With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next few days looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundance Film Festivals. Today, I’m taking a look at the 2009’s Moon.
It’s time for all good people to praise Sam Rockwell.
As far as I’m concerned, Sam Rockwell is one of the patron saints of character acting. Is there anything that he can’t do? He can do comedy. He can do drama. He can play the cool, older guy, like he did in The Way, Way Back. He can play the nerdy, weirdo as he’s done in too many movies for me to list. He can play a mentor and he can play a student. He can make you laugh and he can make you cry. He’s one of those actors who can seamlessly transition from small indie films to huge blockbusters without missing a beat. Rockwell won an Oscar for his performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and he might just win another one for playing President George W. Bush in Vice. He can even dance, as anyone who has seen him in Iron Man 2 can tell you. Rockwell’s been acting since he was a teenager and he’s definitely earned the right to be known as one of our greatest actors.
For that reason, it can sometimes be a little bit difficult to decide just which performance is Rockwell’s best. He’s appeared in so many different movies and he’s played so many different characters. Even when the movie’s bad, Rockwell is usually great. However, if I had to sit down and pick one Rockwell performance as being the epitome of everything that makes him a great actor, I’d probably go with his performance in Duncan Jones’s contemplative sci-fi film, Moon.
In Moon, Rockwell plays a man named Sam. Sam has spent three years living on the dark side of the moon. He works for shadowy Lunar Industries. His job is to mine the moon for helium-3, an alternative energy source that is now all the rage on Earth. It’s a lonely job for Sam. He gets up every day. He rides his lunar rover across the stage. He returns to the sterile facility, where he lives. Sometimes, if he’s lucky, he gets recorded messages from his wife and daughter. His only companion is a robot named GERTY. Though Sam trusts GERTY, we know better, if just because GERTY speaks with the voice of Kevin Spacey.
From the minute we meet Sam, we can see how living on the Moon has affected him. He’s quiet and a bit meek. After three years of isolation, Sam accepts whatever he has to accept to survive. He doesn’t complain about rarely getting to talk to his family. He doesn’t question why he has to work alone. Whatever fight Sam once had in him is gone. Now, Sam just wants to finish out his time and go home.
And then, one day, Sam is driving the lunar rover when he has a sudden hallucination and then passes out. He ends up crashing into a crater….
Suddenly, Sam wakes up at the facility. However, it doesn’t take long to notice that this Sam seems different from the Sam who we met at the start of the movie. The Sam who wakes up in the facility is younger and angrier than the Sam who we first met. This new Sam is less willing to accept everything that GERTY tells him. Even more strangely, this new Sam is convinced that he’s just arrived on the moon….
And then the new Sam meets the old Sam….
In Moon, Sam Rockwell gives two empathetic and memorable performances as the same person. Old Sam is beaten down by life. New Sam is angry and just a little bit arrogant. And yet, what makes the performance so brilliant is that you can easily see how the New Sam could eventually transform into the Old Sam. Thanks to both Rockwell’s performance and the film’s stark imagery, it’s easy to see how the isolation could eventually rob Sam of his passion, his will to fight, and his intellectual curiosity. When the Old Sam meets the New Sam, he’s reminded that there used to be more to his life than just the drudgery of his daily routine. And when the New Sam meets the Old Sam, he’s confronted with what a future of isolation means to him.
Of course, the new Sam and the Old Sam weren’t meant to meet. And now that they have met, Lunar Industries is on their way to clean up the mess….
Released in the same year as James Cameron’s bombastic Avatar, Moon is a low-key and thoughtful science fiction film, a meditation on isolation and identity. Duncan Jones directs the film in a stark and low-key style, allowing the film’s story to play out at its own pace. As visualized by Jones, the lunar landscape is impressive the first time you see it and increasingly bleak with each subsequent look. Far more than Ridley Scott did in The Martian, Jones captures what it actually is to be totally alone. (That no critics compared The Martian and Moon, despite their obvious similarities, is astounding to me.)
Featuring Sam Rockwell at his absolute best, Moon is a sci-fi film that remains haunting and powerful, even after films with bigger budgets and flashier special effects have faded into obscurity.