Science-fiction films often strive to be more intelligent than they actually are. There was Rian Johnson’s painfully overcomplicated Looper, Scott’s illogical Prometheus and then just X-men: The Last Stand… need I say more? Of course, there’s been the odd exception in the form of Gravity and Inception, but nothing like the studios’ 1980s Blade Runner peak. Yet, the difference with 2009’s Moon, in comparison to other noughties sci-fi, is that it actually is intelligent. It makes you think. And think. And then makes you think a little more when you’re trying to sleep at night.
Duncan Jones’ debut manages to mesmerise, terrify and provoke in equal measure, and it’s hard to understand why only a few sci-fi films since have continued in this same vein. Its story remains remarkably human despite being dressed top-to-toe in grubby Kubrickian white, seeming as though it was originally written as a drama about communication and morality and that it was simply transplanted into its sci-fi setting. It is therefore the script’s air of naturalness and toned drama that makes the sci-fi so exhilarating, proving that once the audience have connected with the characters on a personal level, they are more willing to immerse themselves in a strange, dystopian—and not entirely unrealistic—world only 240, 000 miles away.
Jones has also succeeded in making this unfamiliarity a lot more familiar than we’re comfortable with. Although its exterior story is truly otherworldly given its focus on the life of a man physically isolated from the world due to his job on the moon for an energy-mining enterprise (y’know, just a bit of cash on the side really), the story’s undercurrents aren’t: it picks up on our unnecessary overreliance on technology to communicate with other humans; government/corporate deception and mankind’s ruthless greed for energy; the ethical issues behind modern science; the increasing sense of physical isolation between couples, again as a consequence of us relying on technology to communicate on our behalf; the oft-visited existentialist crisis; the irony of people becoming similar despite being part of supposedly diverse capitalist establishments, etc. etc. It’s a heavy piece of work that avoids overtly moralist tendencies to instead become a subtly mind-nourishing thrill ride--almost like reading Sartre’s Nausea on Inferno at Thorpe Park.
Then there’s Sam Rockwell… Well, multiple Sam Rockwells. Jones’ human-centred and dualist view of the universe is terrific in exploiting Rockwell’s modestly anchored diversity, allowing him to flip from mood to mood and character to character as smoothly as he pleases. However, Rockwell’s talent is exhibited best in the film’s intimate moments—of which there are many. Rockwell’s characters harbour a tangible desperation that becomes manifested in each gesture and action, somehow managing to simultaneously inspire sympathy and terror from the audience as his characters slowly begin a journey of mental collapse. Kevin Spacey’s monotonous GERTY is also worth mentioning—it’s his bizarrely concerned yet deadpan voice that effectively reflects the artificial process by which we try to inject machinery with human emotion in order to ‘connect’ with it.
For a film costing £5million, the effects are pretty damn awesome too. Moon manages to encapsulate everything cool about the sci-fi genre, thankfully avoiding the tacky, trying-to-be-sleek pitfall to craft a world with such a nonchalant casualness (“oh I’m just donning ma space suit to hop out on the giant white Tonka truck to look at a combine harvester THAT’S SPEWING MOON ROCK ON THE DAMN MOON” type-deal) that the clichéd iconography of the genre is masked behind a loose realism that prioritises the thrill of the story. In spite of what some big-budget-orientated critics would have you believe, Moon is certainly one of the most important sci-fi films of the last decade. It elegantly symbolises the need for a ‘back-to-basics’ approach in sci-fi film-making, and whether it intended to or not, Moon’s thrilling script exposes the flailing state of sci-fi writing in commercial cinema whilst proving that the power of cinema lies in the script, not the budget.