The moon is a harsh mistress
Another name for “Moon” might be, and I mean this only slightly facetiously, “2009: A Space (Spacey?) Odyssey,” as it’s virtually impossible not to be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece between Kevin Spacey’s soothing ministrations as a computer named Gerty and Sam Rockwell’s efforts to cope as the lone occupant of a lunar outpost.
The film, the first for director Duncan Jones, is certainly reaching for those same stars, the ones that his dad, David Bowie, shot through like a brilliant comet with the song/album “Space Oddity” in 1969. So it’s easy as well to envision Jones, who was born a couple of years later, growing up to the sounds of “This is ground control to Major Tom. . . .”
Though Jones doesn’t mention Bowie’s work as an influence, he credits films like Kubrick’s 1968 “2001: A Space Odyssey” -- “Blade Runner” and “Outland” are others -- as touchstones as he was working on the story upon which Nathan Parker would base the screenplay. But try as they might, the filmmakers never hit the outer reaches of imagination that both Kubrick and Bowie did. Which is not to say the film completely implodes into a black hole either.
It was a strong move to put Rockwell at the center of this scientific progress as morality play. As Sam Bell, a technician nearing the end of a three-year contract handling the maintenance of a green fuel strip-mining operation on the moon, intensity is what Rockwell does best.
With his time there growing short, Sam’s hold on reality shorter still, frustration and fear can be felt in every foot-pounding step on the treadmill, in each meticulous cut of the knife, as he works to finish a model of the hometown he desperately aches to return to.
If anything, Rockwell takes as much care with his character as Sam does of the wispy potted plants he obsesses over. But as every good gardener knows, plants need room to breathe, and so too does Sam.
Though the actor is in nearly every scene, it’s not quite a solo act. There’s Gerty, always asking after Sam, monitoring his every move, turning a yellow smiley-faced screen empathetically in his direction. Spacey’s hovering reassurance, eerie and electronic, is spine-tinglingly good.
There are taped conversations with his wife, Tess (Dominique McElligott), that can be cued up any time. And there are Sam’s even stronger memories of Tess, the feel of her, the power of human contact under sweaty sheets.
But the moon can be an unpredictable place. There’s an accident, a rescue and suddenly another man in this vacuum-sealed life who looks like a younger version of Sam. It’s a discovery that brings with it more questions and even more screen time for Rockwell.
As the two Sams struggle to find their humanity, the film struggles to find entertainment within the esoteric. While they’re trying to figure it out, we’re left stranded on the dark side of the moon, a cold and solitary place with not even Gerty there to keep us warm.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters
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