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The first decade of the 20th century marked the beginning of science fiction as a film genre with French illusionist turned film maker Georges Méliès’ pioneering special effects film A Trip to the Moon in 1902. Méliès was at this time the dominating name in the world of film when it came to fictional movies, and one of the few to have produced several films with a duration of over 5 minutes. With the success of his fairy tale Cinderella (1899) and the medieval horror story Bluebeard he had bursted on to the American market much to the chagrin in US film mogul Thomas Edison. A Trip to the Moon was over 10 minutes in length, and was filmed entirely in his studio, where he built multiple elaborate sets in a theatrical style, including a gigantic moveable bullet shaped space rocket. The humoristic film with a large cast was riddled with state of the art special effects, and featured an alien race on the moon getting harassed and killed by the pompous European invaders. The film was made on a huge budget of 11 000 francs, which by all accounts would have made it the most expensive film to that date. The film also contains the legendary shot of the moon with a human face getting hit by the rocket in the eye. The film made Méliès an international star, and remains his most well known movie.
Mélies followed the success with The Impossible Voyage (1904) and 20 000 Leagues under the Sea (1907), which were both massive hits, and the latter is considered by many to be his best special effects film. The only other notable entry into the genre, with the exception of a few very short films, was the British special effects pioneer Walter R. Booth’s Airship Destroyer, loosely built upon the concept set up in Jules Verne’s book Rubar the Conqueror. Made in 1909 in a much more realistic style than Méliès’, it follows an aerial attack with blimps on London, and an inventor of a propeller-driven torpedo. The film is notable for its use of models, cutouts and its numerous explosions.
As Méliès was perhaps the most noted film maker at the time, science fiction films pushed the envelope of film making in the first decade of the 20th century, even though the genre itself was not a very popular one with other producers. Thematically the films tended to draw inspiration mainly from the books of Jules Verne, most of them written several decades earlier, although the influence of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901) is evident in at least A Trip to the Moon. Méliès also made comments on issues like colonialism and the scientific community in his films. It should be pointed out, though, that by 1909 H.G. Wells had already published many of his groundbreaking sci-fi books, but there is no trace of their influence in the films of the decade.