Mark of Three Rows Back and Chris of Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop are hosting the Debuts Blogathon, which focuses on a director’s debut film, from Tarantino to Miyazaki, and Nolan to Lassetter. Not only is this a great idea to look back at some of our favorite directors’ first films, but it lets you really compare what they’ve done since to where it all began. While many others that are participating are doing much more “accomplished” directors, I decided to discuss Duncan Jone’s first film, Moon, from 2009. And to keep up with my latest “style” of reviews, I break down the Five Reasons Why Moon is One of the Best Sci-Fi Films of the Past 10 Years.
Believe it or not, when it comes to the sci-fi genre, less is usually more. The best films aren’t the ones with lens flares and explosions, but those that are driven by the details and the characters. Unfortunately, the genre is not cheap, and most sci-fi films suffer from bloated budgets or a desire to be a blockbuster. While the ambition is admirable, it’s very rare that the quality of the film matches the dollars thrown at it, which leaves the smallest of holes for the tinier movies to sneak through. Moon is one of these films. With only a budget of five million dollars, Moon does what plenty of other films try to do. It’s a character driven masterpiece that just happens to have sci-fi elements, and turns the genre on its side, focusing more on the drama than on the action. It’s really that simple.
If you think of the biggest films of the past few years, there’s one characteristic that can be applied to almost all of their plots- complicated. There are almost always unnecessary subplots or convoluted ideas forced into the plot just to increase the run time or give screen time to fan favorites, even if it doesn’t make any sense. In Moon, we get a straightforward story about a man’s survival and revelations about the ominous happenings on his lunar station. There are twists and turns, but they’re never as shocking as you’d think. Instead, the focus is on how Sam (Sam Rockwell) deals with these situations. Again the focus is returned to the drama and the simplicity, yet genius, of the plot really crawls underneath your skin.
The Practical Effects
Due to the budget, Duncan Jones had to be creative with creating a space station on the moon. He couldn’t just create a set or use a green screen to set the mood, but had to find the right combination of what’s real and what’s not to give us the feeling that we’re up in space, completely alone with Sam. Jones utilizes a wonderful, tiny set, that is the home away from home for our hero, Sam. Lacking entirely of color, the sterile environment is similar to something you’d find in an insane asylum or hospital, which actually plays into the plot. It’s very unwelcoming and our only existence in such a place is to see what’s happening to Sam. In contrast to the white, we have Sam’s belongings- plants he tends, carvings he’s made, and pictures he has hung on the wall. It may be clean, but it’s obvious someone’s living there and has been there for awhile.
To remind us that we’re on the moon and in a space station, Jones’ has longer hallways with wires and pipes exposed, reminding us it’s not just a box on another world. We never forget that Sam is thousands of miles away from home. Jones also gives us glimpses of the surface of the moon, as Sam goes out on his routine expeditions to check the equipment and machines. We’re never out of the station too long, but there is a continued sense of dread and isolation. The beauty of this fear, however, is that we clearly see there is no where to hide. Just as Sam cannot hide from what’s happening to him, we cannot find solace in Moon.
Sam’s only friend on the station is GERTY, an artificial intelligence that inhabits an almost surgical-like robot. Voiced by Kevin Spacey, GERTY is a beautiful throwback to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL. Instead of a red eye, however, GERTY’s emotions are depicted with smiley faces on a tiny monitor. From his first appearance, you think that something is wrong, but when you see that he’s all Sam has, you dismiss the idea. In fact, Moon has several comparisons to 2001. The sets are very similar and many of the shots look like something you’d see in the 1968 classic. Even the video equipment, which Sam uses to send messages back to earth, is reminiscent of the video calls we see early on in 2001. It’s no doubt that Duncan Jones found inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, and the references in the film only solidify itself in the sci-fi genre. Cinematography aside, the film also shares other similarities with 2001, including the use of classical music for most of the film, as opposed to an original score. Take a look below to see the visual parallels:
The Sam Rockwell
In a film that has really only two speaking parts, one of which is a robot and the other an actor, there’s a lot of pressure on the star. Sam Rockwell, whose had a solid career of playing smaller parts, absolutely shines. Delivering his tour de force, Rockwell carries the film with his emotion, charisma, and even his unusual humor in the face of danger. It’s heart-breaking to see what the guy has to deal with and the situation he’s in, but Rockwell shows us what acting is all about and how to be the best at it. It’s a shame the film went completely unnoticed by the 2009 award season, but Rockwell deserves our absolute attention and recognition for the job he’s done.
Since this is all about directors, it’s worth noting that Duncan Jones wanted to work with Sam Rockwell so bad, he made Moon as a vehicle for the actor. Yes, Jones wrote and directed the entire film just because he wanted Rockwell around. As for getting Kevin Spacey to voice GERTY, Spacey only agreed to voice the robot if he liked the film after it was finished. Spacey was so impressed by Jones’ work, he immediately signed on and recorded all of his lines in on afternoon. That has to be the ultimate testament to Jones’ ability.
Duncan Jones is one of the greatest directors working today, it’s that simple. He’s a brilliant mind in a world so desperate for originality and manages to start off his career with a masterpiece, something very few filmmakers can do. His follow-up, Source Code, is a wonderful and suspenseful ride through time and space. With a much bigger budget than Moon, Jones still knows that characters and stories are the focus, and shows us you can spin a time travel tale without getting distracted with fancy effects (even though there are plenty of explosions).
Next up for Jones’ is Warcraft, a film based off the popular Blizzard video games. Jones is a massive video game fan and promises to deliver “the greatest video game adaptation of all time”, and I’m confident he has the ability to do so. If there’s anyone to break the curse of video game adaptations, it’s Jones.