Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Move Over "Avatar," "Moon" is the Best Sci-fi Film of 2009!

It is certainly not easy being a sci-fi movie fan, trying to discern the good movies from the bad. Every year, many sci-fi films are released but only a handful ever get the recognition that they fully deserve; most of these garnering the biggest attention from the media due to their multi-million-dollar special-effects or the big stars who act in them. Money talks but for me, at the end of the day, it is the story that matters the most. I am here to talk about one particular film, one so small, one so unconventional, it slipped past our attention in 2009 without anyone hardly noticing. Thank heavens for the home video market as without it, this masterpiece of a film would be lost forever.

The sci-fi movie genre can be divided into many other sub-genres that include, among others, horror-sci-fi (“Alien,” “The Thing”), action-sci-fi (“The Terminator,” “The Matrix”) and comedy-action-sci-fi (“The Fifth Element,” “Back to the Future”). One of my favorite sub-genres is what I like to call moral-intelligent-sci-fi, which takes an ethical question such as gene manipulation--something that is just starting to take root in our society today--and crafts an intelligent science fiction story around it. Among my favorite movies in this sub-genre are “Gattacca,” “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report.” Now I can add one more title to the list and it is a little-known 2009 independent British film simply titled “Moon.”

In keeping with the understated spirit of the title, “Moon” is quite a minimalist masterpiece, proving that you don't need big movie stars or Texas-sized budgets to create an expensive-looking, special-effects-laden sci-fi film. For first-time director Duncan Jones, all he needed to create “Moon” was one good actor, Sam Rockwell (“Matchstick Men,” “Frost/Nixon”) and a mere $5 million. In an age where movie budgets can soar to astronomical figures (consider the deep end of the scale: “Avatar”'s cost is approximated to be around the $300 million range), $5 million is but a cheap movie made in a dingy garage by two guys with a handheld camera. But sometimes, less is more and in the case of “Moon,” this certainly rings true. Whatever it is that Jones and his team accomplished, “Moon” certainly does not look like a cheap $5 million movie.
The plot is set sometime in the near future where Man has discovered clean energy in the form of an element called Helium-3 and a company, Lunar Industries, has set up a self-sustaining mining complex on the moon to extract that element. The lunar base, called “Sarang” (the word means nest in Malay), is operated by a single worker, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) and a robotic overseer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). If GERTY reminds you of the villainous HAL from Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you are not alone. It is probably not a coincidence that Jones wanted to pay tribute to Kubrick but here, GERTY is a lot less nefarious than HAL and certainly an important element within the plot.

Sam works on the base on a 3-year rotation and he is just weeks away from the end of his contract and would be able to return home to see his wife, Tess and a newborn daughter whom he has never met. The station is currently suffering from satellite failure issues and communication with Earth is only limited to recorded transmissions. As he tries to keep his wits about him, strange incidents begin happening. First, Sam starts to hallucinate seeing a young girl in the station. Then, on a routine run to retrieve harvested Helium-3 canisters from a large harvesting machine, Sam's focus is briefly distracted by the silhouette of a man standing on the moon's surface and he inevitably crashes his rover vehicle into the harvester.
Sam wakes up in the station's infirmary and is notified by GERTY that he is recovering from injuries sustained in the accident. Sam can't seem to remember anything about the accident and his suspicions are further aroused when he overhears GERTY talking in a live conference with executives from the company, even though the satellite communications are supposedly still down. In the conversation, the executives are overheard telling GERTY not to allow Sam to venture outside the lunar base. Afterwards, Sam receives a message from the company informing him that a team is on its way to the station to “repair” the damaged harvester.

As he grows more paranoid, Sam engineers an accident and convinces GERTY to allow him to go outside to make repairs. Once outside the station, Sam heads straight to the site of the accident and finds the damaged harvester as well as his overturned rover vehicle. Climbing into the rover, Sam is astonished to find someone else barely alive still inside. Upon closer scrutiny, the man turns out to be: himself! Upon returning to the station, both Sams try to come to grips with the unfathomable revelation that either or both of them could be clones and that their whole existence on the station is but a company-initiated program.
“Moon” has all the savory elements for an intriguing sci-fi story: an evil corporation, an artificial intelligence overseer and a single man who is but a pawn in the chess game of life. Cloning is a hot topic among medical ethicists and “Moon” brings that subject to the fore in the most fascinating way. It posits the moralistic situation where the “clone” is unaware of its origin and is provided with the memories of its host. Is a “clone” a sentient being or just an empty shell with borrowed memories? Should it be accorded the same rights as a human being? What about his wife and daughter--do they really exist or just planted memories? Who then, is the real Sam Bell? Those are the burning questions that consistently crop up within the plot of the movie. That the company is able to set up the ruse (each clone has a 3-year life span, thus the 3-year work cycle) so effectively makes the story so believable and gut-wrenching at the same time.

Sam Rockwell does an amazing job in “Moon.” Imagine having to act all by yourself and then with yourself! How's that for a self-contained performance! Rockwell's nuanced acting ability is in full bloom here as he is able to portray a man who has essentially lived by himself in total isolation for almost three years with only a robot for companionship. Eventually finding out that his entire existence has been brought into question simply boggles the mind. Having to act as both clones--one that was just activated and one that is slowly deteriorating as it approaches it life-span limit--puts Rockwell in rarefied company. Seldom has an actor been asked to do so much with so little.

Like the best sci-fi films, “Moon” puts the audience in a familiar yet alien situation. What sets it apart is its minimalist nature: put a single man in isolation on the moon as he comes to terms with the crushing reality of being a commercially-created clone. Forget about “Avatar,” sci-fi fans. The best sci-fi film of 2009 is hands down, “Moon.”

"Moon" is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.com.

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