Arts Listings

2009: A Space Oddity

By Gar Smith Special to the Planet
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:17:00 PM

How far would rampant capitalism go to exploit the worker? The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden had the answer: “To the moon, Alice! To the moon!” 

With Moon, his indie debut, first-time feature director Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie) delivers a film that is a mind-bending, heart-breaking homage to Silent Running and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sam Rockwell carries the weight of the story on his shoulders as Sam Bell, a weary corporate moon-cog winding up the last weeks of a three-year contract mining Helium 3 from the lunar surface. Sam’s duty is to rocket canisters of Helium 3 back to Earth where Lunar Industries sells the elusive moon-gas to provide the “clean, green energy” that allows industrial society to thrive in the post-carbon era. 

Denied direct contact with his wife and daughter because of a strangely lingering “communications blackout,” Sam’s only outside contacts come in the form of pre-recorded messages from home relayed via “JupiterMail,” brusque commands from the suits that run his station, and the computerized companionship of Gertie, the base’s all-purpose robot. (In one of many echoes of Space Odyssey, Kevin Spacey provides the voice of Gertie—and he does a Hal of a job.) 

A tense situation goes increasingly haywire as Sam’s mental moorings begin to slip. A hallucination results in a scalded hand. (That bandaged hand will prove helpful when trying to decipher the weirdness that follows.) Sam crashes his moon-cruiser into a lunar rock-crusher and awakens back in the base infirmary. “You’ve had an accident, Sam. You need to rest,” Gertie explains. 

On an unauthorized excursion back to the crash scene, Sam discovers a body in a spacesuit and hauls it back to Gertie’s sick-bay. Sam is beside himself—literally—when he discovers the body belongs to a man who looks exactly like himself and who also insists that he is the Sam Bell entrusted to run the base. The two Bells circle warily, clash violently and finally join forces to uncover an appalling secret as an ominous “rescue crew” draws closer to the station with each passing hour. 

Despite the intricate pas-de-deux involving one actor playing two polar versions of the same character in a series of ping-pong-playing stand-offs, heated arguments and bloody wrestling matches, the film notes claim the movie was shot in only 33 days. The production values, however, reflect a film that must have required months of careful preparation including massive sets and complex modeling. Moon raises the bar for indie films into a high orbit. 

Viewer will spend hours trying to “reverse engineer” this film, untangling its puzzles and looking for plot holes. Thanks to a clever screenplay many scenes that initially appear illogical do survive scrutiny. But how do you explain a Hal-like robot that fails to pay attention whenever Sam starts playing detective? And how is it that Gertie becomes a willing accomplice, even to the point of sacrificing itself to save a human? Where Hal famously monotoned: “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t do that.” Gertie, the Anti-Hal, ultimately offers, “Yes, Sam. I can do that.” 

When a friend asked the question: “Does Sam live or does he die?” I had to answer, “Yes.” It’s that kind of a movie. Watch Moon with a friend and go out for a beer. You’ll have a lot to talk about. 


Moon opens June 19 at Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley. 


Gar Smith is a Berkeley-based editor and writer.