Rockwell sang about someone watching him, but more people should be watching this Sam Rockwell flick!
Not many actors can carry a movie all on their own. We saw Ryan Reynolds pull it off in Buried (a movie that deserves its own article for sure). Will Smith did it for the most part in I Am Legend. Tom Hanks and James Franco both deservedly got Oscar nominations for their performances in Cast Away and 127 Hours respectively. But there’s one film in that category that I feel doesn’t get nearly the recognition it deserves, and that’s 2009’s Moon.
Shown initially at Sundance Film Festival, Moon went through a limited cinema run to very little fanfare or awareness from the public. It earned heaps of critical praise for director Duncan Jones and lead actor Sam Rockwell but made a little over $10 million in total – a financial success for its $5 million-odd budget and earning Jones a future directing bigger-budget endeavours like Source Code and Warcraft in following years – but the low viewership figures reflect a lack of engagement from the public.
To be honest, the movie’s distributors didn’t make much effort to try – Sony were originally planning to send it direct to DVD, a baffling thought in retrospect. Admittedly, nothing in the premise is designed to have broad appeal: Rockwell plays Sam, the only worker on a mining facility on the Moon. He’s accompanied by a robot assistant called GERTY (Kevin Spacey, pre-everything) and occasionally receives recorded messages from his wife down on Earth (Dominique McElligott), but other than that, he’s entirely alone. Until one day he takes a rover out and finds out he’s a clone.
I think of Moon as a success in ways that movies like Ad Astra failed. Brad Pitt’s character in that film couldn’t keep his mouth shut in narration, droning banal commentary on things that were either already told to us visually, or just reaffirm what Pitt’s actual dialogue and acting implied. A host of characters played by some of the best actors alive appear for only one scene to provide exposition, and then leave without a trace (Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and the most egregious waste, Natasha Lyonne).
Meanwhile, the tight efficiency of Moon and its small cast, probably brought about by its slight budget, eliminates all these problems – it’s a masterclass in ‘less is more’. Rockwell’s performance is extremely restrained, something I consider to be an excellent decision by him and/or Jones. He never spills over into melodramatic monologues and he doesn’t wax eloquent about his emotions. You get everything you need to know about what’s going on in his head through body language in the wide shots, and facial expressions in the close-ups.
Visually, Moon evokes the retro-futurism of the sci-fi films of the 70s, meeting somewhere between the grungy practicality of Alien and the crisp, white hallways of Close Encounters. It’s an environment that feels solid and real, enhanced by the DIY set design and the lack of a reliance on digital effects. The way the two Sams are shot is absolutely masterful. There’s one scene where the two Sams play ping pong that is utterly seamless; they play a full set whilst holding a conversation and even moving from one side to the other. It’s the kind of meticulously-planned visual effect that would have given Peter Jackson a run for his money while composing shots for The Lord of the Rings.
Story-wise, on a couple of occasions when news is broken to the two Sams, we feel it twice – once from the perspective of a matured, lonely Sam desperate to return to Earth and his family, and once from the perspective of a younger, agitated Sam that doesn’t yet realise what he’s missing. Between the script and Rockwell’s nuanced performance, the Sams don’t feel like identical people, nor entirely separate, merely two points on the same line – which is exactly what they are.
What I think is most admirable about Moon is that none of its many impressive aspects exist solely for their own sake, but rather in service of the story. That ping pong scene I mentioned earlier isn’t just there to show off how clever they can be in composing the shot. It demonstrates the older Sam’s greater patience and skill, and the desire to teach that he likely developed from knowing he’s a father, something the younger Sam didn’t know and hasn’t come to terms with. The younger simultaneously considers it beneath him and yet desperately wants to be the best at it; he’s later shown practising by himself. This layered construction is present in almost every scene, and the mark of a truly well-crafted story.
Despite not being known very well by itself, Moon was extremely influential in film, carving out a solid, meaningful place in the history of hard sci-fi, with a tough act to follow that almost certainly inspired others. 2013’s Oblivion has a nearly identical clone-labour plot. 2019’s I Am Mother has entirely different themes, but is loaded with visual, tonal and structural similarities. If you liked either of those (and probably more) I’d argue you have Moon to thank.
Moon leaves lingering thoughts long after the movie has ended, like every good sci-fi should. You’re left to wonder what you might think in meeting your future self. Would you like who you became? Would you understand how you ended up that way? Could you have ended up any differently? The opposite question holds equal weight – how would you feel speaking to your younger self? Would you pity that more immature version, or would you envy them?
These questions and more, Moon is fully prepared to both ask and answer, and I encourage everyone to watch and go down that extremely rewarding rabbit hole of self-discovery.