20) Moon (2009)
Directed by Duncan Jones
Written by Duncan Jones & Nathan Parker
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Sam Rockwell, and the voice of Kevin Spacey
I’m a bit shocked, honestly. In setting out to make this list, I really didn’t expect to be writing about this film. There are several movies from 2009 that are objectively better than Moon and did not make the list, but they don’t keep me coming back for more the way this one does. As I write this, I’m watching the film for the third time in the past three days, and continue to find new rewards in it. If I tried to adhere to critical consensus instead of picking my personal favourites, what kind of list would this be?
A quick and spoiler-free synopsis: In the future, the world’s energy crisis has been solved by a miracle element called Helium-3. LUNAR Industries has set up a mining facility on the far side of (you guessed it!) the moon, where the operation is run by one man and his robot assistant, GERTY. Sam Bell (Rockwell) has two weeks left in his three-year term, but after so much time in solitude, he’s beginning to get stir-crazy.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, turn around now, as it’s best to go into it knowing as little as possible. Even watching the trailer will spoil the “twist” for you, so don’t do that either. Just know full-well that it’s worth your time and take a chance on it. You won’t regret it.
I put twist in quotes there, because a plot development isn’t really a twist when it occurs 20 minutes into the film. After a brief set-up hinting Sam may be “losing his marbles”, the movie lays itself bare. This is one of the things I like best about the film: it is so straight-forward. The script has no use for creating unnecessary action or melodrama. It is carefully plotted, but the focus is on character study and the moral questions it presents. Sam gets into an accident, and soon awakens in the station’s infirmary. But this is not the same Sam. The movie lets us know he is a clone almost immediately, though the characters wrestle with this realization for longer than we do — especially once New Sam (Sam-6) and Old Sam (Sam-5) come face to face.
Old Sam is coming to the end of his accelerated life-cycle, while New Sam has just begun his. The movie uses this dynamic to make several statements on the maturation process. New Sam is fiery and hot-headed, quick to fly off the handle. Old Sam has wrestled his demons, and made peace with his lonely existence: he dreams of his wife, whittles a model of his hometown, and watches old re-runs of Bewitched and Mary Tyler Moore. He talks to his plants, and to himself. He is calm. This is not to say that Sam-5 is a better person than Sam-6, just…older. Each have their pros and cons.
New Sam comes to terms with his unfortunate situation relatively quickly, while Old Sam struggles to cope with his unravelling unreality. 5 is more inclined to believe the lie, and is more resigned in his fate, while 6 channels his temper into fighting for survival. He is forced to grow up fast and become responsible, formulating a plan to save himselves from an imminent execution. And as he becomes a man, Old Sam becomes more child-like, growing increasingly stubborn and petulant as his body deteriorates and death approaches. Isn’t that the way it always goes?
The production design purposefully recalls genre classics like 2001, and does so to subvert our expectations. There is a moment in the film where Sam-5 attempts to unlock secret files on the master computer, and Clint Mansell’s wonderful score strikes up ominous tones as GERTY approaches. We suspect GERTY will betray our hero and remain loyal to the company. That is, after all, what HAL would do. But he doesn’t. A robotic arm raises behind Sam, and we half-expect it to club him over the head. Instead, it punches in the password and lets Sam know his full fate. It is a moving moment, and in fact GERTY is nearly as fascinating a character as Sam himself.
The movie pushes the limits of our empathy and challenges the definition of what it is to be human. There are technically no “human” protagonists in this story — just two clones and a vending machine with an emoticon display-screen. And yet each of them, even the robot, deserve more empathy than any of the characters in your typical romantic comedy. Rockwell gives a dynamite performance, and many of his revelatory moments are absolutely soul-crushing to watch. It is one of the best performances of the entire decade, and it’s a travesty he received no recognition for it. Spacey, for his part, is a perfect fit for the robot — his voice simultaneously comforting and sinister.
What Duncan Jones has accomplished here on a $5 million budget is astonishing. That this is his debut film just makes it more remarkable. Like Neil Blomkamp and District 9, he is able to milk every dollar for all it’s worth, using one set, a handful of actors and minimal effects shots. Most of the exterior scenes were made using miniatures, and they look fully convincing.
In short, Moon is great science fiction, and unquestionably one of my favourite films of the decade.