Sunday, February 25, 2018

Duncan Jones, part I: Three year stretch


Fundamentally perfect sci-fi delivered in a gorgeous package that never quite belies either its pittance of a budget or the inexperience of its director, Moon is a movie for the ages.

Directed by Duncan Jones
Written by Nathan Parker and Duncan Jones
With Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell), Kevin Spacey (GERTY), and Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell)

Spoiler alert: high, in the sense that I describe the basic dynamic of a decade old film's plot, anyway

While I've not seen literally every movie about speculative space travel since the turn of the millennium, it's entirely possible—in fact, quite likely—that Duncan Jones' Moon remains the 21st century's single hardest example of the subject.  (It might be all centuries' hardest piece of cinematic space travel, for that matter.  I suppose it depends on just how you want to categorize 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is diamond hard right up until the point it isn't.)  But whether we go with just these past eighteen years, or the past hundred-plus, it's a field with very limited competition, and, outside of Gravity—which is so hard that, technically, it isn't even science fiction—and a few other movies like Gravity, that also basically content themselves with fictional space missions employing already-extant (or barely-modified) technology, Moon is almost without a doubt the one that relies the least upon things that don't, or can't, exist.  That is, it's the one that presents its scenario with the most clear-headed extrapolation from the world as it stands today.  Thus it's also the one that feels the most credible, despite the fact that it represents the collision of not one, not two, but five wholly-separate, wholly-wacky sci-fi premises—lunar colonization, fusion power, advanced AI, human cloning, and memory manipulation, and all at once—and all of them overlapping one another in increasingly-weird ways.

But Moon treats each of its premises with almost-unheard-of respect.  Lunar colonization is expensive and needs a purpose?  Of course it is, of course it does; so Moon finds that purpose with fusion power, which is presented here as if Moon expects its audience to already know ahead-of-time why these two things go so naturally together.  (The short version is that helium-3, found in quantity only on the moon, is a possible solution to the neutron problem inherent to magnetic bottle fusion.)  Meanwhile, that artificial intelligence I mentioned is conceived with the most gleefully hard-nosed ambiguity possible, as regards its potential for actual sapience; that feeds directly into the combination of human cloning and memory manipulation, the two concepts upon which this story really turns, as the economically-if-not-ethically-viable alternative for a corporation who might prefer to automate everything, but, as of yet (Moon appearing to be set in the 2050s or so, though time's a slippery thing here), simply can't.

It accomplishes all this, in the first instance, by a screenplay that—outside of a puckish opening gambit that pitches a little bit of needed exposition our way, through a cloying advertisement for those so-called "Lunar Industries"—leaves almost everything to tantalizing implication, revealing nothing directly about its world unless it needs to be discussed right now.  And there's never even one tedious conversation in Moon that begins with an "as you know," either voiced or otherwise, which is a very good thing, since (as we'll see) this would've been especially fatal in light of the particular circumstances obtaining to Moon's plot.

But it's accomplished all the more by one of the most thoughtful and careful production design efforts for a science fiction film in living memory, devoted to the same basic kind of used-future motifs that defined Alien and Blade Runner (the two most obvious touchstones for Moon, alongside 2001, and the latter to the extent that Moon is sort of like a sequel to Blade Runner set in a universe where people have seen Blade Runner, and used it as a how-to manual); but Moon surpasses both films pretty easily, at least in its actual functionality.  Alien and Blade Runner only look like they work, and then only if you don't look that hard; Moon, on the contrary, looks like if you'd arrived on set, you could start mining that helium-3 at any time.  The major used-future set of Moon is the Sarang Base; though the compound has several discrete locations within it, and is occasionally ventured out of, Moon is almost a single location film in fact (and it is definitely a single location film in spirit), and Moon makes the absolute most out of the possibilities of reflecting its lunar pioneer's personality in his surroundings.   Alien and Blade Runner are designer's triumphs, of course (as scarcely even merits mentioning at this point). They presented futuristic spaces that felt incredibly lived-in—but not, with the exception of a quotidian apartment set here, or an inventor's gonzo playhouse there, by any particular individual.  Their worlds were impersonal, schematic, monumental.  Moon adopts the same approach, but uses it not for mood and scene-setting alone. The parameters of this used-future depend entirely, after all, upon the human actually using it.

800 words into a review being a good time to actually summarize the plot, that human is Sam Bell, employed by Lunar Industries on a three-year contract to mind their extraction of He-3 from the lunar regolith.  Most of the day-to-day operations are handled by dumb drone harvesters and Sam's many-armed AI assistant, GERTY; and Sam's job is so heavily routinized that it's clear that it generally takes very little effort or attention on his part to adequately perform it.  As Sam would no doubt say, somebody still has to do it; but as his contract nears its end, he's also vocally of the opinion that it's just about time for somebody else to do it, and the three years of loneliness and tedium and broken comms satellites and bone-brittling microgravity have all combined to take their toll on Sam's body and mind, so that even before he takes off in a rover to attend to a stalled harvester, he's already slipped into the occasional hallucination here and there, and just such a hallucination is the proximate cause of the crash that, by rights, ought to have killed him.  It didn't kill him, though; and when Sam Bell wakes up in the base's medical bay, and goes out against orders to take a look at the crashed rover and smashed-up harvester, he does indeed find his body, just barely clinging desperately to life.  You could say that this is when Sam's troubles really begin.

The whole of Moon takes place over what can be estimated to be five or six days; most of it happens in the seventeen-hour span following Sam's retrieval of Sam, as the two poke at each other, and at GERTY, for explanations as to their strange situation, and as they wait for a "rescue team" whose true intentions rapidly clarify for both men.  That's the ticking clock, of course—a literal one, in fact, a big digital clock readout right next to the command deck—and the spaceborne thriller dovetails elegantly and almost invisibly into what is, every bit as much, an oblique character study of how a man changes (and doesn't) over the years.  Animating this is what I strongly presume to be Sam Rockwell's finest performance, or finest pair of performances, in a career not that sparse with rather fine performances, though also one that has relied heavily upon the same increasingly-threadbare bag of tricks he demonstrates here. (In light of that, and in light of how naturally Rockwell's gangly, sputtering awkwardness suits Sam, it's easy to imagine that Sam Bell and Sam Bell might remain Rockwell's two finest roles forever.  But if that's the case, there's certainly no shame in it.)

Moon gives the two Sams a great deal of visual differentiation already—the older Sam's been injured, and he's not exactly getting better—and, if anything at all, the only negative comment you can make about Rockwell is that he slightly overplays the older Sam's damaged gait at first, though it really is quite effective at keeping the two men separate even for the most disengaged viewer.  What's more interesting is the two personalities, so close but so far from one another: what Rockwell has to do with both of the Sams is to create a character who willingly signed up for a three year tour of duty on the moon away from his wife and unborn daughter, and on some level believed he deserved his exile; the difference is the younger Sam still resents it, while the older Sam has come to accept it, and tried to mend his ways.  So that's the really interesting part: the more-or-less unbridled anger presented by the younger Sam, set against the exact same anger, exacerbated by pain, in a man who knows he has a problem and has endeavored, for years, to try to fix himself.  (And then, on top of that, as we learn more about the full scope of the two Sams' predicament, we have a sci-fi mystery to chew on, too, as we begin to wonder if someone, somewhere else, quite possibly someone named Sam Bell, might have once asked, "If you needed a man to spend years dedicated to solitary, dreary labor 239,000 miles from Earth, what kind of memories would that man need to have to make him think he wanted to be there?")

As with all such stories, Moon is a tale about what it means to be human, and what identity means when identity can be built on an assembly line; and it handles these eternal questions, along with the more pragmatic ones, with pointed awkwardness, yet an altogether human awkwardness, as they arise between our Sams.  They're settled in petty arguments, and in the philosophical gropings of two blue-collar guys who've never given the idea much thought beforehand, and (not least) in a game of ping-pong, which might be the film's visual highlight.  (For Moon, by obligation, is one of the great works of hidden splitscreen.)

Now, you could describe the film as a one-man show, although this is not quite true, GERTY being the indispensible third member of that one-man cast.  It helps that GERTY's been gifted with a tremendously precise vocal performance, courtesy Kevin Spacey at his most subdued and monotone, which you can imagine is quite subdued and monotone indeed (ah, the days when we could still like Kevin Spacey).  Spacey keeps us wondering just what GERTY's motivations actually are—insasmuch as we're not going to get much from the only-occasionally-appropriate emoticons that serve as its "face," however indescribably charming they might be in the moment—and the ultimate subversion of the usual sci-fi robot tropes GERTY represents is one of Moon's most priceless additions to the canon.  But, above everything, GERTY is an expression, no less forceful for being secondary, of Moon's empathetic ethos: whether it's an object or not, whether it's "real" or not, GERTY is an entity that focuses human emotion, and human affection.  That ought to be enough to at least not treat it carelessly.

And that is Moon's great triumph, beyond everything else, beyond its sci-fi bona fides, beyond its excellent practical effects work, everything—its obvious love and sympathy for its characters, and the way it connects its audience to them so completely.  We are primed to accept Sam and Sam as real, whatever that even means; but they certainly prove it, and their struggles against the truths of their world, and its inevitabilities, are constantly heartbreaking, in tiny ways and enormous ways alike—I've watched Moon at least a dozen times, and it's never failed to make me tear up yet.  Not all science fiction is as immediate in its melodrama as Moon.  Not all science fiction should be.  But it is good, once in a while, that the genre can combine right brain and left this seamlessly.

So you see what I mean when I say Moon has the goods.  It's a sci-fi movie where the most implausible thing about it is the existence of a barcalounger that's apparently been hauled up out of Earth's gravity well and deposited on the moon, at what must be (even in the future) ridiculous expense; it's a sci-fi movie where the worst technical mistake is its inability to simulate 1/6th lunar gravity all the time on its $5 million budget.  (And even on that count, Moon tries!  One of its finest grace notes is the way the the lunar harvester model work footage is overcranked just the right way to get the pieces of debris they kick up to look like they're falling "unnaturally" slowly.  When I watch Moon these days, it's hard not to mentally compare it to the far ritzier production of The Martian, especially in consideration of Moon's mighty debt to Ridley Scott; but as much it's not the biggest surprise that the tiny indie darling is a far, far better exploration of the same basic theme of human isolation, you'd expect the $108 million movie to at least look cooler, and not just be an hour longer.)

If it sounds like I've been describing a masterpiece, that's an accurate read.  The shocking thing about it—and it's still shocking nine years later—is that this masterpiece arrived through a first-time feature director whose only prior work had been in piddly nothings: video game cinematics; a stupid-sounding commercial with exploitative sapphic overtones, based on a concept described as "fashion vs. style"; a short film that has its merits, but, I assure you, is nowhere near as good as Moon; and his dad David Jones' 50th birthday concert, a full nine years earlier.  (The elder Jones sang under his stage name, of course: David Bowie.)  Our director had help, naturally, though you're simply not apt to credit that help all that much, even though cinematographer Gary Shaw does a fine job capturing the hard light of the airless lunar surface, and does an even finer job capturing the concept described as "Sam Rockwell vs. Sam Rockwell," and editor Nicolas Gaster keeps the film clicking along like the sci-fi thriller it's packaged as, and production designer Tony Noble does such a great job personalizing the impersonal environs of Sam's home.  All do fantastic work here, and between the three of them, you have a combined c.v. of, sad to say, practically nothing else worth mentioning.

You're tempted (probably quite unfairly) to give all the credit to that first-time director under circumstances like these, then (that is, with a little left over for Rockwell, and for screenwriter Nathan Parker, working from the director's story).  That's especially the case when the masterpiece actually does tend to bear this fellow Duncan Jones' first-timer fingerprints.  When a movie's as good as Moon you want to call it "assured," and it is indeed assured in a great many ways; but, in fact, you can see the hesitancy (and the joy) in all the decisions Jones is making for the first time, like whether a director actually should use dissolves like that to transition from moment-to-moment within a scene, or the way he solves the problem of how to get a camera underneath a sheet inside a "single" hallucinatory shot, or the way he has Shaw screw around with a diopter lens to emphasize Sam's disorientation, or the fact that the diegetic pop song cue Jones decides to lean on here is Chesney Hawkes' "The One and Only," which is maybe ever-so-slightly too on the nose.

It is, in fact, one of Moon's most lingering pleasures, especially the twelfth time through: the opportunity to witness Jones figure it all out in the process of doing it, and how happy it makes him to find that he's stumbled upon at least a right way to do it, in practically every instance.  (Incidentally, the most important piece of mood-setting he always gets right, namely his depiction of the terrifying serenity of outer space.)  And, at last, there's a point about halfway through (I cannot say what order the film was shot in, but this is what it feels like) where every choice he's making is perfect.  By the evidence of the film they made, his collaborators were capable of much themselves, too; though it's just as lucky for our great director that he had one important collaborator behind the camera, who possesses a track record that goes significantly farther than this particular film.  It's fitting, therefore, to close our discussion of Moon with a word on the extraordinary Clint Mansell, whose score for Moon is (after The Fountain, and maybe after Requiem For a Dream) the best thing he's ever done, a pensive, even depressive work (it's sad and lonely as hell, in fact), that never forgets that it also needs to drive Moon toward a life-or-death climax where tremendously important decisions are made inside the space of heartbeats.

Moon truly is a masterpiece, then, one of the defining pieces of cinematic sci-fi, and this is what it is (and always shall be) remembered as.  Yet it is, sometimes, still remembered as the thunderous debut of a newcomer who held all the promise in the world.  Whether this promise ever paid off, though—well, that's still a bit of an open question, isn't it?

Score: 10/10

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