In the realms of ‘they don’t make them like they used to’, this independent sci-fi film seems to prove that by looking exactly like something out of the 1970s – to me, its production design looks like an updated version of Space: 1999 (although they were channelling more high brow stuff, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Silent Running and Solaris). However, I think this is the point – it’s avoiding the CGI flash and B-film spectacle that has become the norm for current movies, and setting itself as a film from the era where they used sci-fi to tell a good story about humanity.
The film is directed and co-written (based on his story) by Duncan Jones (who, for completeness sake, has to be identified as David Bowie’s son, Zowie) and it is an astonishingly assured feature-length debut. There is a confidence and unfussiness to his direction, a belief in the strength of his story, and the desire to tell that story as well as possible. He also allows humour; the song used for the alarm clock is The One And Only, which is very germane.
Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, an employee of Lunar Industries, working alone on a Moon base extracting helium-3 from the surface of the Moon to supply Earth with nearly all its power needs (the film is set in an unspecified future). He is near the end of a three-year contract, having left his wife pregnant back on Earth to earn the money (a communications failure means he can’t speak to her live, and has to rely on old transmissions for reassurance), and he is all alone at the mostly self-sufficient station except for a robotic assistant called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). He is starting to hallucinate, which leads to disaster when he crashes a harvesting machine, waking up back at the base under the watchful eye of GERTY. But paranoia leads to a discovery that changes everything …
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot because part of the experience is watching it unfold. The incident that turns the film isn’t hard to work out, but it’s also not the most important part of the film either. What could be a film about the greed and depravity of corporations or man’s self-destruction is instead a film that becomes an expression of the power of man’s humanity, the desire to be free, the nature of death, of sacrifice and compassion. It is a remarkable film, all the more knowing it was made on a low budget ($5 million).
Although Jones is deserving of a lot of the kudos, it is Rockwell who really makes the film. Without giving too much away, his performances are amazing – distinct and identifiable aspects of the same character, completely carrying the whole film because he is the only actor on screen for most of the running time. I know there has been a lot of Nerd Army anger about the omission of an Academy Award nomination for Rockwell for Best Actor (including an online petition and a Twitter hashtag, among others), and this is usually to do with the Academy’s ignorance and fear of genre pieces, but in this case the ire is accurate – Rockwell is fantastic and deserving of recognition in this role.