In theaters.

If you’re going to put a talking computer in space, you’re going to make people think of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s unavoidable, especially if that computer is talking in smoothly uninflected yet conversational voice. Especially if you give it a cutesy human name. So at first Moon seems kind of hackneyed, what with the lone guy and his dependable-but-maybe-kind-of-ominous GERTY on an isolated outpost on the Moon. You think you know how things are going to go, and then they don’t go there, not really, and Moon turns out to be far less hackneyed and far more intriguing than you expect.

The movie is set in the future, after a multinational corporation has solved the world’s energy crisis by finding a way to harvest solar power on vast rocky fields on the Moon. Sam (Sam Rockwell), the sole monitor of one of those fields, keeps the machines running and counts down the few remaining days until the end of his three-year lunar contract. With company only from GERTY, his computer assistant (brilliantly voiced by Kevin Spacey), he starved for human contact and desperate to return to his wife and baby daughter. But then Sam is in an accident, GERTY begins acting oddly, someone else arrives on the base, and Sam has to question what he really knows and who he really is.

Moon is the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, who also devised the film’s story. (The screenplay itself is credited to Nathan Parker.) The movie obviously has a relatively small budget, but even though it had the financial backing of a crappy TV sci-fi flick, it doesn’t resemble one. Moon boasts a surprisingly polished, sophisticated look. The editing is sharp and well paced, and the special effects, modest though they might be, are striking and seamlessly done.

But the special effects are almost beside the point. Moon belongs to Rockwell. Aside from a few brief moments, he is the only actor on screen, and his initially simple role becomes increasingly complicated over the course of the film. He must have been tempted to go big and make a loud, showy scene—the material is open to that—but instead the veteran character actor gives a beautifully understated performance, revealing the poignant subtleties in Jones’s story.

And it is an affecting story, touching on a few hot-button issues, as near-future sci-fi often does, in a smart, witty way that never loses sight of Sam’s humanity—which is a neat trick, given how the story plays out. Jones is a filmmaker with a future, and Rockwell, so good in so many previous movies (he’s amazing in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), deserves to be better known. Moon is a little movie, but it merits a large audience.

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