Moon is an atmospheric science fiction film released in 2009. It was written and directed by Duncan Jones, who was better known in the 1980s and 1990s as Zowie Bowie - for that is another part of his full name, which is Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones - the son of David Bowie. It stars Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey as its main characters (Spacey voices a non-humaniform robot named Gerty, who has screen time in the trailer so I'm not giving anything away). Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut who works for the Lunar Industries corporation overseeing a lunar energy mine. He is the sole inhabitant of the facility, other than Gerty, whose function is to keep him safe and keep him company. He is on a three-year contract.
That's really all I can tell you about the story. There's a simple reason why. This movie is something of a rare bird, you see. It contains a Big Reveal, one the movie's story orbits, but the movie itself - and it isn't incorrect to use the more formal film, here - the film's power doesn't really derive from the Big Reveal. That's rare. Most films with a Big Reveal stake much of their impact on the reveal itself. Kevin Spacey's famous movie The Usual Suspects does, as one extreme example. Even some really good science fiction does this - for example, in The Empire Strikes Back, much of the loss of story closure wrought by the fact that Empire is a 'middle movie' was compensated for by the Big Reveal that we are hit with around 4/5 of the way through. One of the most famous sci-fi Big Reveals is the end of the original Planet of the Apes - and if you haven't seen that, go see it, I'm not going to tell you.
So back to Moon. Yes, there's what looks like a Big Reveal - but it happens early in the movie. Perhaps 1/3 of the way through, in fact. We the audience are thrown somewhat off-balance by this. Wait, you could hear people saying to themselves, how long is this movie going to be? Expecting, you see, the early closure due to the 'premature' Big Reveal.
That's where the surprises happen.
See, it turns out that this isn't the kind of movie you thought it was. It doesn't depend on the Big Reveal for its staying power. Nope. It's an atmospheric movie; one which introduces and plays with Questions. Not Big Questions, no - perhaps Medium Questions. But it does so in a manner which keeps the movie's energy or tension level nearly flat throughout the entire film. I say flat not to mean zero, but flat - undeviating. There is tension and energy throughout the entire movie. After the Big Reveal, you realize slowly that while the energy level has dropped from the Big Reveal peak, it hasn't fallen any lower than it was for the first section of the movie. There's no loss of intensity. That's a rare, difficult task in a film or even a movie - to keep the viewers hooked in despite having already hit them with a Big Reveal. The instinct is to settle back and start to analyze what the reveal means; to start trying to second-guess the movie's storyline, to see if you can figure out what the director and writer are trying to make you think.
That doesn't happen here. Sure, you will find your mind running down possible storylines as soon as the Reveal happens. But the subtle, more impressive trick is that the director and writer don't really care if you guess what happens or not. They're not trying to fool you. This isn't a contest. They're just interested in telling a damn story, and telling it properly, in the right order, with the proper amount of emphasis at the right time. Really, I should say he not they, because in this case, Mr. Jones is both writer and director.
There are three big reasons this works. Two are environmental. The first is the design of the film. I don't know what the budget for Moon was, but part of me thinks it was probably absurdly low for a full-science-fiction film. (Update: It was, according to the director, at around $5 million US). The set design is cleverly limited by the small space in which the film takes place; it feels like it could have been done as a play with very little change in staging. But that's not to say it's cheap, or not there. The design is consistent, impressive, and wholly believable. Sam Bell lives on the Moon, people, and it's completely buyable. The only problem they have is that when he's out on the surface in a pressure suit, they appear to have spent the effects money to make his movements looks like the Apollo films - the slightly sped-up bunnyhop. Inside the base, he looks like he's perfectly comfortable in 1 gee. But that's okay.
No, the environment is entirely believable. It has that rugged, dirty, scraped industrial feel of Ridley Scott's Nostromo from Alien, superimposed over the 1980s-sterile and flashy outer space environment of 2010: The Year We Make Contact or the Sean Connery flick Outland. As a result, we get a brilliantly 'lived-in' high-tech environment, one where lunar dust gets everywhere if you're not careful, and the anal-retentive robot can't quite reach all the corners to keep them clean.
The second reason this works is Sam Rockwell playing Sam Bell. In some ways, it's a role of fairly low complexity; but in others, it's actually incredibly difficult. That's all I can tell you for now - you'll know why. Sam Bell is part and parcel of the Questions this movie asks, and Rockwell does an excellent job of hinting at them without clubbing you with them.
The third reason this works is the soundtrack. It was composed for the film by Clint Mansell, who in between composing for crapheaps like Doom produced the music for Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. While I thought The Fountain was one of the worst, most self-indulgent pieces of crap ever, even I had to admit that the music was well-done - its over-the-topness was part and parcel of the flick. In Moon, Mansell's music is repetitive but incredibly well integrated. I would go so far as to say that in the way Stanley Kubrick's selection of Blue Danube made 2001: A Space Odyssey so iconic a set of imagery, Mansell's music does a great deal to lift several scenes from Moon into that elevated company. While I don't think this movie will be remembered decades from now as a classic, I don't think that would upset its makers, because that's not what they set out to do. They set out to make a movie that keeps you nailed to your seat for the full run time, not because you're trying to outguess them or stroke your own ego but because you want them to finish telling the story.
That's rare, these days. Strongly recommended.
As an example of the depth of this movie, I offer the following question to be considered after you've watched it. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers, but look away if you want to be sure.
Think about this: If the story is as they told us, why did Sam see what he saw (twice) before the Big Reveal? Think about it. And think about age.
Written and Directed by Duncan Jones
Music composed by Clint Mansell
Cinematography by Gary Shaw
Produced by Stuart Fenegan
Moon has been awarded the 'Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form' Hugo for 2010.
The lead designer/VFX guy from Moon (Gavin Rothery) recently answered a whole bunch of questions on Reddit while promoting his excellent production notes blog from the film.