Aspiring filmmakers looking to see how to make the most from a limited budget would do well to take a good long look at Duncan Jones's Moon, a $5 million indie that's the next thing to a one-man show, shot in a handful of sparsely decorated interiors. From these paltry ingredients, Jones (the son of David Bowie, and with a film like this to kick off his directorial career, that fact will not soon remain the most interesting thing about him) has fashioned an exquisite gem of a science-fiction picture, one of the best works in that genre in many years.

The film (written by Nathan Parker, from Jones's story) takes place, and this is going to surprise you, on Earth's moon, where a Japanese-American multinational company has set up shop mining rocks for a (real-life) substance known as helium-3, an isotope relatively plentiful on the lunar surface with properties that have effectively ended Earth's energy crisis, which in the time posited by the movie (I'm guessing about 40 years into the future, but it's not indicated whatever) had become far more damaging than it is now. There a lonely man named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) toils in isolation but for his friendly aide computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a scant two weeks from the end of his three-year contract to oversee the automated mining equipment and prepare He-3 for shipment back home.

Let us start with Moon's value as hard sci-fi, for that is something which is far too rare in modern fiction. It is pleasing to me how much of its science the movie leaves to implication and the imagination: we are not told at any moment what Earth is like now, in terms of overpopulation or global climate change or food shortage or anything. All we know is that at some point, world energy reserves reached a dangerously critical low, and that He-3 permits highly efficient nuclear fusion. Everything that isn't specifically germane to the plot at hand is left aside, and what we know of this movie's universe is limited to what we can deduce from brief snatches of Sam's conversations with GERTY or the model of his hometown that he's been carving for months.

What we do see, in great detail, is the lunar base, and the operation of the giant mining cars that comb the lunar surface collecting fuel. And it's a magnificent piece of design all around. This is above all other things a completely functional vision of future tech, with spaces defined by the work they do rather than the amount of sleek prettiness they allow the filmmakers to parade onscreen. Everything in Moon is battered and dirty after what is plainly many years of use and abuse, and hardly anything has that "sci-fi sheen" that most movies like to use to coat any futuristic space. The film's scuffed-up look could hardly be improved; it calls to mind no less a masterpiece of production design than Alien, which showcased a similarly utilitarian vision of the future; not many films in the intervening 30 years have been so brave as to go for that goal, and most of those that do are not at all this successful.

The film's dully realistic appearance is also brought out by its visual effects, which are fantastic, not because the film uses all sorts of high-end computer trickery (though there is some absolutely flawless animation used to create a very specific effect involving one actor appearing in two places on camera), but because it actually uses miniature models, the way that they used to do it back in the day, and it's as powerful a reminder as you could possibly want how much more wonderful practical effects look than CGI. And my apologies to those readers who prefer CGI; I am deeply sorry that you are wrong. The lunar surface in Moon and the machines operating thereupon have a touchable reality and weight to them that I'd take a hundred times for every shiny, smooth vessel in any of your Star Wars prequels or Star Trek reboots. This is real fucking filmmaking right here, the kind involving lights and physical objects instead of wire frames, and it looks absolutely gorgeous, like an old lover who still has a regal beauty that all the hot flings in the intervening years don't have a patch on.

Freely blending elements of not only Alien, but other genre masterworks like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, the story and thematic concerns of Moon are things that, upon great deliberation, I have decided not to share in great detail. It's a bit difficult to decide where exactly the spoilers begin in this particular case, but here's what I'm comfortable giving away après the movie's trailer: Sam is going a little bit crazy out in the middle of a big black nothingness, and he's seeing flashes of a black-haired teenage girl around the base. One of these hallucinations causes him to crash his lunar rover, and when he wakes up in the infirmary under GERTY's care, he doesn't quite understand how he got to be where he is, and he understands still less why there's another man on the moon who looks just like him and shares the name "Sam Bell".

This kicks in a series of musings on personal identity and the dividing line between human and machine that have all, it is true, been made before, but are made here with such conviction and skill that it would be the worst kind of pettiness to let it be a concern. Rockwell plays the two Sams with utmost precision, making it clear that however close they are in any number of ways, there's something important that makes them distinct beings, psychologically speaking. And as the third member in this peculiar triangle, GERTY is a fantastic achievement, at times as threatening as 2001's iconic HAL-9000, though played in entirely different ways. Thanks to Spacey's barely-inflected sardonic tone, and a readout displaying GERTY's emotions as a series of uncomfortably expressive drawings of yellow smiley faces, the robot has an unmistakable personality, but it is strongly indicated, a lack of sentience - but that is a matter left for the viewer to uncover.

Some reviewers have called the film "boring", and suggested that it needs more (or any) action scenes; this is insane. It's like suggesting that Mean Streets could have been quite a decent picture if you put more monkeys in it, or that the only thing standing between Meet Me in St. Louis and timelessness is a protracted fist fight scene. Moon is not the kind of film that has action scenes in it, because it is a thriller of the mind, not of physical danger. These are degraded times, and we've forgotten that science fiction can be pitched squarely at the patient, intelligent adults in the audience who want to have a good think. Now, in a perfect world, this would be the big space epic of the summer, not a itsy bitsy indie getting an invisible release city by city, but thoughtful movies don't last long in American theaters, and the only thing to do is thank Duncan Jones for the gift of this rare beast, doomed to die in obscurity for the crime being by a fair margin the most reflective and philosophical movie to come out this month.