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.