Bowie’s Kid Makes Moon, a Space Oddity


Moon, directed by British advert tyro Duncan Jones, is a modest science fiction film with major aspirations—and even its own genealogical issues. Jones’s debut, which had its local premiere at the last Tribeca Film Festival, is pleased to engage genre behemoths—2001, Solaris, Blade Runner—as well as B-movie classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The tale of a lonely spaceman might have made an excellent Twilight Zone episode, but Moon‘s premise is particularly suggestive of a song by Jones’s father, David Bowie, whose 1969 hit “Space Oddity,” took a depressed astronaut as its protagonist. Occupying an even more obscure corner of the cosmos, Sam Bell (a hirsute Sam Rockwell) is introduced running laps on his lunar station treadmill. Like its lone inhabitant, this mining base seems a bit seedy—in fact, it’s little more than a slag heap. Bell, alone save for his chaperone Gerty, an ungainly robotic valet with the soothing voice of Kevin Spacey and a smiley face on its TV monitor, has been there for nearly three years and, having almost fulfilled his contract, desperately wants out.

Night is eternal and the sense of isolation palpable. Not only is the base a dump but Gerty is a greatly diminished version of HAL, despite a repertoire of a half-dozen expressions including tearful empathy. Even the tantalizing video messages Bell receives from his wife and daughter back in suburban Connecticut seem designed to exacerbate his alienation. The movie is a virtual solo for Rockwell, whose shambolic everyman is already prone to hallucination and perilously close to a nervous breakdown when he totals his lunar Land Rover while out on a repair mission.

Bell wakes up in the infirmary and, motivated by an obscure urge to investigate, tricks solicitous Gerty into allowing him back outside. Revisiting the scene of the accident, he finds another guy in the crashed vehicle: him. At this point, Rockwell’s one-man show turns into a doppelgänger act. Bell’s attempts to engage his other, battered self are greeted with sullen animosity. The clone refuses to shake hands—accusing Bell of being a hallucination or worse—although the doubles do eventually play a hostile game of ping-pong and engage in other forms of competitive weirdness, notably a dance set to the manic ’80s pop song “Walking on Sunshine.” The vaudeville is complicated by intimations of conspiracy, as well as madness.

Referring to the mining company that employs them, one Bell complains that “they haven’t even fixed the fucking communication satellite!” That’s more or less the problem. Like its protagonist, Moon feels stuck. The situation is naturally oppressive—this is, after all, the story of a man in prison—and the stir-craziness proves contagious. Impressively pulled together on a modest budget, Moon has a strong lead and a valid philosophical premise but, despite Bell’s fissured psyche, the drama is inert. Ground control to Major Tom: Moon orbits an idea, but it doesn’t go anywhere.

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