We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars
Bottom Line: This movie delivers an intimate story that asks what it means to be human and stands well next to the sci fi classics it evokes like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running
2009’s Moon is a rarity in modern-day cinema. It is a Science Fiction movie, yet it has little action, no explosions, no space battles, no guns, no nail-biting down-to-the-wire endings, and a cast that you can count on one hand. What it does have, though, is a strong story bolstered by magnificent performances from its sparse set of performers. In that respect, it harkens back to classic examples of hard science fiction in the cinema like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, and Silent Running. And that is exactly what director and co-writer Duncan Jones wanted.
The entire movie takes place on the Moon as we follow Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who is the sole human in charge of running a mining operation that extracts helium-3 from the lunar surface and sends it back to Earth where it provides the primary fuel source for the planet. His only companion is the robotic GERTY 3000 (voiced by Kevin Spacey) which has a voice similar to HAL 9000 and displays emojis on its monitor to reflect its expressions. Sam is coming to the end of his three year contract on the Moon and eagerly awaits his return home. However, he starts to hallucinate and see people and transmissions that he knows cannot be real and this eventually causes him to have a life-threatening accident on the surface of the Moon.
Early on, you may start to question several aspects of the movie’s basic set-up. (Minor Spoilers ahead in this paragraph.) Why would the company send only one person at a time to spend a rather daunting three years in isolation? Why would they not fix the malfunctioning satellite that provides Sam’s only chance to have real time transmissions from home? After the accident, how did Sam get back to the base? But everything falls into place as the tight, focused script unfolds before us.
I’ll give no more information about the movie than that, because “that would be telling”, and it’s best to go into this one without any pre-conceived notions. What I will do is complement the cast and crew on pulling off what could have turned into a very dreary, plodding film in the wrong hands. Mind you, Moon does have a very slow pace, but it never drags or meanders because of its excellent script, spot-on performances by Rockwell and Spacey, and steady direction from Jones (who, by the way, is the son of the late David Bowie).
Visually, Moon succeeds as well, as it gives us a respite from the CGI-overload that Hollywood so often throws at us. Jones relies on old-school model-work to depict the Moonbase and the vehicles that interact with it. And despite the limited budget of the film (around $5 million) his special effects team delivers a realistic, almost flawless, depiction of Moon colonization that makes viewers like myself long for the lost art of model-derived special effects. This practice of course would not work as well in a more action-oriented film, but in this setting it provides the perfect visual realization to complement the story.
Moon compares quiet well to some of the classics of science fiction cinema that it invokes and deserves to stand right next to them when listing accomplished movies from the genre. While it lacks the grander statements of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, it does give us a more modest, personal statement about what it means to be human and to be in control of your own destiny. Also, it avoids some of the inconsistencies and leaps of logic of the two previously mentioned movies (i.e, you have to read the book to understand exactly why HAL goes berserk, and just why exactly did they put the forest domes out in deep space instead of orbiting the Sun?). Most importantly, the movie places story above spectacle and also manages to maneuver past the conceits that often afflict films of this ilk.
Moon did not do big Box Office business in its theatrical run, in part because of its limited distribution and in part because of its lack of promotion. But it did gain immediate attention from critics and fans of the genre and quickly got pegged as an “instant classic”. Those who missed it in its truncated theatrical run should definitely check it out on Blu-ray or DVD, and those that did catch it should watch it again because like most classics it stands up to multiple viewings.
Buy Moon on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.com: