A Trip to the Moon

15 05 2010

Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is undoubtedly the progenitor of so much cinematic science fiction that it’s impossible to overstate its influence: from the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials to Star Wars and beyond, the ripples can be felt even today with James Cameron’s Avatar. But more importantly, A Trip to the Moon is also arguably the first film in the modern sense, employing narrative, epic scope and dazzling special effects in a manner that is still with us today.

Made in 1902, this classic piece of early cinema is important for so many reasons, not the least of which is that, even today, it stands as a fine piece of entertainment in its own right, beyond any historical curiosity. The imagery is rich and startling: besides the famous image of the rocket lodged in the eye of the moon, the landscape of the moon itself is wonderfully realised with spires, craters and giant mushrooms, while faces appear in stars and moon inhabitants disappear in puffs of smoke. The whimsy alone carries the audience into a magical world of wonder and awe.

The story concerns a group of astronomers who build a rocket and voyage to the moon, just as the title implies. Soon they are captured by the natives and taken to see the commander, before escaping and returning to Earth. It’s not that elaborate a plot, but at least there is a plot, which is significant in itself. It’s in the details, however, where the real beauty lies, such as when an umbrella transforms into a mushroom before our eyes.

If it all seems laughably inaccurate and quaint for a trip to the moon, that’s the point. Even in 1902, nobody believed there was literally a man in the moon; Méliès was a stage magician interested in the use of film to create illusions and spectacle. To make the impossible (by any rational standard) seemingly materialise in front of the spectator was the objective, and the more obviously impossible the event, the more confounding (and thus impressive) the illusion.

A Trip to the Moon may not be science fiction in the strictest sense, but it’s the earliest special effects-driven film with a real narrative, making it one of the most significant films in cinema history. It’s also a lot of fun and well recommended.

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