Mixing the sleek blandness of “2001,” the industrial grit of John Carpenter’s “Dark Star” and the extraterrestrial cabin fever of “Silent Running,” the heady new science-fiction drama “Moon” is always fascinating to look at. Lead actor Sam Rockwell and production designer Tony Noble are perfectly on point; not quite operating at their level is the interesting but comparatively less challenging screenplay by Nathan Parker (based on a story by director Duncan Jones).
Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, the sole inhabitant of a mining station on the dark side of the moon. It’s an unspecified year in the near future, and 70 percent of the Earth’s energy comes from the Helium-3 being mined on the moon and shipped to the home planet. Sam is in the last two weeks of a 3-year stint, and not surprisingly, he’s showing some signs of cracking up.
A satellite glitch keeps him from communicating with home in real time, so Sam’s only interactions come from delayed transmissions from his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and occasional conversations with robot Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey), who runs everything on the base.
Sam starts talking to himself and periodically seeing things. And then one day, he encounters … himself. (And that’s in the trailer, so it’s not a spoiler.)
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From that point on, Sam has to figure out whether or not he’s losing his marbles while also having to grapple with larger questions about his mission, the company that employs him and his very life itself.
While the script doesn’t go very far past its “Twilight Zone”–ish principal twist, director Jones (the artist formerly known as Zowie Bowie) makes an outstanding feature debut, creating a world that feels both lived-in and sterile at the same time while eliciting another fantastic performance from Rockwell.
Mainstream Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to make of Rockwell — he got saddled with some of the most on-the-nose dialogue “Frost/Nixon” had to offer — but this is the kind of challenging role in which he thrives. Creating a layered portrait with a relatively scarce amount of dialogue — and dealing with superb twin-ning special effects while doing so — Rockwell finds the soul of this isolated, hard-working grunt.
The base itself, from its stainless-steel and white plastic surfaces to its never-ending mechanical hum (great work by both the sound design team and composer Clint Mansell), becomes the film’s other lead character, and even when the story flags, “Moon” is never less than compelling. Would that the “Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” remake had even a fraction of its claustrophobia and tension.
The intelligence and care with which the movie was produced makes the script’s minor deficiencies stand out in contrast, but on the whole, “Moon” is the sort of trippy sci-fi dystopia that’s best enjoyed on the big screen. If the summer’s explosive action and raunchy comedies have you in the mood for a little unease and quiet, here’s an indie you should consider orbiting.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.
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