Sunday, 23 August 2009
Directed by Duncan Jones
Written by Duncan Jones, Nathan Parker
Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
Release date(s) Out Now
Running time 97 minutes
It seems that in recent years, science fiction has become the sole domain of the 'blockbuster'. The biggest and best of the genre seem to compete by waving ever inflating budgets and fancier special effects at one another. Eventually it reaches a fever pitch, the result of which can only ever be this week's Avatargate.
And of course this doesn't usually produce films of a high standard anyway. This summer's blockbuster Transformers 2 is a prime example of what happens when effects takes priority over story telling and actual film making quality. It seems a long time ago that sci-fi consisted of gems like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and indeed it is a long time!).
However, this summer cerebral sci-fi is making a comeback. Films like Moon and District 9 are being hailed as saviors of the genre and proof that simple films with tiny budgets can produce better science fiction than more well financed juggernauts.
So no pressure then on first time feature film director Duncan Jones (the son of music legend David Bowie) with the film that he co-wrote and directed. No pressure on Sam Rockwell, pretty much the only actor to appear on screen for the entire film. Fortunately both excel in their roles and the result is something quite special.
The basic premise involves Sam Rockwell playing Sam Bell, the employee of a moon-mining company who is nearing the end of his three year contract in isolation on the moon (I know, always a great idea) and starts experiencing some strange encounters...
And at this point I will warn you there be spoilers here because frankly a discussion of this movie without giving away the plot would be pointless. So YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
So this is one of those movies that keeps you in suspense for the duration as to what is actually going on here. Much more so even than other genre films. Literally every five minutes your notion of what is going on changes. Is the robot (played by Kevin Spacey with a chilling lack of tone) going to turn against it's master like in 2001? Is he a clone? Is the corporation evil? Is Sam simply going insane from loneliness?
The problem here then, is that all of these concepts feature very well trodden sci-fi territory, and for much of the film it feels like the writers basically threw a bunch of sci-fi clichés in a hat and are playing meenie-miney-mo to decide which one they'll end up using. It doesn't help that ultimately I think they end up using the wrong one, as the ultimate mystery behind the film ends up being rather brassy and on the nose for a film with such a fine and subtle nihilistic tone.
The result is that this film ends up feeling a lot like a long episode of the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits, albeit a very good one.
In the end, it doesn't really matter though. Some of these ideas may be familiar to viewers, but frankly such a thing is inevitable in this genre, and it is a testament to the high quality of the writing, the directing and the acting that this film ends up producing a thought provoking and engaging plot in spite of this. I'll be frank, even with the slow and tempered pacing of the film I was absolutely gripped by the proceedings on screen for the duration.
This is not 'thrill a minute' sci-fi, this is cerebral, thinking man's sci-fi. This is a film that ponders the nature of what is real and what is not and what it means to be alive and self-aware. This is thought provoking stuff, and the viewer can't help but be sucked in.
The direction, a devotee of the 'less is more' school of thought, is measured and methodical, an approach which works very much to the film's benefit. The haunting score by Clint Mansell only amplifies the effect and bestows the film with a very special quality.
However the absolute highlight of this film is the performance of the star Sam Rockwell. This is a memorable performance, displaying a beguiling range of moods, emotions and mannerisms. This is a real tour de force, with deeply affecting loneliness tempered by his innate humor and charm. Definitely the best acting performance of the year so far.
More 2001: A Space Odyssey than Independence Day, this is not a film for people who expect sci-fi to have explosions and aliens. This is a very smart, thought provoking film which is performed and produced to an exceptional standard.