Sam Rockwell, in 'Moon'

Dir. Duncan Jones
(2009, R, 97 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

When Moon starts, we know exactly what it’s going to be about. We’re happy to be wrong. Set in the near future, an energy company called Lunar Industries mines Helium-3 on the surface of the moon. The lunar installation is run by a single man, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), with the help of GERTY, an artificial intelligence who seems a little too pacifying not to be evil. It’s voiced by Kevin Spacey, who sounds like Kevin Spacey doing an impression of HAL 9000. We spend the first third of the film waiting for him to say, “I’m sorry, Sam, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

GERTY doesn’t have a face or change its intonation, so it expresses mood and intent through a small video screen that displays a yellow smiley that cycles between happy, sad, worried, and neutral expressions. First-time feature director Duncan Jones — also credited with writing the screen story — surely understands how sinister GERTY seems and uses our expectations to misdirect us. The computer isn’t what we think it is, and neither is the story.

How much more should I reveal? Perhaps I’ve revealed too much already. Moon is light on plot, and what little there is you should find out for yourself. The story hinges on a few major story twists, but Jones doesn’t play up the twists. Instead he emphasizes the chilly isolation of the moon base, the lingering quietness. At first we wonder why such a delicate operation would be left to just one man; the mining operation comprises four tank-like harvesting machines along with the installation proper and communications relays that seem to be malfunctioning. Surely that’s at least a two-man job, right? And then we find out …

No, I won’t tell you any more. I will say that the film generates a somber claustrophobia and that its simple, understated story has big implications about identity, humanity, and big business. As Sam begins to question his sanity, and at last his own existence, with Rockwell giving an impressive performance of cabin fever tinged with loneliness and regret, Moon becomes a human tragedy about just how expendable we might become — a future of disposable men not so very far removed from us as they might seem.