As a movie setting, outer space is most often used to create a free-for-all frontier in which good and evil can battle it out with a minimum of rules or limitations. Think “Star Wars,” “Buck Rogers,” “Flash Gordon” or scores of other space adventures.
Less common is the use of space as an illustration of how closely our identities as humans are tied to our original environment. Think “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the first and best example, and its cinematic descendants, including “Alien,” “Solaris” and “Sunshine.”
“Moon” continues, with a slightly less sterile aesthetic than “2001,” in this tradition, illustrating the fragility of human identity while further exploring the alienating effect of technology at the same time.
The film follows Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, “Frost/Nixon”) during the final days of his three-year stint manning a corporate mining base on the moon. In the future “ although it’s not made clear how far into it “ a process is used to mine a type of helium from the sun-soaked far side of the lunar substrate. The helium is retrieved by Sam from the harvesting machines and then launched back to Earth, where it is used to fuel the majority of the planet’s fusion energy.
Sam’s only companion in his lonely outpost is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey, “21”), a ubiquitous robotic intelligence that moves around the base, offering food, drink, pain relievers and advice. GERTY is reminiscent of “2001”‘s murderous HAL 9000, but he’s less rigid about his programmed directives. With only an animated cartoon face that switches between half a dozen facial expressions, GERTY provides a well-meaning, but very limited form of company for Sam.
While Sam’s psyche is tattered, he’s kept going by video messages from his wife and daughter. He spends his downtime building a scale model of his hometown, dreaming about resuming his life there.
But things aren’t what they seem. After crashing his rover while trying to retrieve a container of helium from a harvester, Sam wakes up in the infirmary. What follows is the ultimate identity crisis. Without including spoilers, it’s only safe to say that who Sam is will be called into question.
While “Moon” doesn’t carry the iconic or existential gravity of “2001,” it does present a more cohesive and engaging story. Directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, “Moon” uses the sterility and inherent danger of the lunar environment to contrast with Sam’s humanity. This helps us more closely relate to him and sympathize with his highly unusual situation. Rockwell turns in a highly skilled performance, which further helps us relate to and care about Sam. Again, without spoiling anything, the plot creates certain challenges for Rockwell as an actor, which he carries with ease.
“Moon” wasn’t graced with a wide release, and it might not be for everyone. Most people go to the movies to turn off their brains, but “Moon” will make you think. If escapism is your thing, go see “Transformers” again.