Sony Pictures Classics
At Showcase

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

4 out of 5 stars

The summer movie season is one of major studio tentpoles, star vehicles with hundred-million-dollar budgets and blitzkrieg marketing tactics. They are the multiplex events of the year. And while these blockbusters can have their value — let’s be honest, even if they’re not always first-rate films, they can be entertaining as hell — they often overshadow smaller movies of equal or greater merit. “Moon” falls into the latter category.

If you’ve seen the trailer for Duncan Jones’s first feature, you may write off the science-fiction thriller as a feeble attempt at piggybacking the HAL 9000 component from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Luckily, “Moon” doesn’t have Kubrickian aspirations. The film operates as a bit of a genre pastiche — there is the eerie supercomputer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey, “American Beauty”), it is set in outer space in the not too distant future, the protagonist is alone in the void, or is he? — generally succeeding within this sphere, and then some.

Without giving too much away, “Moon” is about Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, “Choke”), the lone employee on a lunar base, who oversees a convoy of machinery that harvests helium-3 from the far side of the moon for an energy conglomerate back home on Earth. His three-year contract is just weeks from being completed, though his will to return home is complicated by bizarre illness and ostensible satellite communication issues. His only friend, if you will, is the base’s artificially intelligent computer GERTY who seems to know more than it let’s on.

As just about the only actor in the film, “Moon” succeeds on the phenomenal and varied abilities of Rockwell. Having proven himself time and time again in roles such as the Janus-faced villain in “Charlie’s Angels” (2000) and a con man in Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men,” Rockwell is one of the most talented and understatedly charismatic actors today. “Moon” is the ultimate showcase of his multifaceted strengths, what will probably be an underappreciated opus in his fine body of work.

Jones, too, deserves recognition, having established himself in his own right as a promising narrative filmmaker. The son of rock legend David Bowie, Jones cut his chops directing shorts and music videos before finally making “Moon” on a London soundstage with a shoestring budget. Despite the limited scale of the production — estimated at around $5 million — the antiseptic space station that is home to Sam Bell and GERTY exudes an uncanny loneliness, and the elaborate special effects succeed, for the most part.

There are one or two brief moments, though, when the movie slips into campy territory, operating with perhaps too great a reverence for movies of its kind from the late ’70s and ’80s. This mannered quality doesn’t ruin the entertaining picture by any means, but it is a minor yet noteworthy flaw.

As such, “Moon” isn’t a film destined for the sci-fi cannon, but it is a refreshing throwback to the kind of movies seldom made today. It is a modest and compelling work, and a worthwhile film.

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