THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON Rockwell plays a lunar laborer whose retirement plan isn’t what he thinks in the spooky debut from David Bowie’s boy.
What a sponging, gene-squandering bunch of artistic slackers the spawn of music superstars tend to be, when you think about it. Oh, sure, John Bonham’s son will sit in for a Led Zeppelin reunion, Zak Starkey will fill in for Keith Moon on a Who tour, and both Lennon boys have endeavored to make a mark. But they are exceptions, not the rule. Consider how many hundreds of others are out there. And how many other art forms, too, are just waiting to be conquered by these carriers of history-making talent.
So this is what I like to see. Along comes David Bowie’s son, and does he opt for an easy career as the Thin White Duke 2? No, he doesn’t even set his sights on the music business. He decides he wants to direct. And does he use the family name as a shortcut to the director’s chair? No, he apprentices like anyone else, establishing himself in Great Britain as a successful maker of television commercials. He didn’t have to do the journeyman thing, but he wanted to learn his trade. And his feature debut is far better for it.
Did I mention that Duncan Jones (Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones) is a talented author, too? He wrote the story that forms the basis of Moon, a cagey bit of sci-fi commentary. Indeed, its thesis is so cagey that reviewers so far appear to have missed it entirely. It begins, appropriately enough, with a television commercial.
The advertiser is a conglomerate called Lunar Industries. They sound like good guys. After all, their business is mining the moon for Helium 3, a substance offering a virtually limitless source of clean energy to Earth’s inhabitants. Play along with me. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend Helium 3 is Jones’ stand-in for the energy source on which our planet is currently hooked.
Sam Rockwell gives a mesmerizing, trademark twitchy performance in the role of the corporation’s sole human lunar employee, Sam Bell. The mining operation to which he’s attached is largely automated. He’s just there to monitor the excavating work performed by giant machines, patch them up when they break and send reports back to the home office. He’s sweating out the final weeks of a three-year stint (again, for argument’s sake, let’s call it a tour of duty) and is suffering the effects of isolation, compounded by separation from his wife and little girl.
Just as the U.S. government and companies like Halliburton felt free to make their move in Iraq and take control of the country’s petroleum production, so Lunar Industries appears to have claimed exclusive rights to the moon’s resources (with a little help from the military, one may assume). How else to explain the complete lack of international competition for access to what is very likely the most valuable commodity in the solar system?
As the end of his contract approaches, Rockwell’s character grows ever more schizo. He’s watched all the old “Bewitched” and “Mary Tyler Moore” tapes he can take. Communications between the space station and home have mysteriously gone down. And there’s only so much satisfaction to be found in the companionship of the facility’s resident robot, Gerty, a preprogrammed presence (voiced by Kevin Spacey) that has been described as “HAL-like” in nine out of 10 reviews despite having nothing more in common with 2001’s demonic device than a dependence on AC current.
Not that evil isn’t afoot. It’s just that it’s faceless and bureaucratic. The key twist in the script involves a close encounter of the cloned kind. Suddenly, just as his time is up and he’s ready to return home, Bell is confronted with a younger, fitter, less frazzled version of himself. The viewer is given reason to suspect that an inexhaustible supply of back-up Bells may be tucked out of sight on life support. But the final act is eerily ambiguous.
Remind you of anything? Seems to me like a dead-on analogy for the previous administration’s practice of endlessly renewing soldiers’ contracts against their wills and sending them back in harm’s way once they’ve completed their tours. And all, when you get right down to it, in the name of oil — or, in this case, Helium 3.
A throwback to old-school genre classics such as Silent Running, Solaris and, of course, 2001, Moon is a creepy, mysterious, thought-provoking meditation on the ways human life can be devalued when big business and government form an unholy alliance. The film is packed with more ideas and imaginative touches than a dozen big-budget digital space adventures. From its art direction to its central performances, it’s consistently accomplished, and is easily one of the season’s most pleasant surprises. I may be wrong about the picture’s subtext. But there’s no mistaking the fact that Moon marks the arrival of a promising new player.