A Trip to the Moon

(10/10) This 1902 film about a trip to the moon and an encounter with aliens is in many senses the first of its kind, notable for its large budget, entertaining and fantastical story, state of the art special effects and lavish, moving sets. A true benchmark not only for sci-fi films, but for the medium of film as a whole. 

A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune). 1902, France. Director: Georges Méliès. Starring: Georges Méliès, Bleuette Bernon, Victor André, Jehanne d’Alcy. Producer: Georges Méliès. Tomatometer: 100%. IMDb score: 8.2. Metacritic: N/A.

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Georges Méliès.

In many ways French stage magician-turned-film maker George Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) marks the beginning of sci-fi as a film genre. It was the first film of a considerable length (14 minutes) dealing with sci-fi elements – it was in fact one of the longest fictional films to have been released at the time of its making in 1902. It was also a beautiful blend of all the special effects wizardry Méliès had developed during his 6 years of film making. It sports one of the most legendary images of science fiction film making to date – that of a moon rocket hitting the (human) face of the moon square in the eye.

On the other hand, elements of sci-fi had been around almost since the invention of the art of film making – in that sense this is not the first of its kind. Méliès had been working his way up to the moon with several films, including A Nightmare (1896), Gugusse and the Automaton (1897, review), and The Astronomer’s Dream (1998, review). Secondly, sci-fi aficionados may protest that this is not really science fiction, but space fantasy – these are the people who stubbornly refuse to include films like Star Wars in the science fiction framework. Well, whatever the original intentions for the genre term I think we could bow down to the popular opinion that films including space ships and aliens are nowadays labelled science fiction regardless of whether they actually include elements of plausible science or not. This is the stance I will take in this blog – to regard sci-fi in its broadest possible sense. I’m not saying this is the only way to view the matter, or indeed the right way – but it is the way I intend to stick to in this blog. Feel free to disagree.

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The famous shot from A Trip to the Moon of the moon rocket hitting the moon in the eye.

The plot is fairly simple: A head scientist (Professor Barbenfouillis, played by Méliès himself) tells his colleagues about a planned flight to the moon using a rocket, after which we get a scene of the actual rocket being made. Barbenfouillis and five other explorers enter the rocket, which is pushed into a cannon by a host of (for the time) scantily clad girls, and people cheer as the rocket is launched, hitting the moon in the eye (the legendary image). The scientists get out of the rocket and fall asleep. Stars dance across the sky and people appear on the face of different celestial bodies, including Phoebe, goddess of the moon, who makes it snow, which awakens the scientists, who go exploring. After discovering giant mushrooms, growing before their very eyes, they are interrupted by an insectoid alien, who the scientists promptly kill by hitting it with an umbrella – it literally vanishes in a puff of smoke. More (very acrobatic) aliens appear and capture the scientists to present them before the king of the moon. Barbenfouillis manages to release himself from his bonds and proceeds to kill the king of the moon (again gone in a puff of smoke), and the scientists fight their way back to the rocket. Five enter and Barbenfouillis then grabs a towing line and tips the rocket over the edge of the moon, making it fall all the way to Earth, but not before a selenite hitches a ride in the back. The rocket falls into the ocean, floats up and is towed back to Paris, where a great parade is held in the honour of the scientists, and the selenite is showcased as a captured animal.

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A committee of girls sends the rocket on its way.

To put the story in perspective one should remember that this was a time when moon flights and outer space was widely discussed in the scientific world as well as the press. French author Jules Verne’s fantastical stories were extremely popular in France and the Francophone world (marred in the Anglophone world by bad translations and marketing solely as a children’s writer). British writer H.G. Wells had recently written books such as The War of the Worlds (1894) and The First Men in the Moon, released just a few months before the filming of A Trip to the Moon. The first part of the film follows the Verne-storyline from the 1865 book From the Earth to the Moon, with the moon rocket, the second with the insectoid selenites is closer to Wells. Some scholars have pointed out that Méliès also incorporated a lot of details from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le voyage dans la lune (itself an adaptation of Verne) and that the basic plot is completely derivative of the A Trip to the Moon attraction at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

Rather than present the moon voyage in any realistic manner, Méliès continued his tried and tested theatrical approach to film making, presenting the film almost as a theatrical play. He made most of his early films in his pioneering studio in Montreuil, where he built a stage with the exact same proportions as his theatre stage in Paris.

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From Méliès first trick film The Vanishing Lady (1896); Jehanne d’Alcy and Georges Méliès.

Méliès had been enthralled by The Lumière brothers’ screening of films in Paris in December 1895, and immediately tried to get his hands on a camera and a projector, and started hosting film screenings in his Theatre Robert-Houdin. At first almost any moving pictures were enough to wow an audience, and Méliès also began by filming realistic clips – his first film was of his friends and family playing a game of cards, as well as trains, ships, streets, etc. However, the first excitement soon died out and audiences needed more than simple everyday scenes to visit the screenings, so Méliès started creating reproductions of events in the news, The Greco-Turkish War and the Spanish-American War were topics that Méliès portrayed in dramatic presentations using sets and special effects like stage explosives, smoke and fire. But even that only held audiences for so long, and by the end of the 19th century the almost new-born international film industry already found itself in a slump. Some, like the Lumière brothers, saw film as simply a fad, and left the industry in 1905. Others tried to find new ways to appeal to audiences.

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A frame from The Astromer’s Dream, showing how Méiiès was fascinated with the moon from the early stages of his film career.

In the early days of cinema films were by default one reel long, or around a minute or less. Exhibitors bought or produced short films, and it was up to the projectionist to cut together these films into a combination, often about half an hour long, that would appeal to audiences. In a sense, the projectionist was the editor, sometimes almost director. But soon filmmakers discovered that by taking control of the editing process, they could splice together multiple film reels and tell a longer and more engaging story. At the same time filmmakers were discovering that fictional films with a dramatic arc were increasingly popular with film goers. Méliès’ own film The Astronomer’s Dream was nearly three minutes long and told a fairly elaborate story with many different things happening, and many other filmmakers followed suit. Alice Guy Blaché at Gaumont was one of the unsung pioneers of the story film, as was Edwin S. Porter at Edison (although he’s a bit more sung).

British director-producer Robert W. Paul was one of the first directors to use two different shots in his 1898 film Come Along, Do, but Méliès took this to a whole new level in his 1899 film Cinderella, the second Cinderella adaptation (the first was done by another Brit, G. A. Smith, who corresponded frequently with Méliès). Méliès had recently built France’s first film studio at Montreuil outside Paris, a giant glass house with accompanying workshop, wardrobe and dressing rooms, where he could start manufacturing sets and props on a scale that wasn’t possible at his theatre (which was still also used for stage productions). The studio also allowed for longer production periods, as sets and machinery didn’t have to be taken down for stage shows and rehearsals. This allowed him to make six distinctive sets for Cinderella, and make it six minutes long, which was almost unheard of it 1899. The film had dozens of extras, grand set-pieces and was filled with magic and tricks, and became a success all over the world, ushering in a new era of filmmaking.

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Méliès’ own concept art of the selenites.

Méliès followed up with the first ever screen adaptation of Joan of Arc (1900) and a retelling of the French folk-tale of Bluebeard (1901), a film that would not only have been amusing to audiences, but probably one of the first movies to actually frighten them. Then in 1902 came the one he would be remembered for, at 14 minutes long it was a massive undertaking, where Méliès and his team had to create sets for the moon, the rocket, costumes for the moon aliens, and so forth. A Trip to the Moon had 12 distinct scenes, choreographed dance numbers, acrobatics, special effects and large, moving sets controlled by stage-hands. It dropped like a bomb in cinemas, and was described by Edwin S. Porter as the film that saved the movie industry. Now audiences wanted more.

Meliès directed his films in a uniquely theatrical style, completely studio-bound with painted, two-dimensional sets. He also instructed his actors to perform in an exaggerated and dramatic style, effectively as comical charicatures rather than actual people. In A Trip to the Moon, all this enhances the feeling of a fairy-tale or fantasy, and invites the audience to marvel at the ever changing lavish scenery, the superbly done special effects and the pure entertainment value of the film. It was not meant to look like reality, instead Méliès wanted his audience to step into a fairy-tale book. This does not mean that the movie is pure entertainment – it also presents a mockery of the scientific community and some of its bizarre ideas of space travel and the universe, as well as the puffed-up manners of the universities’ elites. The violence of the explorers and the tragic fate of the selenite brought back to Earth is also a poignant comment on colonialism, still very much in its prime in 1902.

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Building the rocket: a frame from a digitally restored colourised print.

One of the film’s most enduring qualities are the sets. Many of them were designed and partially painted by Méliès, who had studied art in college. Some of them were actually practical, moving setpieces and cost a huge sum of money to make. The budget for the film was over 10 000 francs (roughly about 25 000 euros or 33 000 dollars today, according to some sources) – a staggering amount of money for a film at that time. Méliès often used theatrical actors. While films were considered beneath the dignity of real stage stars, Méliès was well connected with the theatre community, he was respected and well liked, and paid decent wages for an actor in between stage productions, or indeed out of work.

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Jehanne d’Alcy.

Most of the costs went into the sets, but Méliès also hired dancers from a ballet and acrobats from a circus (the latter played the selenites). In one of the roles (as Phoebe, goddess of the moon) we see Bleuette Bernon in an unusually small role. Bernon was, alongside fellow Méliès-actress Jehanne d’Alcy, one of the first character actors in international cinema, although they were mostly uncredited at the time. d’Alcy is notably absent in this movie, whose main characters are all portrayed by men – an unusual move for Méliès, whose three biggest film to date had concerned female protagonists. Jehanne d’Alcy was Méliès’ beautiful assistant at his magic show, actress at his theatre and his personal muse and mistress. She was probably the first professional film actor in the world, as she quit stage acting to be in Méliès’ films, as well as working as an all-round assistant for him. However, by 1902 she had passed 40 and didn’t

A lot of money also went into making the suits for he selenites, which Méliès also designed, through first making sculptures, then turning them into molds for the actual material, a mix of canvas and cardboard. In that sense, the process was surprisingly similar to modern prosthetic manufacturing. The filming itself took three months, almost unheard of at the time, when many films were filmed in a day.

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Here’s a look at the aliens, dressed in insect-like headgear and armour, perhaps borrowing from H.G. Wells’ novel First Men in the Moon.

The film is naturally also remembered for its elaborate special effects, in many ways a culmination of the art of camera trickery that Méliès had created and refined over the years. By 1902 he was the pioneer and master of the usage of stop trick photography, dissolves, multiple exposure and a pseudo-zoom shot, where Méliès made the face in the moon appear to move closer to the camera thanks to a clever trick of moving the actor with pulleys and ropes. Some critics have derided the film for being merely a showcase for Méliès’ special effects, but they don’t really know their history. In fact the effects play a much less significant role in A Trip to the Moon than in many of his other films, and are there to support the story. In many earlier works the story itself was more or less a comical framework for the effects. And in many ways the moving sets actually eclipse the camera tricks, tricks many of which had been around for some time and were widely used in the industry (seldom as well used as by Méliès, though).

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Two shots from Méliès’ studio, where he shot all of his most famous films.

The film’s bold scale and its use of multiple scenes became an inspiration for filmmakers worldwide to make longer narrative films, and soon fairy-tale films and movies based on biblical stories started to emerge from all corners, most of them made in the style of Méliès. In 1903 two different directors in France and the US made epics close to an hour in length describing the life and times of one Jesus Christs, and Jeanne d’Arcs, Cinderellas and other figures from myth and folk-tale filled movie houses. The movie was such a hit that Méliès’ American distributor, British Charles Urban at The Warwick Company had his hands full. But Thomas Edison, dismayed at the ever increasing invasion of French films on the US market, illegally copied and screened A Trip to the Moon to such an extent that it prompted Méliès to set up a Star-Film office in New York, headed by his brother, to take control over the distribution of his films in the US.

There was one scene in particular that inspired American film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, at Edison, and it was the scene of the rocket hitting the moon. Not so much for its iconic imagery, but for its editing, a small moment that is lost on modern audiences. Méliès first shows the rocket hitting the moon from the perspective of Earth. But then he cuts to the surface of the moon – and shows the rocket landing – again! This was not the way films were cut in these days, as it was chronologically illogical to show an event that had already happened a second time. But Méliès trusted his audience to understand that by changing to a different shot he was showing the same event from a different angle, and not a different rocket, nor did he mean that the same rocket hit the moon twice. And by showing the event twice, he was able to anchor the second scene in a specific moment of time and narrative, in respect to the previous shot. And, figured Porter, by this token it gave a filmmaker the possibility to show two different narratives occurring at the same time, simply by anchoring them in shots that the audience would recognise and remember. Inspired by Méliès little innovation, Porter went on to direct The Great Train Robbery in 1903, generally considered the first major film with continuity editing and the first American narrative movie.

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A prime example of Méliès’ elaborate combination of live-action actors, painted sets and trick photography, the scene shows the scientists asleep on the moon, dreaming of celestial beings.

It is, of course, extremely hard to rate a film that is over 110 years old by any of today’s standards. The resources used on it is less than pocket money for any commercial film today, and the two-dimensional sets and surrealist settings makes it more of an art film than a conventional movie. Still its intent was not artsy, but rather to entertain, which it decidedly did. It was the blockbuster of its time, made Méliès the superstar of international film making and is his most widely known film. By all of the techical standards of 1902 it was the Star Wars, Titanic, Jurassic Park or Avatar of its day. It had a unique style, led to widespread illegal copying and by many means set the standard for film making in the early 20th century. The fact that the film’s legacy still lives on today is another testament to its qualities.

However, the film also showcases much of what would eventually be Méliès’ downfall. While no less than revolutionary at the time, the style in which he directed his films quickly became outdated, as the art of filmmaking evolved at a rapid pace in the following ten years. Méliès refused to alter his vision about how to make his films, retaining the stagy feel, and the overly theatrical performances, even as films were getting increasingly more realistic at around 1910, relying more on outdoor and on-location footage, as well as realistically designed studio sets. He also refused to work with multiple camera angles and in-scene cutting, and continued to present his films as an assembly of distinct and unedited tableaux.

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Concept art by Mélies.

For a modern audience Méliès’ films can also be confusing and rather daunting to watch, not least because so much is happening on the screen at the same time. This partly has to do with Méliès’ background as a revue director – in his view, the more dancing girls and fireballs one could fit on screen at the same time, the more impressive the film. While this partly is the case, there’s only so many dancing girls, moon soldiers and expedition members you can fit in a scene designed as a theatre stage before it becomes cluttered. Other directors could get away with 500 extras and a number of characters thanks to medium shots, close-ups and editing.

The opening scene of An Impossible Voyage is a case in point – Méliès has built a number of podiums and platforms for the actors to stand on, so that almost every inch of the frame is taken up by a face. In this crowd he then proceeds to lay out the exposition for the story and introduce a number of characters – literally by having them enter the screen one by one – in a rapid succession. All the while all characters on screen are gesticulating wildly and jumping up and down (this was a Méliès specialty, his characters were always jumping, whether out of joy, rage, fright, surprise or a number of other emotions), making it almost impossible to know where on the screen to focus your attention.

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A classic Méliès crowd.

These issues have not yet grown to problematic proportions in A Trip to the Moon, which is still held at a brisk 14 minutes and deals with a pretty simple and straightforward story, and Méliès keeps his crowd scenes fairly organised. This here is still Méliès at his absolute best, telling a marvelous, engaging and neatly contained fairy-tale with clearly defined actors. The effects spectacular and the trick filming almost seamless (the shot of a miniature rocket being thrown into a fish tank representing the ocean is amateurish even for 1902). In the nineties a holy grail of cinema emerged, as a French archivist helping a Spanish colleague who was looking for old films by Segundo de Chomon – Catalonia’s own Méliès – was told in an offhand comment that the Spanish film archive had an original hand-coloured print of A Trip to the Moon – at that time no such thing had survived, nor was there any complete print of the film in French archives. However, the Spaniard said, you won’t be able to use it, at it had degraded to the point where the film had fused and become a lump of wood rather than a film. But through twenty years of labour, working with a number of incomplete black-and-white prints, pioneering chemical processes, technical advancements, digital wizardry and the help of Hollywood special effects artists, the film was restored as close to its original glory as was possible. The end result was screened at Cannes in 2011, and is available online. For more on the process and the life and career of Méliès, I highly recommend Serge Bromberg’s and Eric Lange’s documentary The Extraordinary Voyage (2011).

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A side-by-side-comparison of one of the discovered colour prints and the restored film.

It’s naturally difficult to grade a film that’s over 115 years old, and a modern viewer will naturally find fault with many aspects of it. However, in the time it was made A Trip to the Moon was ahead of its time in nearly every respect, with exception perhaps for the acting. It didn’t only represent the cutting edge of sci-fi film, but the cutting edge of cinematography itself – in every sense the best film ever made up to that point in history, and that can be said with a certain amount of objectivity, and few filmmakers at the time would disagree. It was just that good. So with that in mind, there’s really no other rating one can with good conscience give this film than 10/10.

Janne Wass

A Trip to the moon (1902, France). Written, produced, designed, edited and directed by Georges Méliès. Based (uncredited) on the books From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The first Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells. Starring: Georges Méliès, Bleuette Bernon, Henri Delannoy, Jules-Eugène Legris, Victor André, Jehanne d’Alcy. Cinematography: Lucien Tainguy, Theophile Michault. Art direction: Charles Claudel. Costume design: Jehanne d’Alcy. New music composed by AIR in 2011. 

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