Moon opens Friday in select theaters

With only a single live actor on the spaceship set for the entirety of the film, Moon is a laudable attempt at a return to the low-tech sci-fi films we used to have, before George Lucas came along. It’s also pretty dreadful in some similar ways as the era that brought us Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The story, by British filmmaker Duncan Jones, is a pastiche of the classics, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, with a few mystery-of-consciousness lifts from Blade Runner and The Matrix. Still, one has to appreciate the moxie of the film’s producers and designers in their ability to fabricate a set on the moon with a budget that wouldn’t cover the craft services of a Star Wars sequel. And, stealing good ideas isn’t necessarily bad: Many a movie has profited from judicious theft. However, Moon is not one of them.

The premise: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole human engineer stationed at a moon base operated by an Earth-based mining company. All day (or night) long, he operates a harvester that digs up Helium-3. He then packs the helium into canisters and blasts them back to the planet, where the fuel will create green energy in the form of nuclear fusion. All by his lonesome he does this, accompanied only by Gerty, a talking robot that acts as an all-purpose factotum and has a small computer screen that displays variations on a Walmart-style smiley face to convey its emotions. Kevin Spacey supplies the voice, bringing a HAL-like creepiness that enlivens the proceedings even as it turns out to be unwarranted.

The story turns into a space thriller when Sam discovers that he may be a clone. The story’s second half unfolds with the appearance of a second Sam and heads toward its not-thrilling climax as the two Samsone of whom is now dyingstruggle to understand the nefarious activities of their employer, Lunar Industries.

The first problem with the film is this: If such a resource as He-3 could be extracted from the moon profitably enough to solve the Earth’s energy problems, we would have a hell of a bigger lunar presence than this crappy movie- set mining operation manned only by Sam Rockwell.

The second problem is this: Why on earth (or on moon) would Lunar Industries waste any time with an elaborate and sinister scheme to clone humans when it would be so much cheaper to use robots for the lucrative mining helium-mining operation? Surely, even a steady stream of Kuwaiti laborers would be more cost-efficient than maintaining an entire supply cellar of clones (spoiler, sorry).

But in taking the movie on its own humble terms, it’s still impossible to abide such groaner lines as, “We’re not programming, we’re people.” And groaner characters: Sam has a sweet daughter back on Earth whom he misses terribly, named “Eve.”

There are problems, too, with the science in this science-fictional film. At one point, one version of Sam (No. 2) rescues the other (No. 1), who’d been trapped in his harvester, unconscious in his spacesuit. Sam No. 2 wipes the frost off the visor of No. 1’s space helmet. Thing is, there’s no water on the moon, so what’s making the frost? A cold night at Shepperton Studios, outside of London, where this film was made?

Similarly, there are scenes of Sam No. 2 keeping fit in the base’s gym with activities that are designed for Earth’s gravity: punching a speed bag, skipping rope and playing table tennisall at Earth speed. (And why is there a Ping Pong table in this one-man mining facility?) So egregious were the offenses against the physical realities of the moon that I expected the movie’s revelations to turn on this point, that the “moon” would be revealed as a hoax perpetrated on the Sams who are oblivious to the fact that they’re actually in a movie studio (just as the conspiracy theorists used to believe about the moon landings, back in the day).

To give you an idea of the film’s fatal banality: At a crucial moment, Sam No. 1 tries to log into some sort of online video log. From a computer interface that is strictly WarGames, we hear a female monotone: “Access denied. Access denied. Access denied.” The only way to defend such triteness is to argue that the clones in Moon are programmed with the computer literacy of characters in a 1983 sci-fi film. But movie audiences in 2009 are going to find the accoutrements laughably archaic.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really did walk on the moon 40 years ago this summer. But this film is the aesthetic equivalent of a 1950s suborbital launch, rather than speaking to the paramount engineering challenge of the 21st century, that of creating clean energy.