Good sci-fi is about the people who encounter new worlds, psycho robots and sentient computers. Sadly, it’s a rare thing. Most sci-fi is written by (and for) men who wet themselves at the sight of circuit boards; guys for whom human interaction remains curtailed in chat-rooms. While the ideas of science fiction – what it is to be human, what it is to be alien – are fascinating, they’re usually swamped by silly jargon and space battles. Intelligent sci-fi in movies is practically an oxymoron. Even Alien has a finale where the human female must remove her clothes. Thankfully, the new sci-fi movie, Moon, is not about nipples or things that go “beep”.
It’s the story of a man who lives on the Moon. His name is Sam Bell and he works for Lunar Industries. Sam pushes the buttons that tell machines to stop and start mining Helium 3 (a non-radioactive isotope that – Wikipedia informs me – can be used in nuclear fusion). In the near future, Earth needs Helium 3 for energy. Sam is on a three year contract to keep the Helium 3 coming. He is the only inhabitant of the lunar station, aside from a sentient super-computer called GERTY. Sam’s three years are nearly up. Then one day he starts having hallucinations. Is he really alone? Or is three years too long to be anywhere by yourself?
Sam Rockwell looks like someone who stays up a lot. He has an espresso smile, but his eyes look more like three a.m. He’s easily haunted. Built like a rock star (short-ish, springy) he’s in constant motion when on screen. When you watch him, the word “preening” seems less pejorative. You can picture him as the no-good brother of a guy with “the right stuff”, the sort of astronaut who’d sign up for space program as a way to chase girls. He’s Han Solo if you lopped off six inches. In Moon, he’s alone. You see loneliness scrape off his bravado. All his sexual energy has been sapped by the Tupperware world he lives in. Rockwell excels here, showing us an alpha-male in a state of collapse. He keeps dreaming of sex as a way to stop madness hollowing him. With an actor who was less physical, you wouldn’t feel the texture-less horror of losing your grip. For Rockwell, madness isn’t antic; it’s frighteningly still.
People are bound to make 2001 comparisons. But director Duncan Jones doesn’t direct like Stanley Kubrick. 2001 (though it’s a masterpiece) is a masterpiece with a hard drive’s point of view. Like all Kubrick movies, it regards humans with a unique mix of fascination and distain. The classic Kubrick shot (static, precise) is absent from Moon, which owes a lot more to movies like Silent Running or Dark Star than it does to Kubrick. It’s an actor’s showcase rather than a director’s. Jones just wants us to believe in the environment and his star’s performance rather than salivate over a tracking shot. He isn’t above being light-hearted either. Moon’s sentient computer has a smiley face and the same name as Elliot’s sister in E.T.
As the voice of GERTY, Kevin Spacey sounds Kevin Spacey-like. You know the tone: the way a gold card would sound if you bought something cheap. Spacey does “detached and hating you” better than any actor alive. He’s a perfect contrast to Sam Rockwell’s kicky emotionalism. When GERTY and Sam argue, it’s like listening to a man without a necktie argue with a waiter; one has needs and the other sounds like he’s past caring.
Moon works because it avoids sci-fi’s pitfalls. No-one in it acts like someone’s paying them to be bad. There is no blitzkrieg of CGI. Jargon doesn’t clog the script. Where most sci-fi would throw in aliens to keep you interested, Moon trusts its audience. You are asked to think what it would be like to be alone in space; where that would take you. In a bad sci-fi movie, you’d count the seconds during the quiet bit, waiting for the first head to be torn off. But in Moon, the quiet is the threat. When you live in a place that looks cremated – with a dead man’s view of Earth – it’s where you are that’s scary.