By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — "Moon" does something extraordinary: It seems familiar and derivative, yet upends your expectations about science fiction and surprises you over and over. Melancholy and mesmerizing, equal parts mystery and character drama, it keeps you guessing until the end.
The intelligent, assured debut from director Duncan Jones — David Bowie's son, though we won't have to describe him in terms of his famous father for much longer — harkens to the fundamentals of the genre, in which people and provocative ideas mattered more than shiny gadgets and splashy effects. The fact that it's anchored by a subtle yet powerful performance from Sam Rockwell in two separate roles — he's practically the entire cast — is a prime example of this back-to-basics approach.
Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, an astronaut in the near future living in a station on the far side of the moon. He's about to wrap up his three-year contract mining helium, the Earth's main energy source, and he's eager to get home to his wife and little girl.
One day, amid his daily routine, he starts seeing and hearing things and his health begins to deteriorate. The base's computer, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), listens and tries to be sympathetic, tries to assuage him. But then another version of Sam arrives: younger, fitter, more organized and businesslike.
The character itself provides much of the film's allure (Nathan Parker wrote the script from Jones' story idea): Is this a clone? Or is the second Sam a figment of his imagination, a product of his isolation? You can interpret it any number of ways; "Moon" obviously has some heady, philosophical ideas about identity and individual purpose on its mind.
Rockwell pulls off the impressive balancing act of creating two distinct people, yet melding their shared traits as parts of a whole. You really feel for both of them and the confusing situation in which they've found themselves. And for a low-budget movie, the effects are seamless when the two Sams interact, such as a Ping-Pong game or a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Jones has said character-driven science fiction movies like "Blade Runner" and "Alien" influenced him, but the long shadow of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" is also unmistakable — in the themes of loneliness and fear, the clunky look of the space station, the lighting, and of course in the computer's soothing, ubiquitous voice. But again, that's a great example of how "Moon" doesn't take you where you think you're going to go. It's easy to assume that Gerty isn't to be trusted from the precedent of HAL 9000 and Spacey's honeyed menace — "You don't seem like yourself today. Sam, it might help you to talk about it" — despite the yellow smiley-face icon on the monitor that changes to a frown when he's showing concern.
Adding to the uneasy mood is the haunting score from Clint Mansell, longtime collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, which will stay with you afterward. It's not surprising that, given his background, Jones would be drawn to transforming music. But you may want to stop yourself before thinking up any easy puns about Major Tom and ground control; despite his lineage, this is clearly an artist who's ready to leave his own distinctive stamp on the culture.
"Moon," a Sony Pictures Classics release, runs 97 minutes. Four stars out of four.