'Moon' Shot: At Last, Sam Rockwell's The Star

Rockwell and Jones i i

Sam Rockwell (left) and Moon director Duncan Jones developed the movie together, after discovering their shared taste for '70s and '80s sci-fi flicks. Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics
Rockwell and Jones

Sam Rockwell (left) and Moon director Duncan Jones developed the movie together, after discovering their shared taste for '70s and '80s sci-fi flicks.

Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics
Sam Rockwell in 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' i i

Moon isn't the actor's first venture into space, of course; he played galactic power-broker Zaphod Beeblebrox in the 2005 film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Touchstone Pictures hide caption

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Sam Rockwell in 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'

Moon isn't the actor's first venture into space, of course; he played galactic power-broker Zaphod Beeblebrox in the 2005 film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Touchstone Pictures
Sam Rockwell in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ' i i

Rockwell (right) played the brother of the timid title character (Casey Affleck) in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

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Sam Rockwell in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford '

Rockwell (right) played the brother of the timid title character (Casey Affleck) in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Sam Rockwell in 'The Green Mile' i i

Rockwell's range has led to performances as the child-murderer "Wild Bill" in The Green Mile, above ... Castle Rock/Warner Bros. Pictures via The Kobal Collection hide caption

itoggle caption Castle Rock/Warner Bros. Pictures via The Kobal Collection
Sam Rockwell in 'The Green Mile'

Rockwell's range has led to performances as the child-murderer "Wild Bill" in The Green Mile, above ...

Castle Rock/Warner Bros. Pictures via The Kobal Collection
Sam Rockwell and Mischa Barton in 'Lawn Dogs' i i

... and as a good-hearted groundskeeper wrongly suspected of being a child molester in the indie film Lawn Dogs (opposite Mischa Barton). Rank/Toledo via The Kobal Collection hide caption

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Sam Rockwell and Mischa Barton in 'Lawn Dogs'

... and as a good-hearted groundskeeper wrongly suspected of being a child molester in the indie film Lawn Dogs (opposite Mischa Barton).

Rank/Toledo via The Kobal Collection

In the new science fiction movie Moon, Sam Rockwell plays a lonesome mine technician working in outer space, struggling to maintain his sanity long enough to get home.

Rockwell carries the movie — he's essentially its only actor. (Another character is glimpsed on a video monitor, and a robot is voiced by Kevin Spacey.)

Rockwell is best known for playing oddballs and hoodlums. The 40-year-old is handsome, in a humble kind of way, with squinty hazel eyes and a certain facial plasticity. He brings a sense of history to his roles.

While still a teenager, Rockwell thought he'd made it when he was cast in the gritty 1989 movie Last Exit to Brooklyn — a film critically reviled at the time for its violence.

"We were throwing knives, switchblades at [Alexis Arquette, who played] the transvestite," Rockwell recalls. "It was a hot summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Red Hook was really a ghetto, you know? And we were out there doing this crazy movie, and we thought it would be the next Raging Bull."

Instead Rockwell ended up busing tables and delivering burritos, still waiting for his big break.

He studied acting seriously under William Esper, and started racking up starring roles in little indie films like Box of Moonlight and Lawn Dogs.

He became known as a fearless performer, a director's actor — and a superlative villain. He played the freaky child killer in the prison drama The Green Mile. In Charlie's Angels, he literally danced through his scenes as a slick, seductive baddie. Rockwell's flair for portraying twisted, damaged characters moved George Clooney to take on studio brass in order to cast the younger actor as a mentally unbalanced game show host in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

So when director Duncan Jones offered Rockwell the chance to play yet another villain in his debut feature, Rockwell turned him down. But their conversation unexpectedly turned to their mutual love of science fiction, particularly movies from the '70s and '80s, such as Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing.

"The acting was so kitchen-sink real," Rockwell marvels. "They were regular blue-collar people — in space, with a monster."

Based on this one conversation, Jones dropped his original project to make a movie specifically starring Rockwell. It's about a working-class stiff of an astronaut, alone in space on a three-year mining contract. The character is named Sam, after the actor who inspired it.

"And he made [the film] such an actor's piece, I couldn't resist," Rockwell admits.

But Jones also wanted the film to explore some of his ideas about human relationships with technology. He studied artificial intelligence and ethics as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. And though elements of the film are clearly intended as homage to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jones' outlook on technology is much sunnier.

"Technology changes fast, and we can improve on technology fast," he says. "Human nature is the thing that takes a long time to improve."

Jones — aka Zowie Bowie — also cops to the influence of his father. Rock star David Bowie wrote the song "Kooks" for his son, who began going by the name Duncan Jones as a teenager. The young director admits to parallels between his film and his father's concept albums, such as Ziggy Stardust, but he says it makes sense that their interests overlap.

"I was around in the same time and place when he was working on that stuff," he points out.

If nothing else, says Jones, the film will delight Sam Rockwell fans — it's all him. For his part, Rockwell says those fans will recognize Moon as the sort of audacious project that has mainly defined his career.

"There has to be a creative element, or I'm not interested," he says. "I literally would be sick if I did something solely for the money and I couldn't find any creative way in."

Rockwell's next creative project? Playing a talking guinea pig in a Disney movie. And he'll be a villain again too, in the Iron Man sequel scheduled for release next year.

In 'Moon,' Glimpses Of A Lonely Soul's Dark Night

Sam Rockwell in 'Moon' i i

'Moon' Unit: Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a helium-mining contractor who gets a little squirrelly toward the end of a three-year solo assignment on the moon. Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics
Sam Rockwell in 'Moon'

'Moon' Unit: Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a helium-mining contractor who gets a little squirrelly toward the end of a three-year solo assignment on the moon.

Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics

Moon

  • Director: Duncan Jones
  • Genre: Sci-fi fantasy
  • Running Time: 97 minutes

Rated R: For language

With: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

A Lone Rover From the Film 'Moon' i i

Unforgiving Terrain: With a robot for a co-star and some solid special effects to frame him, Rockwell does his best to carry the movie. The story, unfortunately, proves an added burden. Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics
A Lone Rover From the Film 'Moon'

Unforgiving Terrain: With a robot for a co-star and some solid special effects to frame him, Rockwell does his best to carry the movie. The story, unfortunately, proves an added burden.

Mark Tille/Sony Pictures Classics

Actor Sam Rockwell has played his share of villains, but in Moon he's a decidedly engaging presence. So engaging, in fact, that he may well convince audiences that Duncan Jones' film is what it means to be: a brainteaser for the thinking sci-fi crowd.

You can see why Jones might have decided there was a need to be filled. There haven't been a lot of films lately to offer a glimpse of a future that isn't alien-infested or populated by folks for whom photon-blasters are the score-settlers of choice. Danny Boyle's Sunshine, maybe, with its save-the-planet ethos and its overstatedly pretty art direction — but even that devolved into a battle with a monster.

The story in Moon, about an astronaut who starts deteriorating mentally as his three-year solo stint on a lunar mining site is nearing an end, is a throwback to an earlier breed of science fiction: the techno-skeptical, isolated-in-space psychodrama.

The form blossomed for a time after Stanley Kubrick demonstrated its possibilities in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only to be eclipsed a few years later when Star Wars ushered in a cowboys-in-space era.

Still, the psychodrama approach had adherents. Think Silent Running (1971), with Bruce Dern and his droids tending what's left of the earth's plant life in pressurized geodesic domes out near the rings of Saturn. Or Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Soviet original, not Steven Soderbergh's pallid Hollywood remake), with a distraught space-station crew experiencing hallucinatory episodes, and slowly realizing that they're being caused by the planet they're orbiting.

Moon is as cagey as its predecessors about doling out plot details in snippets. The film opens with an ad for Lunar Industries, a massive corporation that's mining the moon to extract Helium 3, a precious gas that apparently offers a limitless source of clean energy for Earth. Then we meet the corporation's only lunar employee, Sam Bell (Rockwell). He's in the final weeks of his contract, desperately lonely, and looks a bit the worse for wear.

Shaggy, overweight and barely going through the motions, Sam aches to go home to a wife and young daughter he can talk to only via videotaped messages. Good thing he's aided in his lunar activities by a Hal-inspired, emoticon-faced robot named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), or his tasks might not even get done.

Alas, Gerty's not around when Sam, driving out to retrieve a tank of Helium 3, has a meltdown and crashes into a huge mining machine. Waking up from the crash later in sick bay, Sam appears to be suffering from amnesia. He looks fitter than before the crash, though, and he's being monitored far more closely by Gerty. As he starts doubting his sanity and puzzling out what's happened, the audience will be doing the same, albeit none too feverishly.

The chief problem isn't that Nathan Parker's insufficiently twisty screenplay — based on a story by director Jones (nee Zowie Bowie, son of David) — dabbles overmuch in the psycho half of psychodrama.

Or that Rockwell, who's pretty charismatic as he holds the screen for two hours all by himself, ever stumbles while illuminating a fractured personality that is both at war with itself and its own best friend. The actor proves capable of embodying all sorts of contradictory impulses as his character becomes tragically self-aware.

But he can't overcome a plot that goes slack at precisely the moment it should be soaring, or a corporate-villainy premise that practically begs not to be looked at too closely. I'm as willing as the next guy to believe that unfettered capitalism is the sworn enemy of the working stiff, and that greed can cause a corporation to devalue the humanity of its workers. But start calculating the costs to Lunar Industries of its singular form of devaluing, and Moon's central premise stops making sense.

Jones marshals special-effects wizardry — and Rockwell's charisma — to finesse such objections more or less right up to the final credits. But once you emerge from the darkness of the multiplex, credibility evaporates on the instant.

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