Sam RockwellKevin SpaceyDominique McElligottBenedict Wong
Medium: film
Year: 2009
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Duncan Jones, Nathan Parker
Keywords: SF
Country: UK
Actor: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Rosie Shaw, Adrienne Shaw, Kaya Scodelario, Benedict Wong, Matt Berry, Malcolm Stewart
Format: 97 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 14 October 2011
It reminds me of a Red Dwarf episode, but that's because I'm a bad person.
Just to clear things up, this is a serious-minded film. It's SF in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Solaris, Alien, Outland and THX 1138, which was a deliberate choice from its writer/director. He says they "wanted to create something which felt comfortable within that canon of those science fiction films from the sort of late seventies to early eighties."
Incidentally, I'm going to avoid mentioning the twist. This is going to be hard, but there's little point in writing a review that spoils the very thing you're talking about.
The story is that Sam Rockwell is the entire crew of a helium-3 station on the dark side of the moon and Kevin Spacey is the voice of his HAL-a-like robot assistant, GERTY. That's the cast of this movie, more or less. Other people occasionally appear in video messages, but basically this movie is Rockwell. He's doing a three-year tour of duty and his work isn't even interesting. GERTY runs everything and you get the impression that the human's only there in case of emergency, with a work routine that looks almost meaningless and involves making reports that GERTY will undoubtedly be logging more accurately for himself anyway. Rockwell's life sucks, pretty much. His only human contact involves talking to video images of his wife back on Earth, who's attractive and has nice breasts in his wet dream. (Note: she keeps her bra on.)
However then we discover a few things and the film starts digging into existentialist themes. This is sort of a twist. I'm sure this will have gobsmacked a good chunk of the audience, but personally I was surprised by the film's avoidance of surprise. Everything is visible in advance. This is deliberate. Every time Rockwell is told something that could have been a big reveal, both he and the audience already know and the dialogue is merely confirmation. Look at his reactions. In fact the film's reluctance to spoon-feed the audience goes so far that a huge part of the plot's jigsaw puzzle is never addressed in dialogue. Why is he deteriorating? You could come up with various reasons:
(a) deliberately evil design
(b) physical injury
(c) inevitable consequence of living in a hostile environment
Which is it? I still don't know, although I know which I think is more likely. We're presumably being invited to speculate, but each option has different implications for how one interprets what the film's telling us.
This isn't an exciting film. In fact it's an anti-thriller, since we're almost never trying to guess what will happen next, but merely trying to deepen our understanding of the situation. The SF twist is okay and occasionally amusing, but the film's dour realism means it's also not much fun. Remember I mentioned Red Dwarf? I'm thinking of a specific episode from the early days, when it was good. If you've seen this, you'll know the one I mean. Anyway Red Dwarf explored the idea much further, both psychologically and in terms of plot development, but in fairness this film also has evil motivations that push the concept in a different and interesting direction. The twist could have seemed pointless, but it's not. On the contrary, the way it's done here makes a lot of sense and is even disturbingly plausible.
That said, despite the film's slow pace and serious tone, I'm not sure the plot hangs together.
The big one is the jammer. Why build a two-way radio link, then out on the lunar surface build a thirty-foot-tall jammer to stop it working instead of just giving GERTY an off-switch to toggle the radio? He clearly has a remote control to turn off the jammer, so the only effect of building that physical jammer is to provide one more piece of equipment that could break or go wrong. It's convenient for the plot, though.
The whole set-up looks weird, but makes sense if you take into account the fact that Rockwell's basically a redundant back-up and that they have a contingency system anyway for the event of him having an accident or going space-crazy. You'd never do it in real life, but in real life we don't have this moonbase and in real life it never costs a gazillion dollars to visit your workplace or get shuttled back home afterwards. Nevertheless you might still expect things to be a bit less dodgy given that this moonbase is apparently powering 70% of the planet Earth. Oh, and there's no attempt at portraying lunar gravity. However the helium-3 mining is scientifically plausible, even if there's much more of it out on Jupiter.
However the film looks and feels perfect. It's not much fun, but that's the kind of film it's trying to be. Its lunar base looks exactly as you'd imagine a real lunar base to look, while the lunar setting achieves a suitably desolate feel and the special effects are excellent. Despite having only a five million budget (i.e. almost nothing), they shot it at Shepperton in 2008 during the writers' strike and were able to get top-class effects people because so many other productions had shut down. You could give it a hundred times the budget and it wouldn't look any better. Incidentally the lunar exterior scenes were done with models, not CGI.
The acting's strong, but drab. Rockwell takes his role seriously and is always clear and focused about the different facets of his character. Spacey is suitably emotionless. I admire the work being done here, but at the end of the day Rockwell's playing a guy you'd choose to send to the moon on his own for three years. This is crucial for the film's plausibility, but it means he's not a barrel of laughs.
Did I like this film? Yes, I did. It's admirable. It also won the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) award for Best British Independent Film and was nominated for two BAFTAs, winning "Outstanding Debut by a British writer, director or producer". It's achieving in style everything its director wanted of it. It's clearly got integrity and I'm looking forward to seeing the follow-up films set in the same universe, for which the director has plans. I think it falls down in the final act, for which for once the story actually requires things to happen and so we get plot convenience and a plan from Rockwell that was surely never going to work. The fact that he's overlooking the obvious I can forgive, though. That would be him being in denial. However that's probably just me being pernickity and apart from that, it's impressive.