Friday, January 01, 2010
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice)
Director: Duncan Jones
Runtime: 97 min.
Verdict: And here comes finally a science fiction that doesn’t overdress itself. This is Taxi Driver written by Ray Bradbury. A masterpiece.
Genre: Sci-fi, Drama
A friend of mine, Srikanth, who discusses films here with such immense insight, writes to me in his mail, which I quote here verbatim –
"Take the most powerful scene where Rockwell discovers the truth on earth. It's a shattering moment. Rockwell cries. Jones should have lingered on his face. Instead, he cuts to the exteriors, to the shot of the space vehicle staring at moon. One could say that his image was "telling" us something about loneliness. But his soundtrack contradicts him by trying to evoke. Rockwell can do that scene so well. Jones misses the opportunity. "
I watched Moon, a graceful film with such purity of heart, and goodness. This is a movie unlike most movies these days, movies that revel not in the art of story but in the craft of story-telling. I shall not describe to you any of it dear reader, for there are events in the movie that on paper might seem surprising, or as the Hollywood terminology holds, they might come across as twists in the tale. Moon isn’t concerned with pyro-techniques, not interested in impressing by shocking you. It is matter-of-fact, because it is good at heart, and because it is a compassionate film, and because it merely wants to understand the human condition at its core. As Thomas Wolfe said –
The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.
As I address Srikanth, I also address you reader, when I say the pain in the film is unbearable. I cried, and I cried. I cried like a little baby. Loneliness might be the most painful human emotion. But as I believe, there is one thing that I fear more, infinitely more. That is your life being snatched away from you. That your memory being stamped invalid. That your life considered a joke. I don’t know, but is there anything more painful? That is one of the reasons we fear death right?
The moment Srikanth talks about is when Sam Bell (Mr. Rockwell) speaks to his daughter, and finds a truth about himself. Sam is an astronaut working on the moon base for an energy company that is harvesting solar energy and hurling it across to Earth through Helium fueled cells. This is the future, you see, a future where energy is no longer a problem. Sam is on a three-year contract, and the fantastic news for this man stranded on this island away from his lovely wife Tess (Ms. Dominique McElligott) and his little daughter Eve is that is long stay is just two weeks away from completion and that he’s about to go home. The stay has been so long, and so lonely he is even seeing apparitions. I don’t know but I guess cabin fever can be caused even by living with your own self. And he meets an accident.
You see, dear reader, Sam is waiting for this to happen for three years. He has a sweet little picture of his wife next to his bed. His wall is covered with pictures of his two darlings. Imagine an accident that might cause to extend your stay, when every moment you long so dearly for your life. It is unbearable, when the events unfold, one after the other after the other, and when Sam speaks to his daughter and learns a truth about himself, you almost say it along with him – That's enough. I cried. It was impossible to hold the tears. And here the film so compassionately moves away from Sam, not choosing to be a voyeur and watch him break down so inconsolably in this most tender of moments, but displaying a large heart and cutting away into one of the most gloriously evoking shots of the year. It is a 90-degree anti-clockwise turn, and as Sam weeps, the film turning around Sam’s space-truck brings into view the home – Earth. Never in the movies have I felt the beauty of Earth captured so poignantly within a single frame. There it is Srikanth, and I guess if the film is working for you as Mr. Jones intends, I believe it is the absolutely correct shot. Mr. Rockwell can do the scene by himself, as he does in the entire film, but it is a moment where it is better to leave Sam all alone.
So, where are we now? That is the words Moon opens to. It is directed by Mr. Duncan Jones, who makes such an immensely brilliant film as his debut effort that I am reminded of Christopher Nolan. What’s more, this might be Christopher Nolan channeling out a Taxi Driver and a Philip Dick story. Mr. Jones is the son of Mr. David Bowie who, amongst many other roles, played Nikola Tesla in Mr. Nolan’s sci-fi masterpiece The Prestige. Yes reader, The Prestige amongst many other things, is a wonderfully subtle science fiction, for what is science fiction but one of literature’s most engrossing ways to ponder, theorize and understand the human condition. Moon is another one, and a great one too. I think though, the connection runs deeper, way deeper. I see Moon, and I surely observe an inspiration for the events at hand, for Nolan caused Tesla to invent something that might have established as the starting point, and suggested Sam Bell’s (Mr. Rockwell) predicament. But I also realize, in hindsight, that the very architecture might have been inspired too. I speak not in the terms of the three-act structure, for comparisons that way are futile and meaningless. It is just that what The Prestige presents as shocking twists, Moon presents as events. With great calmness, and nonchalance, I might add. Many critics might commit the mistake of overselling these twists. Moon is one of those superior narratives, where the story always takes precedence over storytelling. Of course, I leave it to you reader to choose which is the game you prefer – (i) a story told smoothly with no prejudice towards any special set of events, or, (ii) a story that is unfolded before you with great many pyro-techniques. I believe, the craft of unfolding a story is the genius of a few (Christopher Nolan, Alfred Hitchcock) but the art of narrating a story not with an eye towards cleverness but with a heart that feels with every word is not the prerogative of any. It could come from anybody, as long as the person feels the story. I think that is richer.
And as for the connections to The Prestige, narrative-wise, all I would want to suggest is the echoes that bounce off the principal characters, and us. We know Alfred Borden, who we knew was one, and who we later realized was two. And we know Rupert Angier. Sam Bell follows the Borden cycle for a while only to find himself to be Angier. But the significant echo comes in what The Prestige was about – the nature of an illusion. Moon is that illusion. It is so brilliantly structured, that we alongwith Sam Bell, have no idea of the time-frame we are dealing with. And in this structure is what certifies Moon as a real deal when it comes to sci-fi. It is about a man living in space, but it is also about the time he is spending, and how time is relative. We have no idea the unit of time that passes by between events. Consider for example the opening few moments as the credits run by, and we meet Sam, first energetic, then gradually growing weaker and weaker. What are we seeing? Are these clues? I don’t know. Sam wakes up from the accident, and neither we nor Sam know what the order of time that has passed is. Minutes run into hours run into weeks run into months run into lifetimes. It is all a lonely place, cut off from the world, and what we and Sam have been robbed off is the earth’s perspective of time. That we gain that reference only as we enter the Earth’s orbit, is a testament to the quality of the filmmaking, and the perfection of the ending.
Part of that illusion is Gerty, arguably the best robot since Kubrick’s HAL. HAL was cold, HAL was distant, and HAL was a reflection of Kubrick’s cynicism. Not Mr. Jones, and not Gerty. With its emotions being spelled through standard emoticons, Gerty is one of the great movie characters. Not too surprising is the fact that Kevin Spacey, one of our great living actors, voices it. There’s something soothing about Mr. Spacey’s voice, not patronizing but affectionate. There is a whole lot of ambiguity one might feel about Gerty’s intentions, but they would be ambiguous only if considered as a machine’s action. HAL was ambiguous because Kubrick had designed it as a machine. Mr. Jones calibrates Gerty as a human, with all the goodness. I think the individual names give the intentions away. One of the great scenes in the film is when Gerty sheds a tear through an emoticon. It is a heartrending moment, filmed and scored tenderly.
At the heart of it all though is Mr. Rockwell. It is not a performance that would have audiences stand up and clap (Tom Hanks in Cast Away), but it is a deeper and greater performance. One that elevates the narrative without drawing any attention away from it. Of all the performances where an actor is left by himself, this has to rank quite high in the list. Mr. Rockwell has to deal with a lot, and he makes every moment deeply felt. It is the hallmark of a great performance, like that of De Niro in Taxi Driver or Christian Bale in The Machinist, when little moments of the character, little gestures, little twitches of the eye, words spoken, come to you days after watching it. Mr. Jones frames it all so beautifully too. He shows the pain and the suffering that is crashing down on Sam, and when it becomes unbearable, he wisely moves away.
It is a little film, but it is profound and gentle. It is not a message film, like so many high-minded conformist stuff out there, but a perspective film. Through its protagonist it is angry. If there is a sequel you could call it a revenge story. It is a film not about big CGI, but simple old school camera techniques and miniature sets. But mostly, Moon is about us, fractured through time. How we envy our happy times, and wish to be lost in them. How, at the end of the day, we are all good. Reader, much like westerns, I might be a sucker of science fictions. As in, good science fictions. But I still feel no hesitancy in declaring Moon my favorite movie of the year that has just gone by. I think you should watch it, for many years later, it might be regarded a classic. And Duncan Jones is a name you should watch out for. His next movie, IMDb says, is a science fiction called Source Code, written by that hugely talented Billy Ray. How bloody exciting is that!