The movie, set in a not necessarily very distant future, starts with a voice-over monologue, advertisement style. You see, back in the old days we used to rely on fossil fuels for our energy. That caused smog and pollution, affecting our health and that of the planet. (We get some impressive shots of smog in Los Angeles.) Thankfully, those times are long gone. Our skies are clear, our water is fresh, and we have enough clean energy to convert deserts into farmlands. You may ask yourself, how did we get there? Part of it, the voice-over informs us, has to do with the mining of something called Helium 3 on the far side of the moon and using it as fusion fuel. The rest of the answer will be forthcoming shortly. You might not like it.
With the opening credits still running, we meet Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the sole operator of one such Helium 3 mining station on the moon. He’s almost at the end of a 3-year contract, the true nature of which will be revealed gradually over the course of the movie. He is not doing well. He looks pale and disheveled, he has been talking to himself, and his mental state is so fragile that he starts to experience hallucinations. Or does he see dead people?
The actual Helium 3 mining appears to be completely automated. Sam’s job involves monitoring work reports on the local computer and, once in a while, driving an ATV-type vehicle on the surface of the moon to check on the operation. The vehicles – both the small tank-like ones that Sam drives and the large armoured cars that traverse the surface digging up rocks – have a slightly cardboard minimalistic look, as does the rest of the moon scenery. I can’t say that it bothered me at all. It was quite stylish, actually.
Sam’s isolation has damaged him deeply, to the extent that he is no longer able to perform his job. You can’t operate heavy equipment safely while you’re hallucinating. As Sam wakes up in the infirmary after an accident he’d caused, we start to notice a certain lack of continuity. Between that and what I’d gleaned from the trailer, I figured out at that point what the central plot device would be. That’s fine, though, because the movie in fact proceeds to reveal it only minutes later.
Then it goes further, venturing into the Charlie Kaufman territory for a while. What if everyone around you was
John Malkovich Sam Bell? What if you could, literally, have a conversation with a physical representation of yourself? A fight, even? What if you could, say, go back in time and meet a younger version of yourself? Who would be the “real you”? Would you two become friends? Or would you want to slap the younger you in the face? Would you just walk by and pretend not to see each other? There’s nothing wrong with talking to oneself, really. Some of Sam’s most socially awkward moments come when he refuses to do just that. When near the end of the movie the two Sams actually start showing signs of liking each other, it almost comes across as an accomplishment. Almost.
How about taking advice from your older self – or the younger one? Would it hurt your pride to do that? Do we become wiser as we grow older, or do we just get more tired and cranky?
This is tricky stuff to navigate, even for Kaufman himself, as seen for example in the third act of Malkovich. Although I would have liked to see more of that, it might be just as well that Sam doesn’t have a lot of time to dwell on identity questions. Instead, he has to deal with the developing situation, and he needs to figure out something fast, because otherwise Bad Things Will Happen.
As good as Rockwell’s performance is, I was not able to develop any emotional connection to his character. There was never a chance. It feels as though the writer/director Duncan Jones is holding back on purpose, lest he should say too much. (Nathan Parker wrote the screenplay, based on Jones’s story.) The ending is poignant in its own way. It probably won’t leave you devastated or anything, but it will leave you thinking. That’s fine with me.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that some younger or older version of me might disagree.