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Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

Star Trek Trailers

If the dark side of the moon sounds like a helluva place to spend the summer, consider the plight of Sam Bell (Rockwell) in "Moon": He's an astronaut, a husband, and a father, away on a three-year gig in outer space, all alone (except for a talking computer voiced by Spacey), and in charge of helium-3 mining operations on a grungy lunar station.

It's the near future, and with Earth's energy supplies frightfully scarce, up pops Lunar Industries, a corporation that provides 70% of Earth's power via nuclear fusion based on moon-harvested helium-3. It's dark up there; it's lonely; and with only two weeks remaining on a three-year contract, Sam finds his physical health and mental stability rapidly deteriorating. Then, just when you think poor Sam's luck can't possibly get worse, he crashes a rover and meets his doppelganger.

Yup—doppelganger, clone, replicate. By any name, it scares the heck out of both Sams. At first it's difficult to discern who is who, but that's just one of many deft plot twists in "Moon," a film far less about special effects and clever reveals than about the meanings of humanity and identity and the existential challenges borne of our inherent isolation.

Indeed, in "Moon," Duncan (son of David Bowie) Jones's feature-film directorial debut, we've been given a thought-provoking, mesmerizing gem in the somewhat rarefied subgenre of "smart" sci-fi. It's a film generously sprinkled with evidence of Jones's influences, especially "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Outlander," and "Alien." That said, his references to genre classics in "Moon" are respectful homage, not rip-offs, due mostly to the film's highly original vision of the future, one that's skeptical of new technologies and their human cost but confident in its people's good intentions.

Rockwell turns in a stunning performance (or two!) as Sam, in what is essentially a 97-minute one-man drama. Impressively, Rockwell neither bores nor angers his viewers, a tribute both to the dexterous, improvisational style of his acting and to the density of ideas embedded in screenwriter Parker's story. It's particularly satisfying to witness Rockwell's credible portrayal of people growing increasingly comfortable and empathetic as they interact with alternative versions of themselves.

Lunar Industries has provided Sam with a computer companion. Named Gerty and made to speak in Spacey's patronizing monotone, the computer toys with the audience's familiarity with HAL, its malevolent predecessor from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Gerty is Sam's assistant, nurse, therapist, cook, hairdresser, and friend. Although he remains true to his programming—to "help Sam" at all times—Sam's escalating paranoia cum general confusion causes him (and us) to question Gerty's motives. The computer is also equipped with movable arms and hands and a rotating series of emoticons, providing frequent comic relief.

The mining base in "Moon" is a claustrophobic, dingy-white capsule, evoking the padded cell of a prison. It's a fitting setting for someone who's pretty sure company won't be dropping by for a few years. Conversely, shots of the lunar landscape reveal an oddly serene environment, the perfect antidote for all of the unsettling, ambiguous chaos that ensues back at the station. A hybrid of computer graphics and old-school model miniatures, the set's unique look suggests that other low-budget sci-fi films might benefit from financial constraints' tendency to inspire compensatory creative innovation.

The special effects used when both Sams appear on-screen simultaneously are seamless, even during a full-contact brawling scene. Some credit needs to go to Rockwell here, too, however, for creating such distinct characters that viewers are too fully convinced that the Sams are separate people to bother looking for superficial proof that they're not.

Composer Clint Mansell's haunting orchestral and electronic melodies add texture to the film's somber tone while providing a most welcome, life-affirming pulse.

In case you're wondering, there's a fair bit of real science in this reel: Jones's initial story (later adapted by Parker), is based on aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin's nonfiction "Entering Space" (1999). He claimed at the time that the technology necessary to convert helium-3—which is prevalent in the moon's crust but scarce here on Earth—into usable energy is 10–20 years down the road. After which, Zubrin proposes, the lunar-harvesting of helium-3 will be a fiscally viable alternative for our planet's energy requirements. At a screening in New York City, director Jones told the audience that when "Moon" was shown to NASA employees, they informed him that space agencies around the world are currently exploring the very possibilities presented on-screen.

What lengths are morally acceptable to ensure humankind's survival? How will people live and work with future technologies without becoming alienated? "Moon" raises questions with potentially dark answers. But for newcomer Duncan Jones, the future looks awfully bright.