A Trip to the Moon (1902)

It is fitting to begin this cinematic journey with a wonderful masterpiece by Georges Méliès which traverses the limits of Earth and the technological reality of the time. Truly, the wonderful technology was the new device – the film camera – which captured the surreal events of this adventure, as well as the hearts and minds of audiences and filmmakers alike.

Running at a mere twelve minutes, Méliès crafts each second of his science fiction, the very first of it’s kind, with extraordinary imagination. Whether hurtling through space in a bullet shaped rocket, observing the Earth rising over the silvery mountains or exploring caverns overgrown with gargantuan mushrooms, this flight of pure fantasy floats effortlessly from the magic mind of the director.

It is relatively easy to misjudge such a film upon seemingly crude effects and the short run time. A Trip to the Moon was, however, many times longer than the average cinematic release of the day. The impressive collection of techniques; including matte shots, dissolves, superimpositions and abrupt editing, were aptly discovered by the magician and stage performer turned filmmaker and the first of their kind. Each technique has the air of theatricality – Selenites (moon monsters) explode in puffs of smoke, stars peer down on weary travellers and the experimental phenomenon of shooting stars vividly bring the screen to life. It may not be as awe inspiring as the gigantic blockbusters of today’s cinema with robots, aliens and explosions, but any such affects were giant leaps forward in filmmaking. Many other filmmakers of the time, the Lumière Brothers included, simply saw the film camera as a recording device to represent reality. Méliès saw it differently.

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A Trip to the Moon should be most applauded for experimentation with extended narrative story telling. The events are simple but visionary – esteemed scientists (though they initially appear more as a collection of Medieval Wizards) dare to explore the final frontier: The Moon. So begins a unique expedition. Each plot point is clearly delineated which creates defined scenes. Preparation, blasting off, landing and returning home as heroes, the story is clearly and concisely delivered. This is the virtue of editing devices so ingrained into modern audiences’ viewing vocabulary it is easily dismissed. Méliès filmography eventually influenced D. W. Griffith a decade later to perfect and create his epic – The Birth of a Nation.

With over five hundred shorts to Méliès name, this is undoubtedly his magnum opus. A Trip to the Moon engagingly exudes energetic imagination, showmanship and a mischievous sense of humour with flamboyant effects. A Trip to the Moon rocketed to the stars and elevated the infant medium beyond gimmick.

Méliès’ influence echoes into the cinema of tomorrow. One need only delight in the construction of the elaborate sets and dark sense of humour to be reminded of Terry Gilliam. Some might notice the signing moon in Moulin Rouge. Perhaps the tale of scientists discovering more than they expected on an alien world lurked in Ridley Scott’s mind.

Ultimately, this genesis of science fiction has a classic scene in the mind of every filmgoer whether they realise it or not: A rocket barreling through an abyss splats into the eye of a disgruntled moon. This is the thing which dreams are made of.

Classic Moment: 

The scientists successfully reached the moon but discovered something unanticipated – Selenites. In a frantic fight, the scientists reach their rocket, but how on Earth will they return home? Professor Barbenfouillis has the solution. They simply fall off the Moon to Earth. Magical moments which treat logic with such abandon are the unique pleasurable attributes of cinema. With an ever increasing importance on verisimilitude, falling back to Earth invigorates viewers in a manner akin to waking from a beautiful reverie. Such a moment in the fantastical context is so elegantly simple and full of childlike wonder it is impossible to feel anything other than charmed.

Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FrdVdKlxUk

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