I just saw Sam Rockwell in “Moon” today. Wow, what a movie.
The two-second, non-spoiler plot outline is that Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a blue-collar astronaut who works in a one-man mining outpost on the far side of the moon with no live communications to anyone. He’s about to end his three-year contract when, after an accident, he goes out onto the surface and finds a man who happens to look and act exactly like Sam Bell. Now they have to figure out what’s going on.
The movie is a tour de force for Rockwell’s acting, since he spends most of the time playing against himself. The obvious effects aside, he handles the dialog naturally enough that I really forgot that he had to play the two separately – he was really acting with himself. It’s also incredible that he was able to bring out the subtle differences between the Sam Bell who has been in the outpost for three years and the newcomer Sam Bell. There were some physical differences between the two characters, but sometimes it was hard to tell which was which based on visual impression alone. Yet it was always easy to tell one from the other as they interacted. Rockwell really put a lot of ordinary-guy-ness into the character, and put a lot of thought into the effects of isolation and delayed communication. They way his characters handle the mystery they’ve been thrown into is simulatneously heartbreaking and triumphant.
Now I have to talk a bit about the science fiction in this movie. This is sci-fi in its purest form: science and fiction, with a strong grounding in both solid scientific concepts and in dramatic and chracter development. The science is, in fact, not too far removed from our own – perhaps fifty years off – and it looks like everything grew out of the space program as we know it today. The movie goes to show just how well adhering to real science instead of going for cheesy effects, laser sounds in space, and ridiculous robots can move the drama along. Sam Bell eats freeze-dried, reconstituted astronaut food. He has to wear a familiar white spacesuit. His lunar outpost is all form-built white surfaces, but he still uses sticky notes. He has to exercise to keep his muscle tone. And all these things contribute to the frustrations he experiences in his lonely three-year stay.
However, there is only one bit of science that is absolutely necessary to move the plot along – the explanation for Sam’s duplicate. I got the feeling that this sort of story could have happened in many different places or times, and the science fiction is only a vehicle to move the plot along and let us watch these characters deal with their situation. I definitely appreciated that – it’s about time sci-fi broke out of the rut it’s been in, where it’s all about action-adventure and CG explosions.
(Just FYI: Yeah, they really could have done a better job making 1/6 gee gravity apparent. Yeah, there are some sounds in space – but at least they’re muted, BSG-style. And yeah, the rover design is kind of poor for the Moon. But those are about the only scientific gripes I can put down, and look how tiny and insignificant they are!)
This is also a very smart movie. The film shows you enough information to show you what’s going on, and by the end, I understood all that had happened. But it doesn’t tell you straight up what’s happening. There are no scenes where a character explains to another character what just happened or why they are in the situation they are. Instead, we see Sam figuring things out, and we figure things out along with him. It felt like a very participatory movie to me, and I enjoyed that aspect of it a great deal.
This is a wonderful sci-fi movie. It’s definitely an homage to some of the classics, most obviously the spaceship scenes in 2001 (you know, the best part of that movie), and an homage to the days of the classic Heinlein-style sci-fi that followed on the heels of real space exploration; it brings back the feel of when people followed both space movies and space news. And I’m all for that.
For what it’s worth, I hope this movie gets a much bigger exposure in national release. I will also secretly hope for an Oscar nod for Sam Rockwell, because I think the critics have long overlooked SF as a genre in which great acting and writing can happen.