You may notice the tag line at the top of this page reads ‘Reviewing 100 Years of Film’; well I’m going back even further here with Georges Melies fantastic Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). The most famous of Melies many hundreds of short films, A Trip to the Moon is loosely based on two popular turn of the century novels, From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells. At a meeting of astronomers, one man proposes a trip to the Moon. Despite some discord among the members, five people agree to travel with the man and launch from a giant gun inside a bullet shaped rocket. When they get to the Moon they witness incredible celestial sights from its surface before encountering aliens who ‘take them to their leader’.
Despite looking fairly primitive now one hundred and ten years after its release, A Trip to the Moon was, for its time, incredibly advanced both in story and execution and is considered as the first Science Fiction film ever to be produced. The film features some incredible animation which is mixed with physical props, effects and editing to create a surreal vision of the Moon over sixty-five years before man ever set foot upon its surface.
The first thing I noticed as a man who watches more early cinema than most is that it is completely without intertitles. Just as modern audiences are accustomed to spoken dialogue, audiences in the early part of the twentieth century would have used intertitles to gain a better understanding of what was going on. They are completely missing from A Trip to the Moon though. As a result I was slightly confused by the opening scene but to be honest a lot of the actions and thoughts are made brutally obvious by the extreme gesticulation of the actors. The film uses only wide angle shots though, as close-ups were not widely used at this point. Though the idea had been invented and was used to wonderful effect in James Williamson’s The Big Swallow the year before in which a man walks towards the camera and appears to swallow it, early film pioneers such as Melies, and the Lumiere brothers opted not to use them. As a result little or no expression can be seen on the actor’s faces.
Story wise the film is fairly loose and more a series of interconnecting scenes than an actual narrative. For its time it was daring and extremely imaginative though. It’s perhaps difficult to get into the mindset of someone in 1902 and imagine what it would have been like to see people go to the Moon when the aeroplane wasn’t to be invented for another year. Despite the ridiculousness of space travel the actual rocket itself isn’t too far removed from the actual crafts used to get to the moon in the 1960s and 70s. Technically the Apollo crafts were powered by giant rockets, larger versions of big cannons and it is exactly this which the pioneers use in A Trip to the Moon. The astronauts even get inside a giant bullet. Much of the plot though is full of surrealism and fancy and although fun to watch and full of imaginative ideas, for people used to well edited narrative cinema it can feel quite basic and unconnected.
The editing in general though is brilliant. To create some of the more spectacular effects Melies would shout “cut” or “hold” and have his actors stand perfectly still in situ while he moved props or characters. Then when he started rolling the film again it would look as though someone had appeared, disappeared, or turned into a puff of smoke etc. Once again this might feel fundamental to us but for its time it was both technically advanced and imaginative. The editing helped some of the special effects to look even better too. The effects look basic now but moving sets and the use of fades in the background to create the appearance of movement still look incredible. The film also mixes its animation with effects well. The animation proves much of the scenery and backdrop, not only of the Moon but also of the scenes set on Earth. All have an eerie, other worldly look to them and are surreal in nature, much like the film itself. The shot of the rocket landing on the Moon, or to be more precise, in the eye socket of the man on the Moon is still one of the most famous images in cinema and is ingrained in popular culture.
Melies’ film has a lasting legacy even over a century after its initial release. It was not only the forefather of every Science Fiction and Fantasy film that followed but helped to cement the Director’s reputation as one of the pioneers of his age. The film has also been referenced in popular culture in everything from pop music to cartoons to sitcoms and even to help form the basis of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The film is also recreated wonderfully by HBO in their Miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, a series and scene which I can’t recommend highly enough. Despite its age and rough around the edges look, A Trip to the Moon is a film which can still be enjoyed today which is testament to the creativity and imagination of its Director Georges Melies.