Peace of mind is a precious thing. Sam Bell, nearing the end of his three-year work contract on the far side of Earth’s natural satellite, has every reason to cherish his understanding of himself and his life. He’s a devoted and lonely father with a beautiful wife and child waiting for him back home, and all he has to do is to hold out for a few more weeks until he is relieved.
Peace of mind is a fragile thing.
The simple effects are beautiful.
Earth has more or less solved its increasing energy needs, thanks to breakthroughs in solar power, and Moon’s opening sequence is a neat little montage of various cultures before and after the resolution of that crisis. The credits look like they’re being superimposed, complete with shadows, onto the walls of the station in which main character Sam Bell works. The title shot is simple and effective.
Against a dark yet lovely piano melody, the scenes that follow depict portions of Sam’s life in and around the mining base Sarang. He walks slowly, being sure of every step, and he really does appear to be on the moon. The display of a lunar vehicle heading out on a harvesting mission is hypnotic; the sets and props don’t need to look complex or expensive to be very believable.
The sole worker on this base, Sam records a message stating that he’s readied a full container of the helium-3 isotope. As the satellite uplink has been lost, the message must be recorded for delayed transmission. Unhappy faces have been drawn on a wall, surely due to Sam’s prolonged isolation, and other areas have architectural pictures and shots of the man’s friends and family. His sole companion is an artificial intelligence named GERTY, doing little or nothing to improve Sam’s emotional state.
The AI, who couldn’t sound any more like HAL 9000 even with additional effort, nonetheless inquires of Sam’s well-being. The latter is busy stabbing a comfortable chair with scissors. Things aren’t all bad, though: using a precision knife, Sam’s been working on a highly detailed model town in his downtime, and he finally receives a message from his wife Tess. Under his breath he drops an F-word, the first of several throughout the film, and even with his stress, you’d think he’d be happier to see her.
Even with inherent delays, Tess is very happy to see and hear from her husband, and with the early reveal of this family, the movie starts to somehow feel touching and cliched all at once. His young child’s birthday is coming up, of course, but more impressive is Sam’s same-named actor’s ability to plainly display his mental fatigue on his face.
After a few images of space and soothing classical music, which definitely feel like a Kubrick homage, Sam is shown taking care of plants, which he’s resorted to naming and talking to. He also hallucinates: there’s a pretty girl sitting in his chair, and in his distraction he spills boiling water on his hand.
Complete with a little screen that shows cute emotive faces, the enigmatic GERTY tends to Sam’s injuries while presenting the impression that Sam’s parent corporation cares little for its equipment or personnel. Sleeping, the man dreams about his wife beginning to have sex with him. There’s a healthy dose of sideboob before the movie cuts away. Oh, and in an earlier scene, you get to look at Sam’s crack when he’s in the shower. Isn’t that wonderful.
The film paces itself carefully without becoming so slow as to risk the viewer’s interest–at least at first–and while Sam’s dialogue and establishing story (other than his excellent acting) take time to develop, the production values in the art, sound, and music are quite well done. An exception lies in various harvesting vehicles, each of these being named for a different Gospel figure for no discernible reason. “Matthew” is stated to be roughly ten miles away, for example. Another harvester is twitchy and has its name rewritten in marker as “Judas.”
The scenes of the lunar vehicles are probably my favorite thing about this movie even as this moment takes a turn for the worse: Sam sees more hallucinations and isn’t driving carefully despite the dashboard’s warnings. The build-up of suspense is excellent. Sam does crash the harvester, incurring a small but bloody injury just above his right eye, and he ends up in the infirmary. It’s not long before this movie really starts to get weird.
With the Harvester vehicles and their worker in an unfortunate state, Sam is forced to rest until he can get back on his feet. He’s also prohibited, by GERTY for health reasons, from leaving the station. Sam eventually does gain permission and takes another Harvester out to locate the one he crashed. Finding a person inside that vehicle, he looks at the man’s identity–only to discover that the driver is indeed Sam Bell.
How well do you know yourself?
The film’s recuperation scene plays itself over but now has a second person, another Sam standing against a wall and wearing sunglasses. The Sam in the hospital bed, still unsure of himself, asks if there’s someone else in the room. He gets no definitive answer.
One of the two Sams exercises in a recreation room, and the other is so visibly upset at his mental state that he begins crying. From here, the movie silently invites numerous questions: Are both, or either, of these Sams even real? Can they make physical contact? What about Sam’s superiors–do they know how he’s doing, and if so, do they care?
The structure and pacing of the film slow down, as the two Sams begin sharing unorthodox conversations with one another when not living life as usual. There’s an argument over who’s a clone and who isn’t. Are either of these people clones, hallucinations, or something else entirely? There are more discussions with plants, as well as one about the model city Sam had been working on.
A rescue unit is coming to fix the stalled Harvester and is being deployed ahead of schedule. The Sams argue viciously over who’s the real one, and the nonetheless rare expletives intensify with the characters’ mutual hostility. At the same time, Sam becomes notable as a person for more than just his facial expressions: his anger-management issues become clear to him, which he realizes by proxy. Building up introspection in such a manner is one of the movie’s most compelling tricks, and it makes Sam immensely sympathetic even as he begins hemorrhaging his self-discipline. The rescue team is set to arrive in only a few hours, but even that’s a rough wait when each moment is painful.
Moon then turns from a character piece into a very small-scale “action” film: the two Sams ask about whether external communications are being blocked, and they discover a tower they assume to be a jammer. Given the mental state of at least one of those people, it’s arguably worth questioning anything they say as they begin making plans for how to deal with the tower.
The pacing speeds up and becomes more eventful as the rescue team approaches and numerous secrets are revealed. (Don’t watch this movie with subtitles. Even those contain spoilers, though in fairness the story is rather blatant with some of its foreshadowing.) The ending is somewhat difficult to follow, thanks to its characters necessarily looking identical, but it is heartwarming and satisfying.
Because of the way this story works, it’s difficult to discuss without giving too much away. If you’re trying to have as few details revealed as possible, consider this the end of my review. While I prefer 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially where the story surrounding the characters is concerned, Moon is a solid if bizarre experience for viewers who can handle about a dozen F-words and the sight of a man vomiting blood so hard that he loses a tooth. Now to elaborate on what did and didn’t work for me.
Conclusion: A remarkably well made if sometimes confusing film. (Massive spoilers)
Moon sets up for numerous twists that it doesn’t actually deliver on; it sets up everything in its story to be unreliable or dishonest almost literally from the start, including Sam’s perception of the universe and the character of GERTY, and then tells an otherwise straightforward story that seeks the same unquestioning acceptance the film initially rejects. The movie is best taken at face value, even though that seems to be the last thing the story wants.
That being stated, this is a beautiful if possibly accidental human-rights tale: if, hypothetically speaking, you are a clone and neither a hallucination nor a naturally bred person, do you receive the same rights to physical and emotional intimacy as your original? Does your health, mental or otherwise, matter if you can simply be replaced? The emotional burden Sam carries from start to finish is heartbreaking, and given technology that can handle the harsh work environment, there’s nothing here that couldn’t be done with a properly designed computer and vehicle. GERTY already has the ability to manipulate physical objects using a mechanical arm and, logically, to interact directly with connected hardware.
Sometimes the story’s answers come slowly, and sometimes they’re given away extremely early in hindsight when the movie can’t contain itself (there’s a person visible in an early video recording who really shouldn’t be in the scene). Moon is a particularly easy movie to overthink, and its biggest issue in my mind is this: if, as a viewer, you enjoy science fiction enough to be interested in this film in the first place, you may well have seen so many of these plot concepts and lead-ups elsewhere that you begin expecting twists where there are none. But these issues don’t stop Moon from being, at its best times, a powerful character drama that eschews the endless action potential of its setting and genre and finds its own ways to hold the viewer’s attention–even if the story occasionally comes across as more naïve than brilliant. That ending was great, though.