‘Moon’: The Dark Side, By Kurt Loder

Sam Rockwell meets Sam Rockwell on an inner-space journey.

Making a sci-fi outer-space movie for $5 million has to be like building a palace on pocket change. English director Duncan Jones has done it, though. [url id="http://www.mtv.com/movies/movie/414725/moviemain.jhtml"]“Moon,”[/url] his first feature, an assemblage of miniature models, carefully applied CGI, meticulous production design and an extraordinary performance by Sam Rockwell, takes — or returns — cinematic science fiction to some fascinating places.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an employee of Lunar Industries, a company engaged in mining Helium-3 on the far side of the moon for use in energy production back on Earth. After three years of isolation at the moon base, monitoring the Lunar machinery, Sam will soon be rotating back home, where his wife and daughter are waiting for him. It’s been grueling duty: The live-communication satellite intended to serve the base has been broken forever, and so his only contact with his family has been via videotaped messages. He does have company of a sort: a soft-spoken, boxlike robot called Gerty — a tangible manifestation of the base computer system. Gerty seems to mean well (whatever that might mean), but he — it — is, after all, a robot (with the voice of Kevin Spacey).

As his time winds down, Sam feels his health starting to falter; in fact, he feels like he’s falling apart. While driving out on the desolate lunar surface to investigate an odd occurrence, he steers his rover into a gully and … well, he must have passed out. But when he wakes up, he’s back inside the base — convalescing, according to Gerty. How did he get here? And who’s the new guy he sees walking around? He looks like Sam himself. In fact, as it turns out, he is. A support team in a company ship is on its way to take Sam (or Sam 1) back to Earth, and now, more than ever, he feels it can’t get here soon enough.

The look of the movie inevitably echoes earlier classics of the deep-space genre. The scenes set in the uneventful interior of the moon base, where Sam has little to do besides work out on a running machine, recall the bland crew areas of the interstellar ship in “2001: A Space Odyssey”; but the exterior sequences, with Sam’s grubby rover bumping along over the vast lunar plain of dust and rock, strongly recall far grottier movies like “Alien.”

As impressive as the film’s design is, it’s the picture’s emotional core that lends it a resonance that’s been uncommon in this sort of film for many years. What is the toll taken by total isolation from the rest of humankind? Who are we — and what is our value — if we’re also someone else? Will Sam ever make it home (for a while it looks unlikely), and if he does, what will home now be like? Rockwell, often acting opposite himself (and occasionally a lookalike, Robin Chalk), captures his character’s spiritual and physical disintegration — and mounting desperation as the Lunar Industries retirement plan slowly becomes clear — in a performance of inspired resourcefulness.

Jones, who devised the story (which was turned into a script by first-time screenwriter Nathan Parker), came up through TV commercials and video games; but the movie has none of the rote fantasy clamor that such a background might seem to threaten. (In this way it’s reminiscent of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” a similarly temperate film in which Jones’ father, David Bowie, starred more than 30 years ago.) By keeping the human element front and center throughout the film (and kicking the story into an intriguing new dimension at the end), the director has avoided winding up where so many extraterrestrial tales often do: lost in space.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” “Away We Go” and “Tetro,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Moon.”

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