A Trip to the Moon

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(10/10) In a nutshell: This 1902 film about a trip to the moon and an encounter with aliens is in many senses the first of its kind, notable for its large budget, entertaining and fantastical story, state of the art special effects and lavish, moving sets. A true benchmark not only for sci-fi films, but for the medium of film as a whole. 

A Trip to the Moon (1902) Director: Georges Méliès. Starring: Georges Méliès, Bleuette Bernon. Producer: Georges Méliès. France. Tomatometer: 100%. IMDb score: 8.2. 

The legendary image of the rocket hitting the face in the moon (actually Georges Méliès' face).

The legendary image of the rocket hitting the face in the moon (actually Georges Méliès’ face).

In many ways French stage magician-turned-film maker George Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) marks the beginning of sci-fi as a film genre. It was the first film of a considerable length (14 minutes) dealing with sci-fi elements – it was in fact one of the longest fictional films to have been released at the time of its making in 1902. It was also a beautiful blend of all the special effects wizardry Méliès had developed during his 6 years of film making. It sports one of the most legendary images of science fiction film making to date – that of a moon rocket hitting the (human) face of the moon square in the eye.

On the other hand, elements of sci-fi had been around almost since the invention of the art of film making (see my post on Méliès and the beginning of sci-fi films) – in that sense this is not the first of its kind. Secondly, sci-fi afficionados may protest that this is not really science fiction, but space fantasy – these are the people who stubbornly refuse to include films like Star Wars in the science fiction framework. Well, whatever the original intentions for the genre term I think we could bow down to the popular opinion that films including space ships and aliens are nowadays labelled science fiction regardless of whether they actually include elements of plausible science or not. This is the stance I will take in this blog – to regard sci-fi in its broadest possible sense. I’m not saying this is the only way to view the matter, or indeed the right way – but it is the way I intend to stick to in this blog. Feel free to disagree.

Detail: The moon king and his people.

Detail: The moon king and his people.

The plot is fairly simple: A head scientist (Professor Barbenfouillis, played by Méliès himself) tells his colleagues about a planned flight to the moon using a rocket, after which we get a scene of the actual rocket being made. Barbenfouillis and five other explorers enter the rocket, which is pushed into a cannon by a host of (for the time) scantily clad girls, and people cheer as the rocket is launched, hitting the moon in the eye (the legendary image). The scientists get out of the rocket and fall asleep. Stars dance across the sky and people appear on the face of different celestial bodies, including Phoebe, goddess of the moon, who makes it snow, which awakens the scientists, who go exploring. After discovering giant mushrooms, growing before their very eyes, they are interrupted by an insectoid alien, who the scientists promptly kill by hitting it with an umbrella – it literally vanishes in a puff of smoke. More (very acrobatic) aliens appear and capture the scientists to present them before the king of the moon. Barbenfouillis manages to release himself from his bonds and proceeds to kill the king of the moon (again gone in a puff of smoke), and the scientists fight their way back to the rocket. Five enter and Barbenfouillis then grabs a towing line and tips the rocket over the edge of the moon, making it fall all the way to Earth, but not before a selenite hitches a ride in the back. The rocket falls into the ocean, floats up and is towed back to Paris, where a great parade is held in the honour of the scientists, and the selenite is showcased as a captured animal.

To put the story in perspective one should remember that this was a time when moon flights and outer space was widely discussed in the scientific world as well as the press. French author Jules Verne’s fantastical stories were extremely popular in France and the Francophone world (marred in the Anglophone world by bad translations and marketing solely as a children’s writer). British writer H.G. Wells had recently written books such as The War of the Worlds (1894) and The First Men in the Moon, released just a few months before the filming of A Trip to the Moon. The first part of the film follows the Verne-storyline from the 1865 book From the Earth to the Moon, with the moon rocket, the second with the insecoid selenites is closer to Wells. Some scholars have pointed out that Méliès also incorporated a lot of details from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le voyage dans la lune (itself an adaptation of Verne) and that the basic plot is completely derivative of the A Trip to the Moon attraction at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

Rather than present the moon voyage in any realistic manner, Méliès continued his tried and tested theatrical approach to film making, presenting the film almost as a theatrical play. He made most of his early films in his pioneering studio in Montreuil, where he built a stage with the exact same proportions as his theatre stage in Paris. Although he started out making more ”realistic” films like in the vein of the Edison Company in America and The Lumière Brothers, Méliès very quickly developed a unique style, presenting his films as though they were stage plays, with a static camera placed where the audience would be. He also instructed his actors to perform in an exaggerated and dramatic style, effectively as comical charicatures rather than actual people. In A Trip to the Moon, all this enhances the feeling of a fairy tale or fantasy, and invites the audience to marvel at the ever changing lavish scenery, the superbly done special effects and the pure entertainment value of the film. This does not mean that the movie is pure entertainment – it also presents a mockery of the scientific community and some of its bizarre ideas of space travel and the universe, as well as the puffed-up manners of the universities’ elites. The violence of the explorers and the tragic fate of the selenite brought back to Earth is also a poignant comment on colonialism, still very much in its prime in 1902.

Uncropped production still showing the sets.

Uncropped production still showing the sets.

One of the film’s most enduring qualities are the sets. Many of them were designed and partially painted by Méliès, who had studied art in college. Many of them were actually practical, moving setpieces and cost a huge sum of money to make. The budget for the film was over 10 000 francs (roughly about 25 000 euros or 33 000 dollars today, according to some sources) – a staggering amount of money for a film at that time. One should remember that films were not really considered an art form in those days, but rather cheap attractions – and actors often didn’t want to be credited with film works as they saw the medium as beneath them. Nonetheless, Méliès often used theatrical actors; he had many contacts in that world and paid decent wages. Most of the costs went into the sets, but Méliès also hired dancers from a ballet and acrobats from a circus (the latter played the selenites). In one of the roles (as Phoebe, goddess of the moon) we see Bleuette Bernon in an unusually small role. Bernon was, alongside fellow Méliès-actress Jeanne d’Alcy, one of the first character actors in international cinema, although they were mostly uncredited at the time. d’Alcy is notably absent as an actress from this film, whose main characters are all portrayed by men – an unusual move for Méliès, whose three biggest film to date had concerned female protagonists, Jeanne d’Arc, Cinderella and Bluebeard’s wife. d’Alcy did, however, work as Méliès assistant on most of his projects, and in this film she is credited as costume designer.

A lot of money also went into making the suits for he selenites, which Méliès also designed, through first making sculptures, then turning them into molds for the actual material, a mix of canvas and cardboard. In that sense, the process was surprisingly similar to modern prosthetic manufacturing. The filming itself took three months, almost unheard of at the time, when many films were filmed in a day.

The films is naturally also remembered for its elaborate special effects, in many ways a culmination of the art of camera trickery that Méliès had created and refined over the years. By 1902 he was the pioneer and master of the usage of stop trick photography, dissolves, multiple exposure and a pseudo-tracking shot, where Méliès made the face in the moon appear to move closer to the camera thanks to a clever trick of moving the actor with pulleys and ropes. Some critics have derided the film for being merely a showcase for Méliès’ special effects, but they don’t really know their history. In fact the effects play a much less significant role in A Trip to the Moon than in many of his other films, and are there to support the story. In many earlier works the story itself was more or less a comical framework for the effects. And in many ways the moving sets actually eclipse the camera tricks, tricks many of which had been around for some time and were widely used in the industry (seldom as well as by Méliès, though).

It is, of course, extremely hard to rate a film that is over 110 years old by any of today’s standards. The resources used on it is less than pocket money for any commercial film today, and the two-dimensional sets and surrealist settings makes it more of an art film than a conventional movie. Still its intent was not artsy, but rather to entertain, which it decidedly did. It was the blockbuster of its time, made Méliès the superstar of international film making and is his most widely known film. By all of the techical standards of 1902 it was the Star Wars, Titanic, Jurassic Park or Avatar of its day. It had a unique style, led to widespread illegal copying and by many means set the standard for film making in the early 20th century. The fact that the film’s legacy still lives on today is another testament to its qualities. Few films of the era keep me as entertained and baffled as this one – I often find it hard to keep concentrated over ten minutes by these types of silent films. Of course one can find faults with the film if one is so inclined, but when all is added up, I really can’t give this film any other mark than 10 out of 10.

A Trip to the moon (1902, France). Written, produced, designed, edited and directed by Georges Méliès. Starring: Georges Méliès, Bleuette Bernon, Henri Delannoy, Jules-Eugène Legris, Victor André. Cinematography: Lucien Tainguy, “Claudel”. Art direction: “Claudel”. Costume design: Jeanne d’Alcy. New music composed by AIR in 2011. 
Based (uncredited) on the books From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The first Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.

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