Saturday, March 3, 2018

One of Sam Rockwell's Best Performances Emerges In Duncan Jones Debut Project Moon


Tomorrow night, Sam Rockwell will almost certainly take home his very first Academy Award for his role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a major victory for one of Hollywood's most entertaining yet oddly underappreciated character actor. For those who are looking at all the acclaim Rockwell has garnered in recent months and find themselves wanting to seek out other noteworthy performances from Mr. Rockwell, well, there's certainly plenty to choose from (he's a hoot in Galaxy Quest, for instance) but for my money, one of his very best dramatic turns came nearly a decade ago in the 2009 film Moon, which served as the directorial debut of Duncan Jones.

Rockwell plays the only human character of note in Moon, a guy by the name of Sam Bell whose been stationed on the moon for nearly three years now so he can make sure that all the machinery used to mine moon-based material is working properly. This job has become a real repetitive drag, but his three-year-long commission is almost done and he eagerly awaits returning home to his wife and daughter. But just like a police officer in a cop movie whose just a few days away from retirement, Sam Bell finds himself in a tragic accident just before his time on the moon is done. While driving a vehicle out on the surface of the Moon, he crashes the vehicle, ensuring him a near certain death.

Luckily for Sam Bell, someone comes to his aid and returns him to his command center. Who is his rescuer? Himself. Yep, there are multiple Sam Bell's running around. How can this be? Where did this clone come from? Everything in Sam Bell's world is suddenly turned upside down and he begins to question reality itself while a more sinister conspiracy from his employers begins to reveal itself. The usage of clones in this plot allows for Rockwell to play two vastly different versions of the same character, with the original Sam Bell becoming a feeble paranoid individual after he's rescued from his accident while the newly introduced version of Sam Bell being a complete opposite in that he has a far more stoic disposition.

The task of performing two versions of the same character is a challenge Rockwell turns out to be more than up for. The sort of easygoing confidence he carries in so many of his roles makes it a cakewalk for him to play the stoic version of Sam Bell while he's astonishingly good at realistically portraying an iteration of the same character who is gradually declining in health. Just watching two Sam Rockwell's play off each other is an entertaining sight, but Nathan Parker's script uses the revelation of Sam Bell being a clone as a leaping off point for a larger story that dives into being a thriller as the original Sam Bell we were introduced to at the start of the movie grappling with his identity in the face of learning he's not who he thought he was.

The entire story takes place in a moon base that's realized through some top-notch production design. The choice has been made to make sure all the sets here hew closely to the visual aesthetic of the original Alien movie in that futuristic technology is meant to intentionally look clunky and far from pristine. The moon-based home of Sam Bell very much carries a lived-in quality that's visually pleasing while the design choice to have robotic helper GERTY (voiced by *shudder* Kevin Spacey) express all of his emotions only through extremely simple doodles of facial expressions is an especially inspired touch.

All of those thoughtful production design choices are in service of a well-conceived story that knows not to go too big even when it comes time for the climax to kick in. This is a tale that works best on a small-scale where we can really investigate the psychological conditions of the two versions of Sam Bell and realizing that may be one of Moon's most successful narrative decisions. Impressively, a movie this well-crafted emerged from Duncan Jones in his very first time directing a feature-length movie, making Moon, among it's other virtues, an impressive debut project for a then-newbie filmmaker.

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