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Originally published July 2, 2009 at 2:16 PM | Page modified July 2, 2009 at 2:23 PM

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Movie review

"Moon": Inspired lunacy from Sam Rockwell

Sam Rockwell dazzles in a double role in "Moon," the debut feature film by Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie.

Seattle Times arts writer

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Moon," with Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey. Directed by Duncan Jones, from a screenplay by Nathan Parker. 97 minutes. Rated R for language. Metro, Harvard Exit; see Page 17.

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Not "The Man Who Fell to Earth," but "The Man Who Can't Get Back to Earth."

"Moon," the debut feature by Duncan Jones, comes with an illustrious lineage. Its director is the son of David Bowie, a performer with some impressive sci-fi credentials of his own (including Nicolas Roeg's 1976 classic "The Man Who Fell to Earth"). Still, Jones stakes his own ground confidently and credibly with this intricate tale of a lonely lunar mining engineer who meets his look-alike ... and doesn't know what to make of it.

Sam Rockwell, doing dazzling double duty in the lead, is Sam Bell, a blue-collar working Joe with two weeks left to go on his contract. For the past three years, working solo, he has overseen the "harvesting" of fusion-power fuel, Helium-3, and monitored its transmission back to Earth, where it provides 70 percent of the planet's energy needs.

Bell is looking and feeling a little raggedy, however. His only company is Gerty, a clunky computer/robot (voice by Kevin Spacey) that cuts his hair and provides inept psychological counseling. That leaves Bell with only his plants to talk to and his memories to savor. He can't even get a live-feed connection back home, relying instead on time-delayed communications that have a message-in-a-bottle feel to them. Are his wife and supervisors really getting them? Is his fragile link about to expire altogether?

And then he starts hallucinating. When he wakes up after an accident to see a spruced-up, take-charge version of himself trying to whip things back into shape around the mining base, he has to wonder if he's lost his mind. Gerty's no help. To almost every question Bell asks, the computer's answer is an evasive, albeit kindly "Are you hungry?"

Jones does a wonderful job of establishing Bell's makeshift environs. His spacesuits are grimy; his living quarters' homey touches (unmade bed, comfy armchair, old reruns on the television) conjure a seedy but oddly cozy bachelor existence.

That makes the film all the more eerie and unsettling when Bell's most basic notions of home, identity and useful employment are called into question.

Jones has harnessed humor, cinematic wizardry and an atmospheric pulsing score by Clint Mansell — a frequent collaborator with Darren Aronofsky ("Pi," "The Wrestler") — to make "Moon" a pleasure on a number of levels.

Rockwell's dual portrait of the two Sam Bells is so smoothly, sharply and wittily done that it's easy to forget there aren't two of him playing the roles. Spacey's Gerty is nicely unpredictable, too — is Gerty a Jewish mother or a cyber Machiavelli?

With its artful use of old-school miniatures rather than computer graphics, "Moon" engages the eye as much as the mind. Here's a canny director who doesn't let technical prowess overwhelm his sure, resourceful sense of human drama and character.

Michael Upchurch:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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