It’s 109 years old and only 14 minutes long, but it may be the most important science-fiction film in history. Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is a rudimentary effort by today‘s standards; crude in its cutting, narrative and shooting style. It stands though, over a century on from its creation, as a film that opened the possibilities of science-fiction and expanded the cinematic form. It’s currently in the limelight thanks to Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo, in which Méliès’ movie plays a major role, but Scorsese is by no means the first to pay homage to this masterful piece of cinema. Everyone from the Smashing Pumpkins to The Simpsons have been inspired by the magical imagery and intoxicating atmosphere of the Frenchman’s Lunar voyage. So what is it about A Trip to the Moon that has helped it endure so strongly for so long?
Without wishing to state the obvious, first and foremost, the film is good. Not just good, in fact, exceptional. A stirring fantasy that creates an immersive new world from limited creative tools, A Trip to the Moon focuses on a group of French scientists as they set their sights on the stars. Building a rocket and shooting off into space (literally; the capsule is blasted out of a cannon), they crash land onto the surface of the Moon, meet a hostile alien race called the Selenites and eventually escape, returning to Earth as heroes. The film was inspired by the rash of sci-fi novels released during the latter half of the 19th Century (HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, from which the Selenites take their name, is an obvious touchstone), and it effortlessly captures those stories’ boundless sense of imagination, curiosity and wonder. Not everything makes it to the screen quite so successfully though.
Unlike the books that inspired it, A Trip to the Moon is a simplistic story. There are subtextual undertones (the film can be read as a satire on the conservative scientific community in France at the time), but really it‘s just a succession of scenes that progress a thin narrative. Most films were. When Méliès was working, planet Earth was a very different place indeed. The Wright Brothers were still a few months away from launching themselves into the skies and cinema was just six years on from the debut of the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, the self-explanatory narrative of which proved so shocking to audiences that they ducked for cover from the ‘onrushing’ locomotive. Any kind of flight, never mind flight outside the confines of the Earth, was a fantasy fraught with danger, and films were rudimentary creations capable only of capturing factual happenings. A fictional story about a flight to the moon was a huge risk then. How would an audience so naive react to space travel and little green men?
Méliès knew the answer lay at the heart of his film. A magician by trade, he was attracted to cinema not for its narrative qualities, but for its spectacle (years later, he would say he was “appealing to the spectator‘s eyes alone”). He wanted to take the magic of an illusion and apply it to something new, different and big. Cinema was that thing, and Méliès only cared for the finer points of film technique if they could aid the visuals and strengthen the illusion. So most of the things we consider vital parts of film craft today – complex staging, expressive lighting, elaborate camera angles - are mere footnotes in A Trip to the Moon. They would come as the art form (and Méliès himself) evolved, but here, we see events through a static camera, placed centrally in the action. The cuts are functional, the style simplistic. The trick comes from what is seen, not how it’s seen.
Awash with astonishing visual moments, A Trip to the Moon really is cinema’s first great special effects piece, even if the effects do look quaint by today’s standards. Take the famous launch sequence, in which the astronauts are loaded into their cannon, move in on the moon, and then finally crash into its surface. The cannon is clearly a set, made of cardboard, wood and paint, but it’s so bold, so big - becoming smaller and smaller as it recedes into the distance - and so palpably there, that its unreality hardly matters. In fact, it’s what gives the film its charm. Méliès’ knew this too, piling one fantastical, handmade sight upon the next. Once the explorers have landed on the lunar surface, they see stars with human heads at their centres, women gracefully resting in celestial bodies and underground caverns filled with overgrown mushrooms. Professor Brian Cox would have a heart attack, but audiences were thrilled. How could they not be? This is pure movie magic. The film ends with the expedition returning to Earth to a heroes’ welcome, but Méliès himself would have to wait for his ticker-tape parade. The films kept coming (1904’s The Impossible Voyage and 1907’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea being the standout sci-fi offerings) and he’d end his career with over 500 to his name, but he struggled to keep up with the times. As film became a more refined art, and complex storytelling techniques were explored further by other directors, Méliès found himself on the fringes of the medium and eventually went bankrupt in 1913 with the emerging American and French studios proving more successful. To make ends meet, he began making and selling toys at Montparnasse station and eventually died in Paris in 1938 at the age of 76.
Towards the end of his life though, Méliès had begun to win the critical kudos he deserved. In 1932, he was given a new home in Château d'Orly by the Cinema Society and was later awarded France’s top prize, the Legion d’honneur. Though many of his films are lost today - melted down for use in the boots of soldiers during World War One or sold into recycling - that critical kudos hasn’t diminished. Méliès is now widely accepted as one of the fathers of sci-fi and cinema, and as a marker of his importance a restored colour print of A Trip to the Moon was shown to critical acclaim at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It stands as a tribute to his craft and dedication. With colour film stock unavailable at the time, Méliès and his crew painstakingly coloured each and every one of the film’s frames. If the stills are anything to go by, the results are bright, bold and beautiful - a real fantastic voyage and a fitting legacy for one of cinema’s first and greatest masters.