Director Duncan Jones, David Bowie's son, has brought a retro-fresh look to the futuristic story Moo n.
With low-key confidence he depicts what happens to a man during a three-year stint spent harvesting helium-3 from the lunar landscape for shipment to an energy-starved Earth. The film harks back to the "serious" sci-fi of 30 or 40 years ago, when directors had to rely on a beautifully calibrated spareness, rather than computer-generated effects, to convey the time and space of out-of-this-world travel. Every element mixes the foreign and the familiar, the alienating and the reassuring. The lunar base here looks like real, worn office space carved from synthetic material that's neither indestructible nor pristine; even the private quarters have the right mussed-up, bunklike feel to them.
The weighty, deliberate messages from energy-company headquarters are always both calm and concerning, as if part of the eternal arriving from a time when corporate authority had dignity, even if it wasn't to be trusted. The land vehicles boast the solid, adult playfulness of realistic metal toys and train sets from the pre-Transformers era.
And Kevin Spacey delivers his least-mannered, most effective big-screen performance in years as the voice of the nearly omniscient computer-robot, GERTY, whose silky ambiguity resembles HAL's in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. An amusing device helps out Spacey enormously: GERTY comes equipped with a smiley-face graphic that can turn sad, angry or noncommittal according to his mood.
All this wouldn't matter if Sam Rockwell didn't anchor this cleverly claustrophobic spectacle. He plays Sam Bell, the astronaut hero (or is it antihero?). He really is an Everyman, not just in the contemporary sense of being a regular Joe or a guy named Sam, but also in the medieval sense of being someone borderline-nondescript, so that his moral travails register all the more strongly with the audience. You read in Rockwell's eyes what it means for Bell to be separated from his wife and child; you register from his slumping, shambling posture how far he's let himself go.
Moon has a booby-trapped plot that's almost too slender for a 97-minute running time. It would be an act of critical homicide to give anything away and deplete the movie's modest reserves of suspense. It's enough to say that Jones, along with screenwriter Nathan Parker, has concocted a scenario that brings us different versions of Sam Bell - and that Sam Rockwell is up to the task of making their growth and disintegration equally arresting.
Rockwell's virtuosity resides in the way he becomes a one-man comedy team. But he proves his performing mettle when he outdoes Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers with the intricacy and pathos of his hall-of-mirrors performance.
He doesn't just see himself as others see him. He takes objectivity one step further: He sees himself as he sees himself.
(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Sam Rockwell. Directed by Duncan Jones. R for language. 97 minutes.