Le Voyage Dans la Lune or A Trip To The Moon to you and I philistines is a French film from 1902. Taught in film studies classes all over the world it is one of the first narrative films ever made. Directed by George Melies, who made over 520 other film besides this, he also starred in it. The lavish production values, innovative special effects and storytelling were previously unseen. In fact the moment the rocket ship lands in the moon’s eye is one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema. I’ve even been considering getting a tattoo of it!
Not only did this film lay the groundwork for cinema as we now know it, it’s also cited as one of the earliest examples of sci-fi! In addition, it’s one of the earliest ‘based on’ films, as it was inspired by Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870)
The whole thing took 3 month’s to film and included actors from the Parisian theatrical and gymnastic world. Indeed the staging is extremely theatrical and the camera placement is intended to invoke a sense of theatrical audience seating. It was all hands on deck as well, the cast and crew had multiple jobs including print development and scenery construction. There has recently been a hand coloured print done but I’ve yet to see it myself.
Plot-wise (Spoiler-alert but as it’s only a few minutes long anyway this shouldn’t be too bad). Professor Barbenfouillis, played by Georges Melies, meets with members of the Astronomic Club who all wear very big and very silly hats. He proposes a voyage to the moon. There is much uproar and much discussion, of which we understand not a word (obviously). Several members of the group appear to agree to the plan and they all set about building a rocket. As they observe it being built they climb inside to test that it is suitable for the job. All the while carrying umbrellas. Remember that, it’ll be important. The 5 brave travellers finally board the rocket and are fired from a cannon into space. The Man in the Moon gets an eyeful as the rocket lands, sticks his tongue out, and looks increasingly like Eddie Izzard as he does so. As the explorers watch the Earth rise they decided that’s enough excitement for one day and take a long nap alongside each other. Upon awakening, the travellers encounter a series of fanciful events including umbrellas sprouting into mushrooms and aliens which they defeat by thrashing them into smoke with their umbrellas. I say defeat, they’re soon captured and taken to the alien’s leader. But the threat is short-lived as he too soon becomes a puff of smoke. The travellers head back to Earth with a captured alien. On arrival they are given a hero’s welcome, awarded medals and a parade is thrown.
So then what can I say about this? Jesus, it was the film that started it all so it’s hard to give it anything other than full marks. I find it particularly fascinating that the first narrative film was so surreal and so theatrical. Not a straightforward dull ‘man gets out of bed and reads a paper to his wife’ story. No, we are dealing with a trip to the moon! Aliens defeated with umbrellas. Men clambering aboard a rocket ship with no space suits and no oxygen tanks. But top hats, of course, top hats. It’s all so bloody weird but you can’t help get strung along with it. It’s very showy and could easily transition directly to stage, with the camera always occupying that static audience position.
Melies created something quite brilliant here. He blazed a trail for filmmakers, storytellers and artists by showing them how you follow through on a vision. What must people have thought when he said he would get all these stagey effects, send people to the moon, have people dressed as Saturn and Venus and then parade through the streets with a captured alien? People would have said “who wants to watch that nonsense”. But that’s exactly the point, people do want to watch it. It challenged preconceived ideas and said “fuck it – let’s create some magic”.
And just like that, cinema as we know it was born.
Directed by: Georges Méliès
Cast: Georges Méliès, Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Brunnet