Considering that Neil
Armstrong's giant leap for mankind ranks as one of the most recent triumphs in the grand scheme of human exploration, it's a little odd that science-fiction has never really landed on the Moon. A case of 'been there, done that', perhaps? Maybe Apollo 11 robbed the Moon of its mystery. But given that every human being on Earth beds down nightly with it in their eyeline, the Moon is still perfect sci-fi fodder - it's a subject matter that is instantly familiar yet literally out of this world.
Duncan Jones' (formerly Zowie Bowie) Moon, like the very best modern sci-fi films, manages to strike a chord by marrying the everyday to the fantastic; shackling the present day to the dizzying future. It is a film of many achievements, but if Moon should be recognised for one thing, it is making that big pizza pie in the sky feel every bit as alien, exciting and downright terrifying as it did when Armstrong and crew touched down in 1969.
In Jones' Mooniverse, that giant leap was just the beginning. Astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell) has been living la vida lunar for almost three years and is nearing the end of his contract to mine the Moon for valuable resource Helium-3 - all on his lonesome. With only delayed video contact with his Earth-bound employers, emotional video messages from his patient wife and ship's computer/HAL wannabe GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, it's safe to say a slip into insanity isn't exactly a total shocker.
Moon represents that largely underrated sub-genre of sci-fi masquerading as sci-fact - a fantasy story that's still well within the grasp of reality. Though Moon's budget is small and its entire cast could all fit on the same sofa, it nonetheless raises some huge questions - posers on science, industry, space exploration, the nature of the self, the futility of existence and even the eventual extinction of the human race. It sounds awfully preachy, but Moon's bigger themes are explored via a distinctly small and personal scale - a thriller that grips with feverish intensity.
At the centre of Moon's mystery is perennial underdog Sam Rockwell - a character actor who continues to impress without ever having top-lined a major movie. This is a doozy of a role for Rockwell, one that punishes both physically and emotionally, but it's one that's sure to get him noticed. Jones' screenplay puts Bell through the wringer (no pun intended) but Rockwell is more than up to the challenge, refusing to take the easy route to insanity and building up - and systematically destroying - the layers of what makes him human.
The clincher is an unexpectedly moving scene which sees a solitary Rockwell finally crack, whimpering, "I want to go home" as the camera pans around his lunar rover to reveal Earth, full-frame yet a whole world away. It's simultaneously breathtaking and heart-breaking and it's all down to the intricacies of Rockwell's performance up to that point - it's no mean feat to hold the attention for 97 minutes on your own. Or is it?
Moon contains a devilish twist that sees Bell grappling with matters of the existential kind - maybe he isn't so lonely after all. But what could potentially have been written off as a hoary old last-reel rug-pull is instead meditated on at length and eventually forms the crux of the entire story. The twist is no ground-breaker in terms of originality, but the low-key way in which it's presented makes an old concept feel new - it gives Moon enough narrative thrust to power through to its final scenes, while providing Rockwell ample opportunity to show what he's made of.
Amplifying Rockwell's one-man show is some extraordinary production design; exquisite craftsmanship that belies Moon's miniscule budget (no doubt due to the fact that Jones recruited several artists during last year's Writers Strike lull). Bell's retro-fitted moonbase is believably minimalist in that time-honoured 2001 Kubrick style - an endearingly low-fi and lived-in sci-fi set-up, complete with 'Clapper'-operated TV and onboard 'bot GERTY, all base unit beige and cup holders. The Moon's surface is stark - naturally - but no less beautiful: even Jones' miniatures hold up well. Scored with composer Clint Mansell's haunting piano motif, the illusion is total: for all intents and purposes, this is
the Moon and you're stuck on it too.
Jones mines dark moments of humour - shoot the guy who set the alarm clock to play Chesney Hawkes every morning - which offer mild glimmers of light among an otherwise pitch-black screenplay. Don't expect Michael Bay explosives or easy-fit Spielberg-brand daddy issues; do expect an involving and engrossing experience the likes of which haven't been seen since the likes of Silent Running and the golden age of seventies sci-fi. Moon is an extraordinary film, simply science-fiction in its purest form: the human story is personal and intimate but its overriding themes are universal. It's a film that won't fail to move or excite anyone who's ever cast their eye skywards and let themselves wonder.