making those connections consciously. When I watch the film, I realize almost immediately that I am in very very good hands, and I relax. The connections made to other space movies is a joy, and also, and this is very important: Because the references to 2001 are so obvious, so clear, I accept it very early on in the film and never think about it again. I am left clear and free to dive into THIS story, THIS character.

I thought Moon would be about an astronaut struggling to survive on the moon by himself. What a surprise to find a truly philosophical film, willing to ask questions about identity and memory and life itself. It is not an action film. It is not a thriller. It is a contemplation on issues that matter to all of us: who are we, really? If we met ourselves, how would we find us? Is our past really as we think it is, or did we make it up somehow because it’s more comforting that way? The philosophical questions Moon is interested in tackling connects it far more to Blade Runner than to 2001, and it has the same courage. It is willing to “go there”. It doesn’t cop out. Not once. What a thrill!

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut sometime in the future, who is coming to the end of his three-year contract working at a station on the moon. It has been discovered that the moon rocks contain something called “Helium 3”, which is mined and then sent back to earth to generate “clean energy” for the entire world. Sam Bell has been living in the space station by himself for three years, and outside, on the surface of the moon, giant machines drive around scooping up the dirt. Sometimes Sam has to go out and check the machines. For the most part, he is holed up in the space station, which is a nod to every bad sci-fi movie from the 70s: long fluorescent-lit passages, octagonal-shaped doorways, old-school computer monitors on every wall. It is clearly a “set”. That’s fine. To Sam Bell, the world he lives in has become strangely theatrical and unreal. When the film opens, he has a long straggly beard and looks like a homeless troll under a bridge. He has been alone too long. He spends his off-hours carving a model of his hometown out of wood. This is meticulous work. He huddles over his work-table, with a magnifying glass attached to his glasses, and he looks completely insane. He has a wife and a 3-year-old daughter at home. They can send each other video messages, although there is no live feed, everything happens on a delay. He is a bit worried about his wife and what is going on at home. She sits at her table, back on earth, talking to him, and he watches her, with the strangest expression of loss and hope on his face. His bunk is surrounded by photos of her and his baby daughter. He has two weeks before his contract is up. He is getting ready to go home.

This is not an unabashedly good thing, at least not in the way Rockwell plays it. He manages to evoke worlds of anxiety and despair beneath his rather humorous jaunty surface. What is he afraid of? What is waiting for him back on earth? Is his wife faithful to him? How will it be to see his daughter, who doesn’t even know him?

The film understands the complexity of human emotions. We rarely feel just one thing at any given time. We usually have a lot of stuff going on. A piercing moment of joy is accompanied by a swan-dive of loss because it won’t last. A terribly sad moment is intercut by hilarity at how sad everything is. There is no better actor to suggest this complexity than Sam Rockwell, who is never, ever, just one thing. I could watch him in closeup for hours on end. Trying to delve into what he is feeling, trying to name it. There’s a lot of mystery in his work, as there is in most of the best work done by actors. It doesn’t show itself clearly, because that’s not how life works. His performances leave questions open-ended in the viewer. You can talk about them and never get to the bottom of them.

On the space station, Sam’s only companion is a computer named “Gerty” with the soothing (sometimes eerily so) voice of Kevin Spacey. “Gerty” is clearly a nod to the malevolent HAL, but “Gerty” is a softer version. Gerty tells him, “I am here to help you, Sam.” Whatever he needs. Do you need some food? A haircut? Do you need someone to talk to? The face of the computer has a little screen that shows different emoticons to connote the “emotions” of Gerty. When Sam is sad, we see a sad face. When Gerty is neutral, the mouth of the emoticon is a straight line. Sometimes Gerty smiles. The memory of HAL is impossible to ignore, and the film accepts that. But “Gerty” soon emerges as her own type of computer, separate from HAL. As things heat up, you start to wonder whose side she is on. (I thought of her as a “she”, despite the male voice of Spacey). What does “helping Sam” mean? How much does she know about what is really going on?

Early on in the film, Sam gets into an accident in his giant moon-rover, and the company representatives back on earth (who send him creepy video messages seated at a cavernously large conference table) send up a rescue team. They will arrive in three days. They will take Sam back home with them.

And that’s when things start to get really weird.

To say more would be to ruin the film, and although if you listen to interviews with Jones and Rockwell, it becomes apparent what happens. Suffice it to say, Sam Bell is confronted with the growing knowledge that nothing is what it seems, that he is not who he seems to be, and the rescue team shrieking across the black space in between the earth and the moon is anything but. It will be the end of him.


I must divulge something in order to talk about Sam Rockwell’s acting, so read no further if you want to see the film and don’t want to know about what happens.

After the accident, Sam Bell wakes up in the infirmary at the space station, being cared for by Gerty, and suddenly, there is another person in the space station with him. Someone who looks just like him, although with a sharper edge. He clearly hasn’t been on the moon by himself for three years. He is a hot-shot in an astronaut suit wearing Ray Banz. Who is he? He is named Sam Bell, too.

So begins the second “act” of the film, which consists of Sam Rockwell essentially acting with himself. Two completely different characters, playing ping-pong, getting into fist fights, talking, fighting, trying to figure out what is going on behind the scenes, the giant forces gathering to control their lives. After an inauspicious hostile beginning, they team up. Sam Bell (the original) has not recovered from his accident. His leg is messed up. He burns up with fever. He spits up blood. The other Sam Bell is cool and strong, still healthy.

The work Sam Rockwell does in these scenes is nothing short of a tour de force. I did have a moment watching them playing ping-pong, all (seemingly) in one shot, and thought, “Huh. That’s really cool.” But that was the only time a thought about the process came into my mind.

One Sam Bell deteriorates, as the other Sam Bell thrives. The deteriorating Sam Bell looks so ill, so weakened, that you can smell his rancid breath from off the screen. His teeth are rotting. Blood cakes up on the sides of his mouth. He galumphs around the space station, being followed by a concerned “Gerty”, trying to figure out what has happened, what is his life, who is he. What is real?

Am I not real? If you prick me, do I not bleed?

Moon is interested in those questions. It sets up the world of the movie immediately, in a kind of cinematic short-hand: Astronaut, moon-suits, glaring space station, creepy computer. Okay, got it? Good. Now let’s get to the REAL point of the movie, which is to examine these questions.

Rockwell has a moment where he sneakily places a live video call to his home back on earth. He is confronted with the sight of his daughter, whom he believed to be 3 years old, now a lovely young teenager, confused as to who is calling her. Watch Rockwell’s symphony of responses during that phone call. It is operatic, without ever once reaching. The investment in him as a man has already occurred: Nathan Parker’s screenplay and Rockwell’s acting has made sure of that … and so his horror and grief and his love sears at us off the screen, with nothing in the way. He is confused – who is this person he is talking to? – and as he accepts that she is who she says she is, listen to his voice change. It was so human that my heart felt like it literally cracked. His voice goes soft and fatherly, fond and affectionate: “Hi, sweetheart – my God, honey, how old are you now?”

It’s a brilliant moment in a film full of brilliant moments. Rockwell’s accessibility as an actor, to every possibility, is astonishing. I don’t know much about his process, although I know he is a big questioner. And I know that he is also interested, primarily, in transformation. Moon gives him a great opportunity to explore those things, but the power of the performance is in the smaller human moments, like when his voice suddenly, heartbreakingly, goes fatherly and loving. He’s talking to his “little girl”. He is so out of practice with human connection, but it comes back to him immediately. He loves her. She is baffled, she has no idea who he is, and when he hangs up with her, he sits in the land-rover and starts to weep. Like a little boy. Sobs shaking his body.

There is not one moment of this that is pushed or silly.

The import of the final moments of the film, powerful and deep, are completely earned. The film doesn’t beg for sympathy, hand-out. It doesn’t plead with us. It doesn’t try to pull a fast one on us, and expect things of us that it didn’t work to accomplish. Duncan Jones (who also came up with the story, it is completely his baby) has done his work, so that the payoff is what it needs to be.

None of this, of course, would work without the performance of Sam Rockwell, a breathtaking accomplishment, the kind of acting I truly hold dear. It is, at its heart, deeply personal. And it is willing to go very very dark. There are no areas where Rockwell is afraid, or where he protects himself. The deterioration of his character is on high-speed, and he must tailspin down at the speed of light. There is a submissive gentle quality to someone who is that sick. Rockwell cannot protect himself. He cannot “man up”. He is dying. He knows it. But the blood coming out of him … what is it, really? The memories he has of making love to his wife, and putting his hand on her belly to feel the baby in there … what are they? How can they not be real?

The film didn’t have a huge budget. In many ways, it’s like a play. There’s one set. They didn’t worry about being “accurate”, because this is a futuristic movie, so the set is reminiscent of every Star Trek set ever built. Moon, unlike so many movies, knows what it wants to say, and what it wants to do, and does not get distracted.

Being a human being is not easy in the best of circumstances. Things change, people change. You have to learn to let things go. You have to learn to accept the things you cannot change. You also have to know when it is time to try to save your own life. You have to be willing to break the rules sometimes. You have to be willing to question, to ask “Why?”

And “Gerty” may know more than Sam Bell does, she may have memory chips that include encyclopedias of information at her immediate disposal. But her “face” is an emoticon. Her emotions are blunt and must be “displayed” in no uncertain terms. She is not alive. Sam Bell, weeping in the moon vehicle at the sight of his daughter growing up, is alive. The pain he feels is the crucible of human experience. It cannot be counterfeited. Perhaps we wish we didn’t have to feel such pain. But pain like that reminds us. That we are alive.

Watching Moon, I thought often of one of my favorite lines from The Tempest:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

It is probably not an accident. Aldous Huxley took “brave new world” as the title for his book detailing a futuristic world where humanity is soothed into complacency via various pleasure-giving devices. Life itself is shut out in Huxley’s “brave new world”. The populace is not considered smart enough to handle the implications of being alive. Give them bread and circuses, and let us in power do the heavy work.

Both Sam Bells emerge as real and three-dimensional characters. They are flawed individuals, both of them, and have to go through a whole series of macho posturing exercises in order to connect. Moon asks us to imagine what it would be like to meet ourselves. Could we accept a doppelganger? Could we deal with it as “real”? (Shades of The Double Life of Veronique as well, another movie I thought of when watching Moon).

Both Sam Bells have to race against the clock to figure out their own destinies before the “rescue team” arrives, and there is a beautiful scene where the two of them reminisce about meeting “their” wife, Tess. “Member that?” “Member how I called her up and asked her out for an ice cream cone, like a dork? And she said, ‘Let’s go get a drink.'” Memories often are who we are. Sean Young’s replicant struggles with that in Blade Runner. If I can see something in my past … then who can tell me that that is not real??

With all of the characters’ flaws in Moon I found myself so invested in what happened to both of them that the film became a thriller in spite of itself. I wanted them to be free, get out, RUN, save yourself! The urgency was not just in the plot-points. It was completely in the performance. This is what Shakespeare was getting at in that achingly beautiful line. How beauteous mankind is.

Yes. It is worth loving and fighting and spitting up blood and weeping for all you have lost, just to acknowledge that. How beauteous mankind is. Life is worth fighting for. We are alive, and come hell or high water, that matters.

In Moon, Rockwell gives one of the best performances of 2009.

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35 Responses to Moon (2009); Dir. Duncan Jones

  1. Cullen says:

    Easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. Loved everything about this movie.

  2. Jake Cole says:

    I’m so happy you saw this movie. I was lucky enough to be in Atlanta when it came to town instead of my usual digs in Auburn, and being the Sam Rockwell freak I am, I believe I threw down more than one child and infirm to clear the path to the theater. As hard as it is to judge, I would put it as his best performance to date, and as much as I’ve learned to ignore the Oscars for all reasons other than light bitching on Twitter once a year, part of me was outraged that he was so completely overlooked.

    You put nearly anyone else in that role, and people would start focusing on some of the holes that come with this sort of film, but I was so utterly transfixed by Rockwell, even more than I usually am. That scene where he calls his daughter tore me up, to the point I almost had to duck out of the theater for a second to collect myself, yet at the same time it made me want to not move a muscle.

    I can’t wait to see what Duncan Jones does next. He already won me over with his retro effects, which I maintain look better than nearly all the CGI I’ve seen these last few years, and he seems to have no qualms about becoming a genre guy, which is refreshing now that everyone wants to go from B-movies to “serious” film. And looking at some of the projects he’s got lined up, I have the first inklings of hope that he might become what I feel Richard Kelly tried to be but was too pretentious and too unfocused: an intelligent maker of head-trip movies. As long as pimps don’t start not committing suicide in Jones’ films, I think we’re safe.

  3. Phil says:

    Great review. Moon is both a gripping sci-drama and a film driven by real, complex ideas, and it’s a remarkable achievement from a first-time director. Like you, I thought Rockwell’s performance was one of the great acting displays of the year, and it’s a real shame this often underrated actor didn’t receive more recognition for it.

    There were a couple of other things I really liked about the film. The whole low-tech feel of the production design adds a great deal to the film’s atmosphere, as does Clint Mansell’s beautifully measured score, which was my overall favourite of 2009.

  4. Matt Maul says:

    I really wanted to like this movie and while comparisons to “2001” were floating around, they weren’t a real distraction for me. My biggest issue, granting your comment that “realism” wasn’t what they were trying to achieve, was how un-moon-like the station seemed. The most gratuitious example being how “normal” the gravity environment was inside the living quarters (as opposed to 1/6 earth). My attitude is that IF you’re going to call a movie “Moon” then (dammit) include the lunar environment as part of the story (almost a supporting character). Frankly, it was clear that in “Moon,” the moon had very little to do with the story. That may have been the filmakers intention. However, they could just as easily have set the story in a deep underwater mining station. SPOILER: The story’s resolution where the cloning “scandal” seems to be creating scandalous headlines on earth seemed a tad convenient (almost trite). Just my sci-fi fanboy 2 cents. :)

  5. Charles J. Sperling says:

    Heywood Floyd in “2001” has a daughter whom he speaks to over a space-phone. Do you think she ever got the bush baby she requested?

    Miranda’s lines turn up in a third-season “Star Trek” episode called “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” (Mr. Keats! Please be quiet!) Mr. Spock, acting as the host form for Kollos,a hideous alien, addresses them to a blind Dr. Jones…whose first name happens to be Miranda. She then delivers that rueful observation of Prospero: “‘Tis new to thee.”

    While “Star Trek” has taken quite a few titles from Shakespeare, it’s taken only one from *The Tempest,* with the “Past Prologue” episode of “Deep Space Nine.” The remaining titles appear below:

    “Dagger of the Mind” (*Macbeth*)
    “The Conscience of the King” (*Hamlet*)
    “All Our Yesterdays” (“Macbeth*)
    “By Any Other Name” (*Romeo and Juliet*)
    “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” (*King Lear*)
    “Sins of the Father” (*The Merchant of Venice*)
    “Remember Me” (*Hamlet*)
    “Thine Own Self” (*Hamlet*)
    “Heart of Stone” (*Twelfth Night*)
    “Once More into the Breach” (*Henry V*)
    “The Dogs of War” (*Julius Caesar*)
    “Mortal Coil” (*Hamlet*)
    “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (*Hamlet*)

    And now, as another computer might say, “Abandon shop! This is not a daffodil!”

  6. sheila says:

    Oh, and how could I have forgotten to mention: the crazy intense “dance-off” between the two Sams, with the deteriorating Sam Bell dancing in a rage-full way to “Walking on Sunshine” as the other Sam Bell keeps turning off the stereo. I liked that moment a lot not just because watching Sam Rockwell dance is a “thing of beauty and a joy forever” but because – you really got the sense you were seeing a battle of wills between two separate people. I totally forgot they were the same actor. And also: it really went on longer than you would expect. I kept expecting them to stop the bit – of him dancing and the other guy turning off the music. But they really let it play out. They really let the scene go to a place that it might not have gone to if they had limited the time frame, ie: “Okay, so let’s have other Sam turn the music off 3 times.” I think it happens 9 or 10 times which then gives the scene an opportunity to go very very dark. It doesn’t stop where other films would stop. It keeps pushing that envelope.

    Amazing acting job there. Rockwell is acting alone in a room, yet the film makes us believe there are two guys there. Perfectly modulated performance on both sides.

  7. sheila says:

    Jake – I loved the retro effects. They really worked for me. It sort of got the distraction of CGI and reality out of the way, so that the film could focus on what really mattered – which was the dilemma Sam found himself in. For me, it really worked. The whole movie, for me, is about Sam Bell facing his own identity.

    How weird would it be to be a young healthy You meeting yourself when the other You is sick and dying? How disturbing would that be? How many of us would want to push that other Self aside, insisting, “No, no, that’s not me, I’ll never get that bad, I’m strong, I’m healthy, no, no, that is not me.” The “new” Sam has that going on. There’s that funny moment when he says to the other Sam, the sick Sam – it’s like he suddenly sees the guy, and after all the hostility, he finally feels a little compassion, and says, “Jesus, dude, look at you. Zip up your fly, man.”

    You see in that moment that he is actually embracing this other self. ‘Okay. I may not be sick and spitting up blood, but I can’t turn my back on this man. He is me.”

    Hard to talk about this stuff without making it sound silly. I didn’t find ANY of it silly!

    And yes: that moment with the phone call with his daughter was so painful and beautiful to watch. It didn’t feel planned by Rockwell. It looked as though he was ambushed by powerful feelings – things he fought against and then had to succumb. Just the way he says, “Hi, sweetheart, my God, how old are you now?” – and you can feel, in the quaver, that he is barely holding on.

    Beautiful acting job.

  8. Shelley says:

    Hey, I think you have a very amusing idea there with that “only 10 stories” concept; I wonder which of the ten my work would fit into, and I’d like to see a post where you tell the ten.

  9. sheila says:

    Matt – I had some similar observations as you did, but for whatever reason they did not detract from the story. I agree: it could have been a deep underwater mining station. The setting didn’t matter. What mattered was the journey of the main character. I’m actually not sure that Moon is the best title, to be honest with you. Besides the presence of Sam Rockwell, I would not be drawn to a movie called Moon. That’s just my taste. Take it for what it’s worth. Like you could call it Sam Bell, and you would be closer to having a title evocative of the story. Or Sam Bell Squared. Ha. You know. Not saying those are better titles, or even good titles, but Moon isn’t really the best since the moon was kind of irrelevant.

    But none of that really bugged me or distracted me. I was too into what was going on with the character.

    And I actually loved the tabloid talking-heads voiceover at the very end. I thought it was funny, and it actually gave me hope. That earth was still “back there”, and that it was business as usual.

  10. sheila says:

    Shelley – Not really interested in writing such a post. I’ve been saying there aren’t a million story ideas for years. Guess I first got that idea in high school with the “plots” lesson that I always remembered vividly. Perhaps because I was already a story-writer. It made an impression. The major conflicts in literature – Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Nature, and the others. Pretty simple. Nobody re-invents the wheel.

  11. sheila says:

    Phil – I thought the score was absolutely incredible. The music that played over the closing credits had been sort of there, thematically, underneath a lot of the film – but hearing it all come out at once was very moving. The music was great. Not too orchestral and obvious. More creepy and melancholy. Like Radiohead but maybe more emotional. I loved the music. Perfect fit to the movie.

    And I agree about Rockwell. I know he won quite a few awards for the film and it got a lot of festival buzz. He’s obviously used to that. He is in higher profile pictures now, and that’s all good – but this is a tour de force. I could watch it over and over again.

  12. sheila says:

    Charles – hmmm, fascinating! It seems that the fanciful world of The Tempest, with the clear dark/light divide (Caliban, Ariel) lends itself to futuristic anxiety-driven fantasies – that play still has that power. The power of creation and destruction: Man holds it, but where are his limits? What would we do if we had ultimate power?

    And again: is that list of Star Trek titles off the top of your head?

    If so: GO, YOU!

  13. sheila says:

    Cullen – I loved it too. I need to own it. It’s one that I could definitely watch multiple times.

  14. Ken says:

    Gonna need to see this one. Your review puts me in mind of Silent Running.

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  16. Charles J. Sperling says:


    There are robots in “Silent Running” called Huey, Dewey and Louie — after Donald Duck’s nephews — and these three Junior Woodchucks force me to hang my head and say that this didn’t come of the top of my head, as the James Bond reading list did. (By the way, the quotation from *Dr. No.* is “the only country where you can take a walk every day of the year” — I can’t seem to place it, but thought it was Wordsworth. Bond seems to think it comes from *Chesterfield’s Letters,* but isn’t positive. Maybe Fleming wasn’t, either.) The bulk of the data comes from a Spring 2002 essay from Sean Hall called “‘All the Galaxy’s a Stage’: Shakespeare in the *Star Trek* Universe.” Curiously, Sean Hall had to add the “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” information as a “Supplement,” while I thought of it at once. I am old, even if I do not wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

    *The Tempest* inspired “Forbidden Planet” (all together now, “Anne Francis stars in…”) and Frances FitzGerald uses it as a metaphor for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in *Fire in the Lake.* Miranda may not remember her mother, but Calian remembers Sycorax…

  17. sheila says:

    Ken – you should definitely check it out. Very good movie with a great performance at the heart of it.

  18. Noonz says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about Moon, which was hands-down my favorite movie of last year, along with Basterds. I look forward to the day Sam Rockwell accepts an Oscar, because this guy is truly gifted and a joy to watch — regardless of the film or character he plays.

    Moon was just special, though. An old-school sci-fi film that’s clearly a nod to 2001 without being a ripoff. And as Duncan Jones unfolded the story, I felt as if I were being given a present. Every moment is rewarding to the viewer. And as Phil said, the Clint mansell score is perfect. Moon was the first soundtrack record I bought in years.

    I recommend the film to everyone who’ll listen. When people ask what it’s about, I just say, “It’s about a guy on a moon base. But it’s more than that, and I can’t spoil it, so you just have to trust me.”

    No one’s complained yet. And to the Netflix people, Moon is now available as an instant view in HD. Fantastic.

  19. sheila says:

    Noonz – // “It’s about a guy on a moon base. But it’s more than that, and I can’t spoil it, so you just have to trust me.” //

    Haha. Exactly. I saw it because of the Rockwell tear I am on at the moment – and I’ve seen all his movies except that one (and Conviction, out right now. Speaking of Conviction, from what I can see he does a bang-on-the-money Rhode Island accent. And believe me, I am picky. That’s my home state!) – and if you had told me what it was about, at least in terms of plot, I don’t know if I would have been interested.

    It was so much more than I pictured or imagined. It’s really deep.

    I love that the score is getting so much love. It was something pretty special.

    I watched it on Netflix, but now I need to own it so I can watch the special features, etc.

    • Noonz says:

      Yes, you must watch the special features, which include a breakdown of the ping-pong scene and much all-around goodness involving Duncan Jones.

      In fact — if I remember correctly, you may be able to download the featurette from the DVD’s special features section for free on iTunes. Check when you have a moment.

  20. sheila says:

    I saw a great interview with Jones and Rockwell on Youtube, and they mentioned that Dead Ringers was a big inspiration, at least in terms of how to pull it off.

  21. Noonz says:

    I love that they credit The Criterion Collection version of Dead Ringers, specifically. Criterion is so riddled with win. See, it helps filmmakers!

  22. sheila says:

    I know, the shoutout directly to Criterion is pretty damn cool.

    Rockwell was interesting, too – he said that people would say to him, “But you can’t ad lib then, can you?” because he was acting with himself, and he said that no, he could – but it could get tricky: he had to know ahead of time where the ad lib was going to go. Fascinating. Imaginative. And the sound guy would play him back the take on the iPod, so he could try to match the intensity and be in the “same scene” – as himself.

    It had to be very difficult but very rewarding to see it come across so well! Like: hey, look at us – it worked!!

  23. Noonz says:

    Yeah, you’re almost stressed out for him, thinking about what a tightrope walk it had to be to get it right.

  24. sheila says:

    Yeah – is this gonna be like Parent Trap in space, for God’s sake, or can we really make it work?

  25. sheila says:

    (Not that I don’t love Parent Trap with the intensity of a thousand suns. But you know what I mean.)

  26. sheila says:

    Also, David: if you show up here, doesn’t that still of Rockwell standing in the long dark hallway with a bloody bruised face look uncannily like Bill G.?? Not that Bill has a bloody bruised face, but boy does that one still look like Bill’s doppelganger.

  27. Todd Restler says:

    Great movie, and an amazing performance. The first time I saw “the other Sam”, it was quite a jolt. It’s clearly the same character, yet it’s obviously someone different as well. Somehow, through body language, posture, and facial expression, he’s able to pull that off. Wonderful and creepy.

    It takes a real movie star to carry a film like this, where nobody else is on screen. Tom Hanks in Cast Away, for example. To have to do it while acting two parts at the same time, well, it’s pretty amazing stuff. I first noticed Rockwell in Made, which is the kind of guilty pleasure I could watch over and over. He announced himself to me as a force in Matchstick Men, where I felt he stole the movie from a typically too twitchy Nic Cage. Rockwell can do anything.

    The movie is filled with cool stuff. While it is certainly dark, I found much humor in the various emoticons of Gerty. The attempts by Sam to humanize his environment with various post-it notes were funny as well. And I loved the effects. The shots of the moon rover on the lunar surface were surprisingly effective and realistic to me, considering I was aware that this wasn’t a mega-budget film. And many people have mentioned the superb score. While it works great as “entertainment”, the movie ultimately is quite profound. The kind of movie that sticks to your ribs. Just great filmaking all around.

    And with regard to storytelling, I’m far from an expert, but here’s my 2 cents. Polti theory cites 36 dramatic situations which cover the gamut of dramatic storytelling. However, within each situation are many variations and versions, and when one considers that many if not all stories combine elements from different “dramatic situations”, the possibilities multiply exponentially. Still, as Ebert loves to say, “It’s not what the movie’s about, it’s the way that it’s about it.”

    The link is from the tremendous screenwriting site, run by screenwriting vets Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.

  28. sheila says:

    Todd – Rockwell is one of those weird chameleons. He’s been working under the radar for so long and I think that works to his advantage. He still has an anonymity factor, so that audiences can project stuff onto him without a bunch of celebrity baggage. He’s terrific being interviewed in the John Cazale documentary. Of course he would love John Cazale. He’s the same kind of actor. And that chameleon-thing totally worked here in Moon – obviously the first Sam Bell is worn down and kind of a crazy man, so there was a lot of physical evidence of that – his paleness, his beard, his circles under his eyes. But the characterization went deeper than that. The first Sam Bell is open, kind of curious at first – while the second Sam Bell is angry and tough. “I have an anger problem,” he says. Very funny line.

    I loved the scene where they first drove out past the station’s perimeter. You really got the sense of the vast unknown darkness out there.

    And about the story thing: I guess I like to keep it simple. I know this from my own writing. The script I have been working on and workshopping is an example. I would be asked by my cousin Mike (who will be producing it), ‘So what is this scene about?” I knew instantly that I had no idea if I found myself babbling on and on. The question: “What is this about?” should be able to be answered in a sentence. MAYBE two. If you have to go on and on explaining it, then you are talking about plot – not what is it about, what is its THEME. I think most great works have very very simple themes. Moon has a lot of complexity, a lot of different elements, but I would boil down the actual story to: The Quest for Man to Know Himself. End-stop.

    Everything, every scene, MUST somehow go towards expressing that theme. The best works of art have that kind of continuity, that grand sweep. Even giant complicated works such as Brothers Karamazov or something. You don’t want to lose that complexity, but when you get right down to it, the tale is so simple that it feels inevitable.

    And part of this is from my actor’s training as well. Actors who talk too much, explain too much, what they were doing/going for/working on – are usually actors who are in trouble. It happens to the best of them. In any given scene, an actor has to have some kind of objective. In the way of accomplishing that objective, are all kinds of obstacles. This is rudimentary language to explain something like Hamlet, but in every scene – every single exchange – this obstacle/objective applies. Even the “comic relief”. Actors get general and un-specific when they forget that.

    Directors can be a big burden because often they don’t know how to talk to actors, and they will try to get the actor to play the THEME, as opposed to playing the PLAY. “Try to capture the existential loneliness at the heart of the outsider,” suggests the bad director. A good actor will hear a terrible piece of direction like that and know to ignore it because it is meaningless. Let the lighting designer and sound designer worry about creating mood and thematic elements. The actor has to be grounded in reality.

    Two quotes from one of my best acting teachers (who had also been a very successful actor):

    1. Always remember that the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.

    2. Every single scene is either Fight or Fuck. If you’re stuck and don’t know what to do in a scene, pick one of those and play it for all it’s worth. If it doesn’t work, then you know it’s the other one. Every scene is Fight or Fuck.

    I cannot tell you how many times I have used that second piece of advice in my career. People could nitpick the comment, and try to come up with exceptions, but they would be wrong in my opinion. Anyway, to the ACTOR what is important is that you are DO-ing something. You are not standing around FEEL-ing. You are ACT-ing. (and RE-acting – which is also active. John Wayne used to talk about that a lot.)

    You could look at pretty much any scene worth its salt and find in it the underlying objective to be either: “I want to fight with this person” or “I want to fuck this person.” (“Fuck” not just meaning sex obviously. Love goes under that label as well). Things can certainly overlap, you can want to fight AND fuck – but the actor can’t be too worried about subtlety or nuance in definitions. What matters is what you DO with these things. You’re not a scholar, or someone who makes their living being cautious and weighing all the options. You have to take a deep breath and leap.

    And when you do so, it is helpful to keep things simple. Fight or fuck. Choose.

    Thanks for the link with the stories, I will take a look at it. My feeling about it comes from that class in, oh, 9th grade, where we learned about Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Destiny, and the others. I guess my point is: if your focus as an artist is on creating something “original”, you are already starting out on the wrong foot.

  29. sheila says:

    I had one director tell me to “think blue” during one scene.

    Think blue? Are you fucking kidding me? How about you put up some blue lights and bathe the stage in blue, and leave me to think what I have to think in order to play the damn scene.

  30. sheila says:

    All of that being said, the link you provided is brilliant.

    // The Surrender of a Corpse, or of a Relic, Solicited //

  31. Jeff says:

    Wonderful post, Sheila.

    I had seen the trailer for this movie, and told my sons (then 19 and 15) that we had to go see it. There was just something about that trailer – with the unbelievable music – that screamed “great!” And I know that you can make a great trailer from just about any movie – but there was just something about this one that made me think it was going to be really good.

    They grumbled, especially when it was playing at the only “arthouse” theater in town – which they had never been to (but was the theater where their mother and I had our first date). But they fell in love with the theater the moment they walked in, and loved the movie – as did I.

    Great, great stuff.

  32. Jason Bellamy says:

    Moon and Rockwell each made my personal top-fives last year (Picture and Actor). And the score is tremendous, too; don’t overlook that.

    In addition to the themes you point out, another heavy hitter — for me anyway — is the way the film shows what it’s like to have one’s sense of self taken from them. In most movies on this subject, we see the clone’s emotions in processing their lack of reality, but we usually feel a few steps ahead of them. Here, even if we see it coming, we experience the revelation along with Sam. We feel it. Actually, that’s similar to the charms of the ending of The Sixth Sense, in relation to Bruce Willis’ character, but here the topic is explored at length. The realization of ‘unreality’ isn’t the climax; it’s the beginning of an emotional journey. And, yes, it’s touching to see the Sams going through it together; those memories mean so much to them, they must be real, but they know that somehow they are not.

    And I’m entirely with you on your opening paragraphs. Originality comes not from actual “newness.” It comes from “character.” Give a performance with character, make a movie with character, and suddenly it’s “new,” no matter how many times we’ve seen something just like it.

  33. sheila says:

    Jason – I missed your review originally. Just went back and read it. LOVED your analysis of the ping-pong scene and how it worked for you as a viewer. I had almost the exact same experience.

    Oh, and if you scroll through the comments, you’ll see the score come up repeatedly. I should have mentioned it in my review, but my thoughts about the score are in the comments. It was truly impressive. One of the best scores I’ve heard in years.

    And I agree: the film works more as a philosophical examination – where moments are allowed to play out in all their weirdness and confusion. Because that’s what it would be like. Once they team up, the alliance is strong – you can feel their partnership in how they treat one another – but those beginning scenes of “what the hell is going on” are not rushed through, or made to seem like PLOT. It feels like CHARACTER. Of course it IS plot, but that’s just a testament to the grace and patience of the screenplay. And the strength of the acting.

    I loved it.

  34. sheila says:

    Jeff – I had somehow missed the trailer for this one. I had heard the buzz about it, and the awards it was receiving – my Rockwell fangirl status makes sure of that. It’s a terrific film. Quiet, truly thoughtful, and brave, too: it doesn’t cop out. It follows the situation to what feels like a logical end. There was no deus ex machina. The way it ended felt like the way it HAD to end. I was really moved by it.

    Need to own it so I can pore over the special features.

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