Duncan Jones is the birth name of the son of rock star David Bowie (himself né David Hayward-Jones), though infamously the father went through a phase when he insisted on calling his son Zowie Bowie. The younger Jones is now 38, having long ago reverted to his birth name. This week his feature filmmaking debut, Moon, expands into more local theaters, and it’s a slender but diverting little science-fiction yarn made on the cheap.
The film is set in a future when Earth’s energy problems have been solved by strip-mining moon rock. The main character, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), is a man who lives and works by himself on the dark side of the moon, operating machines that harvest the rock and trying not to lose his grip on reality after almost three years of solitude. He’s nearing the end of his contract and anticipating his return home to his wife (Dominique McElligott) and baby daughter when he starts to experience hallucinations, first of a strange woman appearing in his living quarters, then of a copy of himself who seems to know everything about both him and the base’s operations. The Sam clone is capable of holding conversations with Sam, and after they get into a physical scuffle, they start to put their heads – or is it head? – together to try to figure out what is going on.
The eccentric, self-contained Rockwell is the perfect actor for this assignment. He always seems to be talking primarily to himself, whether he’s portraying a sex addict in Choke, an alcoholic killer in Snow Angels, a tortured Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or a narcissistic galactic president in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here he does well differentiating the younger, fresher Sam clone from the original Sam, whose physical condition deteriorates in the latter sections of the film. He also invests the role with an unlikely pathos, not quite enough to make the movie as piercing as it’s supposed to be but enough to keep it from turning into an airless exercise.
The film’s most memorable character, though, is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a mobile bank of computers that wheels around the quarters serving as Sam’s assistant. GERTY is equipped with a robotic arm, a camera, and a monitor bearing a yellow smiley face, though the smiley changes expression when GERTY is conveying bad news or uncertainty. We’re left in suspense for most of the film as to whether GERTY is really trying to help Sam or is pulling a HAL 9000 on him, and between its changing facial expressions and Spacey’s flatter-than-flat delivery, the robot is a presence that’s both sinister and funny, and even moving. Without question, this is the best performance by an inanimate object in this year’s movies.
As for the dramatic payoff, it’s something that can be guessed at about halfway through. In terms of story and the character development leading up to the big plot twist, this film is too lightweight to be a great science-fiction movie. However, it is an intriguing entry for fans of the genre, and it signals Duncan Jones as a talent to watch in the future. Ziggy Stardust would be proud.