Sunday, 19 July 2009

MOON: MIDNIGHT COWBOY TAKES A MOON WALK

I will confess to being a little apprehensive when I showed up to see Moon; a film directed by David Bowie's son, scripted by Alan Parker's son, produced by Sting's missus and released, as if by coincidence, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing--Apollo 11 meets Ziggy Stardust Jr? Yowza!...but no role for Moon Unit Zappa?-- suggested all the hallmarks of a vanity project, the better-connected equivalent of Judy Gardland and Mickey Rooney going 'why don't we put on a show!' in the Andy Hardy movies. But I was won over completely by a film that, despite being very knowing about its roots, and somewhat playful with them, treats itself and its audience seriously, tells a simple tale well, and uses that simple tale to suggest, rather than gnaw over, stronger and deeper concepts. It's helped by the fact that it is nearly a one-actor, if not one person, show, and Sam Rockwell does such a good job in carrying it off.

Rockwell plays Sam, who's coming to the end of a three-year stint mining Helium-3 on behalf of Lunar Industries for clean consumption back on energy-hungry earth. It opens with a Lunar Industries corporate promo, always a red flag in sf films, especially those based on Philip K Dick, or his spirit. Since Blade Runner, there have been many Dick adapations (Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report among the big ones) and probably twice as many films that are Dickian in all but credits, playing with his concepts and worries, everything from The Truman Show to excellent smaller films like Cypher or Gattaca, or almost all of Charlie Kaufman's work.

Dick's central concern is whether the world we live in is 'real' or a construct, how to tell the difference, and more importantly, whether we ourselves are real, or constructs, and if the latter, what difference it makes. For three years Sam has had no direct communication with earth; the satellite link has suffered endemic problems the whole time he's been on the dark side of the moon, and he sends and gets only taped messages with his family. The tapes themselves will remind you of Total Recall, and as Sam's date of departure looms closer, they become more and more distant, and omnious, in tone.

His only companion in space is the robot, Gerty, an obvious reference to Hal 3000 from Kubrick's 2001. Gerty is perfectly realised, voiced by Kevin Spacey (yes, Spacey's his real name) and given his humanity not by Spacey's monotone, but by cleverly changing emoticons. The knowing quality of the film is evident in the way they tease a revisiting of Hal's breakdown, there's a wonderful tease where Gerty appears to be about to strangle Sam, onl to pat him on the shoulder, because, as he reminds us, hes programmed to protect him. It's also cute that, in a film produced by Trudie Styler, this robot should be called by another dimunitive of Gertrude (when I made this point on Saturday Review it was, oddly, edited out of the broadcast).

Sam and Gerty's relationship follows in the traditions of smaller-budget sf films like Silent Running (to which there are obvious references in Sam's garden, and whose situation, of Bruce Dern with robots Huey, Dewey and Louie, is very similar), or Aaron Lipstadt's Android : and any number of other films that use their limited budgets in creative ways, working out straightforward approaches to serious sf concepts . In the same way Dick hit on some instinctive truths, and certainly a clearer vision of our present world than virtually any other writer in or out of sf, while churning out his pot-boilers for chump change, and got the future much more accurately and entertainingly in the big sense and the 'serious' hard sf writers, so too have these 'smaller' films often contained much more humanity than bigger films whose budgets seemingly demand to be spent on effects, not ideas.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Sam is seriously injured in a crash, then wakes, apparently having been rescued and treated at his station. But how? He realises that the Sam from the crash is still out there, goes to rescue him (for he is still alive) and finds himself. Which means Sam II is a clone.

The beauty of the film from this point, as Rockwell plays two roles (it's like Silent Running's Dern face to face with 2001's Keir Dullea) is that rather than get all philosophical over identity, the two clones behave like two people forced to realise they are both the same person as well as two different people. Working together, they uncover the secret of the moon operation, of Sam and his family, and of the way Lunar Industries has devised to cope with the problems of leaving a man isolated on the moon for three years--a method devised, we realise, at least 15 years before.

The film makes only one visual reference to the moon landing: one shot of Sam bouncing along the surface, which makes him look almost gleeful in a situation where he should not be. Likewise, it only cheats once with the concept, when Sam sees a vision which foreshadows the situation, like a mirage, but for which there should be no memory on which to draw.

The story's heart now becomes the two Sams working for a solution, an escape; basically a reworking of another event which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year: John Schlesinger's film Midnight Cowboy. As the injured Sam deteriorates, Rockwell launches into a knowing but respectful, if playful, impersonation of Dustin Hoffman playing Ratso Rizzo--and in the end it's hard not to see the other Sam as Joe Buck heading off to Miami on his space bus. The two, and Gerty, work against the clock, making it a suspense film, and by now the audience has been won over to the two Sams, and the struggle is the classic one of individuals, clones or real, against the system.

Early press documents and reviews compared Rockwell's performance to Nicholas Cage's in Adaptation, and to Jeremy Irons' in Dead Ringers (Irons' is the most subtle of the three, Rockwell's the most flamboyant). But there is another comparison, which I mentioned on Saturday Review. Moon's director Duncan Jones (ne Zowie Bowie) reminds me of another director with a famous name who changed it to Jones, Spike Jones. Like Jones' first feature, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation was written by Charlie Kaufman, and very much in the Philip K Dick mode; in Adaptation, of course, Cage played two brothers, with the question of the second brother's reality always in the forefront. Spike Jones' directing career stalled, but there is a difference. Duncan Jones came up with the story for this film, and he's apparently already working on another sf film; he has great visual flair, and it will be interesting to see if the ideas, and the playfulness continue in that film. Nathan Parker has apparently done a screenplay for Thomas H Cook's subtle and very moving thriller, Red Leaves.

In the meantime, however, Moon is a small, intelligent movie, entertaining enough for a non-sf audience, and knowing enough for (older?) sf fans who will get its references. Can it appeal to the CGI Friday crowd? It deserves to.

MOON directed by Duncan Jones, screenplay by Nathan Parker, story by Duncan Jones, with Sam Rockwell, Dominique McElligot, (voice of) Kevin Spacey, photography: Gary Shaw

1 comment :

Larry Siegel said...

You mention that Duncan Jones changed his name to Jones from Bowie, but don't forget that David Bowie's actual name is David Jones so Duncan is actually just using their real family name.