'Moon' Unit: Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a helium-mining contractor who gets a little squirrelly toward the end of a three-year solo assignment on the moon. Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption
'Moon' Unit: Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a helium-mining contractor who gets a little squirrelly toward the end of a three-year solo assignment on the moon.Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics
Unforgiving Terrain: With a robot for a co-star and some solid special effects to frame him, Rockwell does his best to carry the movie. The story, unfortunately, proves an added burden. Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption
Unforgiving Terrain: With a robot for a co-star and some solid special effects to frame him, Rockwell does his best to carry the movie. The story, unfortunately, proves an added burden.Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics
Actor Sam Rockwell has played his share of villains, but in Moon he's a decidedly engaging presence. So engaging, in fact, that he may well convince audiences that Duncan Jones' film is what it means to be: a brainteaser for the thinking sci-fi crowd.
You can see why Jones might have decided there was a need to be filled. There haven't been a lot of films lately to offer a glimpse of a future that isn't alien-infested or populated by folks for whom photon-blasters are the score-settlers of choice. Danny Boyle's Sunshine, maybe, with its save-the-planet ethos and its overstatedly pretty art direction — but even that devolved into a battle with a monster.
The story in Moon, about an astronaut who starts deteriorating mentally as his three-year solo stint on a lunar mining site is nearing an end, is a throwback to an earlier breed of science fiction: the techno-skeptical, isolated-in-space psychodrama.
The form blossomed for a time after Stanley Kubrick demonstrated its possibilities in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only to be eclipsed a few years later when Star Wars ushered in a cowboys-in-space era.
Still, the psychodrama approach had adherents. Think Silent Running (1971), with Bruce Dern and his droids tending what's left of the earth's plant life in pressurized geodesic domes out near the rings of Saturn. Or Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Soviet original, not Steven Soderbergh's pallid Hollywood remake), with a distraught space-station crew experiencing hallucinatory episodes, and slowly realizing that they're being caused by the planet they're orbiting.
Moon is as cagey as its predecessors about doling out plot details in snippets. The film opens with an ad for Lunar Industries, a massive corporation that's mining the moon to extract Helium 3, a precious gas that apparently offers a limitless source of clean energy for Earth. Then we meet the corporation's only lunar employee, Sam Bell (Rockwell). He's in the final weeks of his contract, desperately lonely, and looks a bit the worse for wear.
Shaggy, overweight and barely going through the motions, Sam aches to go home to a wife and young daughter he can talk to only via videotaped messages. Good thing he's aided in his lunar activities by a Hal-inspired, emoticon-faced robot named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), or his tasks might not even get done.
Alas, Gerty's not around when Sam, driving out to retrieve a tank of Helium 3, has a meltdown and crashes into a huge mining machine. Waking up from the crash later in sick bay, Sam appears to be suffering from amnesia. He looks fitter than before the crash, though, and he's being monitored far more closely by Gerty. As he starts doubting his sanity and puzzling out what's happened, the audience will be doing the same, albeit none too feverishly.
The chief problem isn't that Nathan Parker's insufficiently twisty screenplay — based on a story by director Jones (nee Zowie Bowie, son of David) — dabbles overmuch in the psycho half of psychodrama.
Or that Rockwell, who's pretty charismatic as he holds the screen for two hours all by himself, ever stumbles while illuminating a fractured personality that is both at war with itself and its own best friend. The actor proves capable of embodying all sorts of contradictory impulses as his character becomes tragically self-aware.
But he can't overcome a plot that goes slack at precisely the moment it should be soaring, or a corporate-villainy premise that practically begs not to be looked at too closely. I'm as willing as the next guy to believe that unfettered capitalism is the sworn enemy of the working stiff, and that greed can cause a corporation to devalue the humanity of its workers. But start calculating the costs to Lunar Industries of its singular form of devaluing, and Moon's central premise stops making sense.
Jones marshals special-effects wizardry — and Rockwell's charisma — to finesse such objections more or less right up to the final credits. But once you emerge from the darkness of the multiplex, credibility evaporates on the instant.
- Director: Duncan Jones
- Genre: Sci-fi fantasy
- Running Time: 97 minutes
Rated R: For language
With: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
"The Piano" is as peculiar and haunting as any film I've seen.
It tells a story of love and fierce pride, and places it on a bleak New Zealand coast where people live rudely in the rain and mud, struggling to maintain the appearance of the European society they've left behind. It is a story of shyness, repression and loneliness; of a woman who will not speak and a man who cannot listen, and of a willful little girl who causes mischief and pretends she didn't mean to.
The film opens with the arrival of a 30ish woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) and her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), on a stormy gray beach. They have been rowed ashore, along with Ada's piano, to meet a local bachelor named Stewart (Sam Neill), who has arranged to marry her. "I have not spoken since I was 6 years old," Ada's voice tells us on the soundtrack. "Nobody knows why, least of all myself. This is not the sound of my voice; it is the sound of my mind." Ada communicates with the world through her piano, and through sign language, which is interpreted by her daughter. Stewart and his laborers, local Maori tribesmen, take one look at the piano crate and decide it is too much trouble to carry inland to the house, and so it stays there, on the beach, in the wind and rain. It says something that Stewart cares so little for his new bride that he does not want her to have the piano she has brought all the way from Scotland - even though it is her means of communication. He does not mind quiet women, is one way he puts it.
Ada and Flora settle in. No intimacy grows between Ada and her new husband. One day she goes down to the beach to play the piano, and the music is heard by Baines (Harvey Keitel), a roughhewn neighbor who has affected Maori tattoos on his face. He is a former whaler who lives alone, and he likes the music of the piano - so much that he trades Stewart land for the piano.
"That is MY piano - MINE!!" Ada scribbles on a note she hands to Stewart. He explains that they all make sacrifices and she must learn to, as well. Baines invites her over to play, and thus begins his singleminded seduction, as he offers to trade her the piano for intimacy. There are 88 keys. He'll give her one for taking off her jacket. Five for raising her skirt.
Jane Campion, who wrote and directed "The Piano," does not handle this situation as a man might. She understands better the eroticism of slowness and restraint, and the power that Ada gains by pretending to care nothing for Baines. The outcome of her story is much more subtle and surprising than Baines' crude original offer might predict.
Campion has never made an uninteresting or unchallenging film (her credits include "Sweetie," about a family ruled by a self-destructive sister, and "An Angel at My Table" (the autobiography of writer Janet Frame, wrongly confined for schizophrenia). Her original screenplay for "The Piano" has elements of the Gothic in it, of that Victorian sensibility that masks eroticism with fear, mystery and exotic places. It also gives us a heroine who is a genuine piece of work; Ada is not a victim here, but a woman who reads a situation and responds to it.
The performances are as original as the characters. Hunter's Ada is pale, grim and hatchetfaced at first, although she is capable of warming.
Keitel's Baines is not what he first seems, but has unexpected reserves of tenderness and imagination. Neill's taciturn husband conceals a universe of fear and sadness behind his clouded eyes. And the performance by Paquin, as the daughter, is one of the most extraordinary examples of a child's acting in movie history. She probably has more lines than anyone else in the film, and is as complex, too - able to invent lies without stopping for a breath, and filled with enough anger of her own that she tattles just to see what will happen.
Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography is not simply suited to the story, but enhances it. Look at his cold grays and browns as he paints the desolate coast, and then the warm interiors that glow when they are finally needed. And if you are oddly affected by a key shot just before the end (I will not reveal it), reflect on his strategy of shooting and printing it, not in real time, but by filming at quarter-time and then printing each frame four times, so that the movement takes on a fated, dreamlike quality.
"The Piano" is a movie people have been talking about ever since it first played at Cannes, last May, and shared the grand prix.
It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling - of how people can be shut off from each other, lonely and afraid, about how help can come from unexpected sources, and about how you'll never know if you never ask.
The new 1994 edition of Roger Ebert's Video Companion is now in bookstores.