Produced, edited and directed by Georges Méliès. Written by Georges Méliès and Gaston Méliès. Photographed by Michaut Lucien Tainguy. Starring Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Brunnet, Jeanne d’Alcy, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm, Georges Méliès.
In a sense, the most curious aspect of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon is that it speaks to the modern age more than one would expect. Has it aged? Of course, especially in its uneasy usage of new-fangled “editing” and primitive “effects.” Yet it is contemporary, even downright familiar in certain respects. Its primary purpose: to be straightforward and entertaining. No thought required. It’s less of a story and more a collection of sensational set pieces: the launch of a huge missile, the exploration of an eerie lunar terrain, and a visit to an alien fortress populated by spiteful monsters. Character development is downplayed. Its depth is thimble-sized. Any substance that can be gleaned from it is mostly unintentional. All it wants is to be a fun novelty, and exhibit an amazing adventure. It gets the job done, and does it in less than fifteen minutes. There’s a lesson in that, I think.
The film does require some perspective, though. In an era where computers are capable of doing so much heavy lifting in conveying the fantastic, one must constantly seek out reminders that A Trip to the Moon’s pervasive special effects were, at the time, cutting-edge. Though modern audiences may well snicker at the obviously painted backdrops, clunky transitions and stubbornly motionless camera set-ups, when the film first premiered, audiences were thrilled out of their minds. If you’re really looking, you can even see why: accepting the film on its own terms, it works a curious spell. Because A Trip to the Moon is silent, it enforces a dreamlike quality on itself that the stylized backdrops and effects add to, even during “normal” scenes set on Earth (notice the exaggerated perspectives of the science hall in the first scene). These choices can not quite be deemed realistic, but they create a seductive…well, alternate reality, I suppose.
Of course, running counter to reality is the name of the game in A Trip to the Moon, which ultimately takes such delight in imagining flights of fancy that it seems a churlish act to make notes. Notes such as: how could you actually get a capsule to the moon by shooting it out of a giant gun? Plus, the moon has no atmosphere, which would make living conditions for either friend or foe rather difficult. Also, jumping off a cliff while on the moon will most likely not send you plummeting down back to the surface of the Earth. In addition, I can do some research later, but I’m fairly certain scientists and thinkers of the time didn’t show up to work every day dressed in pointy caps and wizard gowns, as Méliès depicts. And so on.
But, cataloging those “mistakes,” or even arguing about whether or not they are mistakes (rather than conscious choices), is beside the point. Instead of taking it to task for what it doesn’t do, let’s remember what it did. A Trip to the Moon is a series of firsts: one of the first fiction films, first adventure film, first sci-fi film. Méliès’ tale owes much to Victorian-era adventure novels, as well as the sub-genre now labeled as “steampunk” (that is: adventure tales that exist in a somewhat alternate technological universe). It is also specifically indebted to two novels from the period: “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865) by Jules Verne and “The First Men in the Moon” (1901) by H.G. Welles, combining the mode of conveyance from the first with the alien civilization encountered in the second. Before you complain that these two books are uncredited as inspirations—therefore, rip-off!—please know that there are absolutely no credits in the film, to anyone, anywhere. Somewhere, agents are having panic attacks.
The film opens with a committee of scientists led by Prof. Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself), who proposes…you guessed it, a trip to the moon. They will cast a giant pistol out of iron, load a space capsule shaped like a bullet, climb inside, and launch themselves straight to the moon’s surface. Yup. In order to map out their journey, he helpfully draws a diagram of the Earth, the moon and the space capsule on the chalkboard (not to scale). When one of his peers, not without reason, suggests that he is mad to come up with such a goofy plan, the rest of the room shouts him down before hurling papers at him. Realistic? Um, no. But it’s fun. The unnamed dissenter is the sole instance, as it stands, of real individuality in the entire film: for the rest of the narrative, the scientists will more or less operate together as one mind during their exploits, since at this point the close-up is an innovation not quite discovered. Therefore, if you haven’t seen the film, just imagine that every frame is a long shot of six 40-something bearded white men scampering about, and you’re in the ballpark.
With everyone now committed to the Barbenfouillis’ folly, the group takes a trip to his outdoor factory, as carpenters, upholsterers, metallurgists and others work hard to put the finishing touches on the giant space capsule. Well…relatively giant. It’s about the size of six men, which is awfully convenient, because that’s exactly the number of people who will end up going. As they climb up to the roof of the building to watch the laborers cast the giant cannon, we get an extraordinary view of the foundry. Dozens of smokestacks, all working in concert, belch gas high into the air as the molten iron is poured; a landscape of industry and harsh metal stretches as far as the eye can see. All this, dedicated to the great goal of sending a man to the moon. It is uncanny at conveying the emotional heft of the enterprise: the optimism brought on by the industrial age, reflected by the exuberance of the men, is so powerful that one can’t help but feel a little stirred.
Later on. You’d think it’d be weeks or months, but as far as the film’s concerned, it is as if it’s that very afternoon. The six men pile into the tiny projectile, wearing suits and topcoats, carrying umbrellas, bringing no supplies or provisions. They neglect to even pack a lunch. Then comes a shot that is, really, really nice. A little window in the clouds has parted to provide a picaresque view of the moon, and so the giant cannon is aimed towards that window, its shaft extending towards infinity, as man explosively enters this new age of exploration. The image has more than a few Freudian implications, made more explicit by the puffy cloud cover in the sky, peeling away to provide a perfect view of the target. Is it just me? Maybe it is; I do apologize.
Next comes the famous moment. A man’s face slowly appears in the moon before getting a rude surprise in his eye (via a rather jerky jump-cut): it’s the space capsule, of course, sticking into the moon’s surface and causing him some mild irritation. Even when playing with brand-new toys, Méliès is able to kid himself, just a little: this “man in the moon” is never seen again, his presence just a for a quick gag. We then see the craft crash again to the surface, this time from a more grounded perspective. As soon as the men exit the pod, it sinks into the ground, eliciting no comment from the wily explorers; that’s more a conscious theatrical device than a huge nitpick. Tired from their journey, the men poke around the surface for a few moments before producing blankets and bedding down for a light snooze. Yes, a nap. On the moon. The men are certainly excited to be on the moon, but man, they’re beat. The image of six middle-aged gentlemen camping on the surface of the moon is worth the price of admission all by itself (though…you can see the film for free). Before long, the men are fast asleep, dreaming of mischievous gods and goddesses, and women.
Mainly women. The sexual politics here are interesting, because female characters occupy a curious position in A Trip to the Moon: not dismissed, but certainly not part of the expedition, either. Women are assistants that present the leads with large extended telescopes during the opening sequence. (Hmm.) Later, the same women push the large projectile into the space cannon, breaking character and then waving to the camera after doing so, as if they just can’t help themselves from taking this “movie” they’re in not very seriously. Later still, the same women (perhaps–it’s difficult to be sure without credits) appear in dreams as twinkling stars who shrewishly admonish the men for their audacity in partaking in such a voyage. Women come across in the film generally as well-meaning, but timid, preoccupied with more domestic issues. Of course, in 1902 female scientists were uncommon, but not unheard of (see Marie Curie). The film’s own presumption is that daring risks in science are clearly a gentleman’s pursuit, and sometimes you wonder if this group of men took a trip off-planet just to “escape from the girls” for a bit, like a glorified version of having a guys’ night at the bar.
Of course, the men do not find peace of mind, they find fearsome aliens. After the god Phoebus casts a snowstorm on the foolish mortals (yes, a snowstorm), they venture down into the canyons below. There, a strange mushroom forest awaits, and they are soon beset by bizarre creatures that scurry about like acrobats. These are the Selenites. The men make no attempt to reason or even communicate with these creatures, which is kind of presumptuous. They also do not seem genuinely frightened, just excited (this reaction has become typical by this point). They immediately swat at the aliens with their umbrellas, making them dissipate into puffs of smoke like video game targets. The Selenites are generally regarded by the explorers as sub-human, an implication that is made explicit when the group is captured and brought before the king. Barbenfoullis grabs the proud monarch and throws him to the ground before giving him a good thwack with the umbrella. Poof! Not a king to linger on in the Selenite history books, I think. The whole sequence is over with quickly, but it plays today like a strange, quick parody of French Imperialism: when in doubt, attack the indigenous and kill their king. Even in unenlightened times, it’s hard to imagine that regicide was an accepted diplomatic strategy. It just makes things inconvenient.
The murder of their king angers the Selenites, which is perhaps understandable. A merry chase ensues, as the scientists run back to their pod, which has conveniently rematerialized above a jagged cliff. They struggle to push the pod over the cliff and return to the Earth: here we see the ancient horror cliché of “the car won’t start” given its first cinematic usage. With the aliens gaining on them, one scientist hoists himself down below the pod using a tiny tether, and uses his weight to pull it over. A lone Selenite manages to climb aboard the back of the pod before it departs, and it falls down, down…into the Earth’s ocean. You would think that the heavy scientist is being set up for a heroic sacrifice, but he is not. Nor is the stowaway Selenite ever referred to again: did he turn to dust during re-entry? These set-ups don’t exactly have narrative payoffs. They simply raise the suspense, which is not an altogether unworthy goal. After one shot paying a visit to the ocean floor (again achieved with backdrops, creating an otherworldly effect), the scientists return home. Fin.
The film’s ending is indeed abrupt (a parade sequence as the scientists are celebrated for their achievement was shot, cut, and has now been restored to some prints), but for such a simple story, I think an extended denouement (or perhaps any) is unnecessary. Denouements are for morals, themes restated, lessons learned. None of that applies, and that’s fine. However, the fact that the story does not lend itself to such things is the exact reason why it must be counted as an important film, but not necessarily a great one: it’s not really about anything, except itself. It deploys a story to support interesting special effects, when the key to making something lasting, is of course to do it the other way around. Time marches on, storytelling has refined, effects have gotten better, and now the movie reveals itself as little more than a curiosity. That is not a hard criticism, because at least it tells its shallow story with brevity and some skill, which is something that many filmmakers would do well to remember. But still, it is shallow. Fun for the first time, but not exactly worth multiple visits. Of course, the sad irony is that these days, the public would be hard pressed not to say the same about the moon itself.
But at least we made reasonably sure that it is not full of evil Selenites.
NOTES: More information on Le Voyage Dans La Lune can be found at IMDB, and you may also want to check Wikipedia if you bring a grain of salt. Tim Dirks’ page about the film on Filmsite.org is also worth a look.
Youtube also has a few videos up that may be of interest. First is the entire short film, with an added musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Laurence Rosenthal. Enterprising Youtubers have come up with their own enhancements to the film, such as this one, which dubs in an original techno/synth-pop score. It works curiously well. Also, check out the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” music video from 1996, which takes inspiration from A Trip to the Moon.
For more information on why iron-based space travel never truly caught on, please visit http://www.nasa.gov.
NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1955 – Bad Day At Black Rock