(director: Duncan Jones; screenwriters: Nathan Parker/based on a story by Mr. Jones; cinematographer: Gary Shaw; editor: Nicolas Gaster; music: Clint Mansell; cast: Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell), Kevin Spacey (voice of Gerty), Dominique McElligott (Tess Bell), Kaya Scodelario (Eve Bell); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Stuart Fenegan/Trudie Styler; Sony Pictures Classics; 2009)
“It never quite passes the test as entertainment.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Harrowing, sinister, sparse, cerebral, sleep-inducing corporate scandal indie low-budget (on a $5 million budget) sci-fi drama, filmed on the soundstages at Shepperton Studios in England. A one-man show for talented actor Sam Rockwell. It’s a throwback to the films from the 1960s and 1970s such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alien, Blade Runner, Outland and Silent Running, and it’s the debut feature for the 38-year-old Duncan Jones (he has a doctorate from Vanderbilt, specializing in artificial intelligence and sentient machines). He’s the son of legendary rocker David Bowie, and he also wrote the story. Nathan Parker (son of Alan Parker) is the screenwriter. It’s set in the near future.
Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell. He’s a lone astronaut on the moon, where he’s employed by a corporation mining Helium-3, which is the source of most of the global energy. His three-year contract with the Lunar industries will be up in a short time and he looks forward to being reunited on Earth with his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and his three-year-old daughter Eve. He can’t wait to leave the isolation of “Sarang,” the moon base that he called home for the journey and looks forward to chatting with someone other than the soothing computer programed voiced Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey), the robot put in place to help him and who appears only through a smiley face plastered on the television monitor (think ‘2001’s HAL 9000!).
But all is not logical and not what it seems, as Sam has to speak with his suburban Connecticut wife on taped messages as the satellite is broken, thereby he’s not able to have direct live communication. He’s also experiencing a nervous breakdown when he gets into an accident in his lunar Land Rover and lands in the infirmary. After recovering, but not recalling the accident, he tricks Gerty to get permission to go outside and discovers he’s not alone on the flight, that there’s an injured clone of him, another astronaut that he rescues from the same Land Rover accident. It becomes weird for Sam to come face to face with a different version of himself, someone with a different personality and someone who also loves his wife but is not friendly to him. The other Sam appears to be Sam’s doppelgänger. When Sam arrives safely back at the space station, he’s caught in a hazy mystery as his perceptions of the journey are completely challenged (which also goes for the viewer).
It never quite passes the test as entertainment (at least not for me) and its murky story seemed slight, but it has some odd punch as a cultish film that’s high on antiseptic astronaut atmosphere, technical skills and ideas. I got the impression that the film’s main theme about the dangers of relying on technology and the suppression of human feelings, could have been worked out more effectively to give the film more heft and not leave everything up in the air in such an undeveloped way. It’s a thinking person’s film rather than a CGI film, a positive as far as I’m concerned in breaking the present day trend but something it could have done more with by having a more developed story. The viewer is encouraged to meditate on technology’s benefits and drawbacks–a subject that I wish could have spoken to me more assuredly than it did instead of sounding so robotic that I was ultimately turned off by its limited nature. I thought this modest movie would have made a better showing as an episode on a show like the Twilight Zone, because as a feature movie it never seemed committed to telling a complete story that has much to say about technology and progress that matters (even though that was its purpose). It seems best when bouncing half-baked ideas around hoping some will stick.
REVIEWED ON 8/11/2009 GRADE: C+