Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Classic Cinema: A Trip To The Moon (1902)

I thought for a good long while about what film I should choose for the first entry of this new classic cinema blog. I must have looked at dozens of movies from multiple decades before deciding. But in the end, there was only one clear choice: The iconic French film "Le Voyage dans la Lune," also known in the US as "A Trip to the Moon."

For those who are unfamiliar with Georges Méliès and his large body of work, I am about to open your eyes to something wonderful. Film really began around the mid-to-late 1800's, where multiple technologies were being developed and honed. Méliès began his film career by modifying an Animatograph (a projector), so it would work as a camera. He was no stranger to stage and theater, to which he loved dearly. He was also an enthusiast of creating magic and illusions for his audiences. This love would also serve to inspire all of the special effects he would later become famous for (such as time-lapse photography, substitution splicing, multiple exposures, and others).

"A Trip to the Moon" is arguably the first science fiction film ever made. Clocking in at around fifteen minutes, it was also Méliès' longest work to date, and cost him around 10,000 francs to make. He credited the inspiration of this film to Jules Verne novels, such as "From the Earth to the Moon" and "Around the Moon." Historians have also argued that they believe H.G. Wells' "The First Men in the Moon" to be another.

The plot of the movie is not going to sound like the most intricate story ever written, but that's far from the point here. Astronomers get together and devise a plan to get to the moon. The group gets in a capsule and fires off into space, crash landing into the moon's eye, and creating one of the most iconic moments in movie history. What moment am I talking about, you ask?

Yes, that moment.

If you take anything from reading this blog, let it be this standout and highly influential moment. Once again, Méliès' use of effects (namely the substitution splice, which allowed the capsule to immediately appear crashed into the moon's eye) did the talking, as this moment would soon never be forgotten. Do you remember the first time something truly stood out to you in a magical sort of way? Something that changed your perception of what a medium could actually be about, and opened your eyes to a beautiful world of imagination and discovery? Something that you took with you for the rest of your life, it impacted you so heavily and wonderfully? For thousands of people in the early 1900's, this was that moment.

Once reaching the moon and getting out of the capsule (noticeably without any kind of space suits), the astronomers decide to camp out, while watching the Earth rise and other constellations form around them. The big dipper even appears in the form of human faces on each star. The goddess of the moon (named Phoebe in Greek mythology) appears on a crescent moon, and wakes the astronomers up with a snowfall. They quickly find shelter in a cave (while encountering giant mushrooms along the way), and get attacked by creatures called Selenites, again named after a Greek moon goddess. One of the astronomers quickly hits and kills one of the Selenites instantly, showing that force is enough to take them down (as indicated by a "poof!" effect with each kill). The astronomers become outnumbered however, and are taken to a palace, where the king of these Selenites resides. Quite quickly, one of the astronomers gets the upper hand, and actually manages to grab the king, and slam him into the ground, causing another kill explosion.

In the chaos of this attack, the astronomers make their way to the capsule, fighting off any Selenite that may come their way. Five of the six astronomers make it into the capsule, while the sixth remains outside. The final astronomer uses a rope to actually tip the capsule over, in order to make it fall back to Earth. Now keep in mind that Méliès was not out to be scientifically accurate. In fact, if you hadn't already guessed, this film was a complete satire on scientific concepts, greatly exaggerated in order to create the adventure you see before you. Some believe this was done intentionally, to remove the limitations of "logical thinking" from the film making process.

Falling back to Earth (with a Selenite who happened to grab on to the capsule at the last second), the crew lands in the ocean and is picked up and brought ashore. The final scene consists of a parade being held for the astronomers to celebrate their return to Earth. The Selenite is held captive and the final shot is of a podium with the phrase "Labor omnia vincit" ("Work conquers all") written on it.

While obviously not a complex film by today's standards, the work put into the story and set pieces was quite exhaustive. Much of the scenery was mechanically operated and all of the backgrounds were hand-painted. People who have become bored or even disgusted by the constant use of computer-generated effects in today's movie market, may also find something to appreciate here. The effects in this movie were made using simple camera tricks and some seriously outside-the-box thinking, and yet I find them invoking more creativity than just about anything I've come across in recent years. As a fan of the original Star Wars Trilogy, I found myself getting more and more disappointed with each re-release that George Lucas would put out, tampering with material that many felt was perfect just the way it was, and replacing some of the more creative effects with excessive computer-generated usage.

It's not that I'm against the use of CG in today's movies (far from it in fact), but I feel that it has been abused to the point where almost all of the imagination factor that made classic films stand out so prominently, has become very few and far between in today's day and age. Movies such as this remind me of where we came from. They reinvigorate a sense of creativity and passion in a way that nothing else can.

You may have noticed some of Méliès' influence recently, in the form of the now famous book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" and the preceding movie, "Hugo." This actually pays a very sweet homage to the man that changed the face of film forever. Even Walt Disney could not help but give credit where credit was due.

In his lifetime, Georges Méliès made over 500 films. For one of those films to stand out so prominently from the rest, it shows us just how special the movie truly was. If you see any work of Méliès' in your lifetime, make it this one. See the sights that captivated so many back then, and you may even see something new within yourself.


  1. Wow. Beautifully written and very knowledgeable. Looking forward to future posts!

    1. Thank you! Looking forward to writing them. :)