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Space Oddity

“Moon” shows signs of filmmaking in a vacuum.

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Ground control to Major Tom: Your movie is awfully reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick's highly regarded science-fiction film from the '60s. So while the lunar suspense of the new film, “Moon,” explores the creepiness of extended living outside Earth's gravity, its reverence for well-known works that were obvious influences detracts rather than enhances the story.

The most interesting aspect turns out to be whether it would have made it out of orbit were its writer and director, Duncan Jones, not the progeny of rock star David Bowie, himself a sci-fi veteran (see “The Man Who Fell to Earth”). Jones' creation is Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell, a lonely astronaut who maintains on the moon a solitary mining operation of helium 3, which provides all of Earth's energy. The only other sentient being in the cramped confines of his lunar home is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a computer who opens the doors, does the laundry and presumably lets Sam know if it encounters any human error.

Nearing the end of a three-year contract, Sam looks forward to the day when he can return to his wife and daughter back on Earth. So much time alone in space is giving him an intense form of space-station fever, resulting in unexplained visions that cause him to wreck a moon vehicle during a routine repair mission. “Who rescued him?” Sam wonders, venturing to the accident site where he pulls another Sam Bell from the wreckage.

For a while the shocking discovery propels “Moon” with the paranoia and intrigue of a good “Twilight Zone” episode, making it easier to ignore little annoyances like the budget special effects and Gerty, a computer like the HAL of “2001.” Though the recognition of Spacey's voice makes Gerty a little too cute, Rockwell is up to the task of playing himself twice. Instead of freaking out, the two Sams try to remain unperturbed while eyeing each other with a degree of caution.

They display subtle and unnerving differences, such as their uneven familiarity with the space station. To pass the time Sam the First continues to pluck away at his hobby, building a model city Sam the Second marvels at. “You said that was already started when you got to it?” the Second asks.

Such puzzles compel the two to look deeper into their situation, providing more neat mysteries for the audience to ponder, but therein also lies a problem — the more you poke around “Moon” the more lost in space it seems.

At one point the two Sams play table tennis together, one of them unable to get the hang of it. Missing the significance, all I could think of was what a pingpong table was doing there: The station is supposed to be a one-man operation. And Gerty, who has a variety of limbs that snake around like old vacuum-cleaner attachments, is not nearly agile enough to return a decent volley.

Sam's visions, mostly of a pale, waifish mystery girl who seems to have walked out of an M. Night Shayamalan movie, also are a problem. The movie never really explains why Sam has them, much less why they involve a clichAc ripped from cheap horror movies.

“Moon” has an unmistakable feel of student work, unfinished and imitative, frequently allowing earnest homage to mutate into self-parody. When Sam realizes he's been tricked by his company into thinking he can't communicate directly with Earth and plans escape, he's surprised to find that Gerty (an unfortunate smiley replacing HAL's memorable red eye) is willing to help him. “Isn't that, like, against your programming or something?” Sam asks.

Was this fictional character, I wondered, commenting on other memorable fictions? By accident or on purpose? Such moments reveal the wizard behind the curtain, so to speak, and despite the dour mood he's trying to create he seems to be having a right good time. Too many moments like that knock the solar wind out of “Moon,” an only infrequently engaging space odyssey.  (R) 97 min.  HHIII S

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