Original releasee: September 1st 1902
Running time: 14 minutes (at 16 frame/s)
Writer, producer and director: Georges Méliès
Cast: Georges Méliès, Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Jeanne d’Alcy, Henri Delannoy
Before the Starship Enterprise was using its warp drive to glide across the universe, space travel was a simple matter of cannon-balling scientists towards the moon. Before blasters, bowcasters and lightsabers waged war in a galaxy far far away, heroes closer to home would yield the mighty umbrella to mercilessly cut down intergalactic foe. Before aliens were introduced to us as acid blooded phallic symbols, the humble space monster was an acrobatic guy in a face mask; and before Science Fiction emerged as a cinematic genre, French filmmaker, illusionist and toymaker Georges Méliès invited a 1902 audience on A Trip to The Moon.
The narrative is simple, the editing primitive, effects are unrealistic and by now all of you film historians should be catching onto the irony. The fact is that Le Voyage Dans La Lune predates just about all we have come to recognise as cinema today. At first, this statement may seem like a lazy generalisation, one that is often applied to any classical film devoid of recoded sound or technicolour, but Le Voyage earns its introduction as a revolutionary feat by appearing at a time when narrative, editing and special effects were yet to form the basis of cinematic language.
With a plot appropriated from the literary works of such fantasy fiction writers as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Le Voyage Dans La Lune is widely recognised as the true beginning of Science Fiction cinema. While many directors have been known to develop the genre by isolating its other themes, Méliès’ early use of a sophisticated narrative clearly identifies the element of space travel which has gone to become an abiding focus of the Sci-Fi genre.
Furthermore, as a result of its strong fantastical content, Le Voyage is responsible for establishing a distinction between cinematic fiction and non-fiction at a time when a majority of filmmakers were focused on the actions of daily life. Thus, Le Voyage and its complex story paved the way for cinema, seen no longer as a vaudeville gimmick, but as a form of pure entertainment.
In order to understand just how advanced Le Voyage was for its time, we look first towards the plot to identify its relevance for the many Science Fiction films in the past 100 years. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The story begins with a meeting of the Scientific Congress of the Astronomic Club as President Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès himself) is appealing to his colleagues to accompany him on a trip to the moon. Once the idea has been passed, Barbenfouillis along with a specialised team oversees the construction of a great space gun which, upon completion, is loaded with a capsule containing the scientists and ceremoniously shot from the Parisian rooftops – right into the eye of the moon.
Upon landing, the scientists disembark from their vessel and examine the strange terrain before succumbing to fatigue brought on by the long journey. During their sleep, the crew are awoken by a snowstorm which forces them to seek shelter under the moon’s surface. While observing the unearthly wonders of the underground cave, they are confronted by an alien species, the Selenites, who capture the scientists and present them to the alien king.
The men soon discover that upon being struck the creatures explode into dust and so begins their daring escape as the explorers run back to their capsule with large numbers of Selenites in pursuit. Once the men are safe inside, Barbenfouillis bravely dislodges the vessel just in time; it falls from the moon back down to earth, landing in the ocean. After spending some time in the deep sea the capsule floats to the surface where it is rescued by a ship and returned to Paris to be met with celebration.
An initial call to action, re-occurring characters, the journey, the climax and a neat resolution are just some of complex narrative elements that take place over the films multiple scenes. The approximate 14 minute running time is often regarded as an achievement in itself and a further example of Méliès’ revolutionary approach to filmmaking, considering that the length of films was closer to two minutes during this period of early cinema.
Besides setting a foundation for complex narrative structure, extended running time and genre defining content, Méliès has also been credited with a number of special effect and editing practises that would be so widely used later on by pioneers such as Edwin S Porter. As the master manufacturer of ‘trick photography’, Méliès’s bold experiments saw the use of such cinematic techniques as superimposition, dissolves and even using a method of hand applied tinting to create one of the earliest colour effects. With his background in theatre, Méliès was also known for creating a glass studio that allowed him to carefully construct the mise-en-scène, using elaborate scenic backdrops complete with moving parts, all of which can be recognised in Le Voyage Dans La Lune as distant chimneys billowing smoke or stars shooting across the screen.
Méliès made a total of 510 films throughout his lifetime (40 precent of which survive), and while he went on to equal the quality of Le Voyage in several later productions, he was unable to produce a work that would have had such a significant impact on the audience. The content of his films may have reflected worlds of surreal fantasy but eventually Georges Méliès succumbed to harsh realities, suffering a slow decline under mounting debt with his small firm unable to compete with larger companies to meet increasing demands. Méliès stopped making films in 1912 and would die many years later in 1938 after decades of working in his wife’s candy and toy shop.
Despite such an unrewarding fate for a man whose imagination had delivered so much, Méliès’s legacy lives on with every close encounter of the third kind, every space station orbiting Solaris and every ominous computer taking control of a ship, reminding us that Science Fiction Cinema began as A Trip to The Moon.
Tyson Yates has spent most of his life living in Australia which is where he received both a healthy tan and a degree in Communications and Media from Griffith University, Brisbane. Upon graduating Tyson relocated to Edinburgh where he now spends most of his free time trying to keep warm which is a feat that fortunately does not get in the way of watching films.
There are however two things that Tyson loves more than film. One is reading short biographies about himself that are written in the third person and published online. The other is publicly shaming a Hollywood Blockbuster in the company of people who want nothing more than to enjoy it for the mind numbing entertainment that it is. Sound pretentious? Well so is having a thing for reading short biographies about himself that are written in the third person and published online.