Filmed in 33 days on a budget of $5 million, this debut film has been described by its director, Duncan Jones, as ‘indie science-fiction’. Thumbing his nose at current sci-fi genre trappings (action, space ships, aliens), he has purposefully returned to the tone of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, seeking to tell a ‘human story in a future environment’ – think Silent Runnings or Blade Runner, not Star Wars.
It is the near future and astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is living on the far side of the moon, approaching the end of a three year contract mining Earth’s primary energy source, Helium-3. Alone on the planet with satellite communication with his family disrupted, his sole source of company is the lunar base’s computer, Gerty, dryly voiced by Kevin Spacey.
Sam’s health starts to deteriorate and he begins to hallucinate, leading to an almost fatal accident in a lunar rover. As he recovers back at the base, his reality is challenged by an enigmatic visitor who looks somewhat familiar.
This curious little film is one that requires patience, but if you are in the right mood for an intriguing conundrum with existential overtones, then step right up. Director Jones poses a big question – if you met in person, would you like yourself? – and is overall successful at engaging his audience throughout a series of mind-bending scenes that are played completely straight instead of for laughs.
Rockwell is onscreen for pretty much the entire running time and impresses in a role that could have been too clever for its own good. Is it just me, or is there something a bit sexy about this strangely likeable actor? He’s alternately grimy and healthy here and doesn’t overdo it with the crazy tics. It’s a brave, potentially exposing performance with no other actors to interact with, and frankly, it’s what makes the film work. Without the goodwill Rockwell engenders, much of the audience would probably be alienated by the detached air that prevails during early scenes – we need a hook to drag us into this film, and he is it.
The screenplay is smart and economical. You’ll need to watch and listen carefully if you don’t want to lose your way, but if you run with this, the latter parts of the film manage to conjure up quite a bit of emotion from what initially seems to be a chilly little brain-teaser. One scene in particular will have you clutching at your pearls as a painful truth is revealed to our protagonist.
The production design is pleasingly old-school. The interior of the space station has the same white chunky décor as the original Alien and the exterior scenes and model-work feel pleasingly retro compared to the CGI vistas we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. Special effects are used throughout the film, but they are often the invisible kind, as opposed to a look-at-me spectacle. The sound design is effective and the music is just right. There’s a strange tension here, ratcheted up as the film progresses. This is not quite sustained in the final stretch, but it’s still an unnerving experience, leaving the audience feeling distinctly uneasy at times.
To say more would be to reveal too much – part of the fun is found in unravelling the mystery here. And I’m not quite sure that everyone will buy into the central twist. We’re not in Shyamalan territory, but suspension of disbelief is definitely required at times.
So this is by no means the best film you’ll see this year, or even this month, but it is refreshingly different and it does manage to intrigue for most of its 97 minutes.
Reviewed by: The All Knowing I