Review: David Bowie's son makes an awesome $5 million sci-fi film in Moon

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Science fiction fans and filmmakers alike devote considerable time coming up with ideas that are far-fetched, bizarre or otherwise impossible, in the process forgetting to think about the realm of reality, even if it's only a theoretical one. (It's why we all so eagerly anticipate the return of those giant f--king robots.)

With Moon, Duncan Jones has conceived a story in which all of the components of his future are entirely possible—cloning, colonization of Earth's moon and artificial intelligence that develops humanlike qualities. But his film feels no less exciting or inspiring for its lack of implausibilities, which is why Moon is a terrific alternative for science fiction fans who like to think in addition to simply being thrilled.

Moon stars Sam Rockwell (Frost / Nixon) as Sam, the sole human inhabitant of a colony on the moon that is designed to harvest energy and send it back to the ailing people of Earth. Advancing toward the end of his three-year tour of duty, Sam is ready to return home to his wife and daughter. But after an accident in a lunar rover out on the surface, he mysteriously awakens safe and sound in the facility's sick bay, where his automated companion GERTY (Kevin Spacey) is monitoring his recovery. Though initially relieved, he soon discovers that the circumstances of his rescue are dubious at best, and after investigating the facility more closely, he uncovers secrets that call into question his work, his intended fate and eventually his very identity.

As much as I like the escapism of most contemporary science fiction films, I'm a huge fan of movies like Gattaca, Contact and especially 2001, which take a hard-science look at the universe even if the worlds they eventually create are pure fantasy. Moon shares both stylistic and qualitative company with all of these films, thanks to the cohesive, intelligent and sensitive vision of writer-director Jones, who uses familiar science-fact ideas to tell his story. There's a genuine intimacy to Sam's plight that isn't shrouded in action set pieces of flashy special effects, because the story focuses on the characters; even GERTY, Sam's companion, offers simple but amazingly resonant reactions via a series of smile-to-frown-faced emoticons.

Meanwhile, Jones maximizes his reported $5 million budget by combining minimal CGI with miniature photography and in-camera cheats that work just as well as or better than the comparative shots that the most expensive budget could provide. With the exception of the film's nonexistent lunar gravity, Jones creates a palpable, legitimate reality for the surface of his moon and makes us believe it completely. Furthermore, Jones employs doubling tricks like those used in films like Dead Ringers and Adaptation to create multiple versions of Sam's character, all of which are equally believable—although much of that credit must go to Rockwell for differentiating each of them by just enough degrees to give a genuine sense of their individual identities.

Given the film's conspicuous but completely effective use of classical music, not to mention a few other details woven into its richly evocative story, the argument could be made that occasionally Jones pays too much homage to (or perhaps takes too much inspiration from) films like those above. But one also supposes that if you're going to steal, then you should steal from the best, which Jones certainly does; but he gets away with it because he uses the foundations of those earlier films to create something truly unique and special.

Ultimately, Moon is a terrific, small epic, a smart and substantive little mystery, and the kind of science fiction that we need to see more of. Not just because it's a story that collects ideas from its cinematic predecessors, deals with copies and clones and still manages to be thoroughly original, but because it's rare that something feels so real and completely fantastic at the very same time.