On a remote lunar outpost in the near future, a one-man operation oversees the harvesting of Helium3, the answer to Earth’s energy needs. The control room is modular and mostly white, but the grunge and detritus of daily life is smeared on the walls and jammed up on the work spaces. It is this detritus, photos, notes, scribblings, post-it scrawls, that set the atmospheric tone for Duncan Jones’ new sci-fi thriller.
Aping Ridley Scott’s extraordinary art direction in 1979’s Alien, the back story of the character is meant to be inferred from the background clutter as much as anything he says. That man, Sam (Sam Rockwell), is just two weeks away from ending his contract and returning to Earth, where his wife (Dominique McElligott) and young daughter (Kaya Scodelario) await. The trouble is, he seems to be losing his concentration. He has hallucinations of a young woman appearing before him, and his body is breaking down the closer he gets to his departure date. His only companion, the computer GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey) keeps telling him everything is fine, but he feels otherwise.
Director Jones, the son of David Bowie (allow me to refrain from any obvious “Space Oddity” puns, if you will, you’re sure to get a lot of them elsewhere), works hard to establish a moody, trepidacious vibe, where every frame is soaked in a kind of detached dread. You have the lunar surface, cold and unyielding, a blanket of starts high overhead, and Clint Mansell’s spare score over the top of everything else, but Nathan Parker’s screenplay is, perhaps, a bit too spare for its own good — as solid an actor as Rockwell is, he’s not given a hell of a lot to work with, here — and that sense of detachment (which actually factors into the plot eventually) doesn’t help ground you with his character. Scott’s genius in Alien was to make the crew so grounded and human in such a short amount of time, you deeply cared for them as they were getting picked off one by one. This film, Jones’ first feature, by contrast never directly connects with its audience emotionally. All the post-its and snap shots have the feel of being elaborate set decoration, after all.
There are also a nice collection of additional extras on the DVD, including audio commentaries from Jones, DP Gary Shaw, and others; two making of featurettes; a piece on the science behind the film and a Q&A with the director.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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