It was a trip to the moon in 1902 that gave birth to the narrative film, and propelled cinema forward. The theatrical fairy-tale A Trip to the Moon turned French director Georges Méliès into the uncrowned king of international cinema, and the short film spawned a myriad of imitators. As realism in cinema became the norm, the allure of space travel on the screen diminished somewhat, but that didn’t stop the masters of the trade of creating ever more elaborate ways of portraying the moon, the planets and the stars, its perceived inhabitants, nor the imaginative ways in which we might be able to visit them. The silent era provided some of the timeless classics of space films, whose influence is not only seen on screen even today, but that even had an impact on space travel itself. Hereby we present the 10 greatest space films of the silent era.
10. An Excursion to the Moon
We kick off our list with a French remake from 1907! What this is, is a carbon copy of the celebrated superstar Georges Méliès’ 1902 smash hit A Trip to the Moon. An Excursion to the Moon was directed by Spanish (Catalan) newcomer Segundo de Chomon, who had quickly risen among the ranks of French movie studio Pathé’s directors. Chomon was among the most innovative and bold filmmakers of the era, in many ways well ahead of Méliès, who got stuck in old habits after his phenomenal success with the A Trip to the Moon. The short, theatrically made movie follows a group of explorers as they plan “an excursion” to the moon, build a rocket (or actually a projectile), that’s shot out of a huge cannon. The team lands on the moon, where they promptly decide to take a nap under the stars, and wake up when it starts snowing. They enter a cave of mushrooms and fight off lunarians who disappear in puffs of smoke. The king of the moon invites them to a ball and one of the explorers receives the hand of the moon princess in marriage, and they all go home again. With a few small modifications, it’s basically A Trip to the Moon.
It is a shame that Pathé had such a creative mind simply carbon-copying Méliès’ old film, purely for profit. The blame probably shouldn’t be put on Chomon; as Fritzi Kramer puts it in the blog Movies Silently: “Chomón’s films often demonstrated unique wit, humor and creativity but Pathé wanted some ersatz Méliès and a fella has to eat.” Nevertheless, the film is so beautifully made, that even as a rip-off it clocks in at spot number ten. Read the full review here.
9. A Message from Mars
Britain’s first sci-fi feature film, released in 1913, is a variation on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with a Martian instead of spirits. Based on Brit Richard Ganthony’s 1892 stage play, the film follows dissipated Earth-man Horace Parker, our stand-in Scrooge, being visited by a man from Mars, who takes him on a journey of redemption through London. Parker is an utterly selfish and self-centered rich man, who is scarcely liked even by his closest friends. In order to teach him humility, the Martian emissary shows him the harsh life of the poor, and strips him of his wealth in order to learn that those who have the least are often the most generous, while the rich in their secluded luxury tend to be the most cold-hearted.
Stage comedy star and theatre manager Charles Hawtrey had huge success with the play for several years after its opening night in 1898. A short film was made based on the play in New Zealand, of all places, in 1903, but that one is considered lost. For the 1913 feature film version Hawtrey reprises his role, and he is the best thing in this film, even if he seems a bit old for the part (his girlfriend could be his daughter). The direction is competent, but dull. However, Hawtrey’s charisma and the overall entertaining nature of this film helps it claim our ninth spot. There is an opening sequence depicting Mars, with Martians wearing rather cool-looking outfits (see image above), which qualifies this film for the list, even of most of it is Earth-bound. Read the full review here.
8. The ‘?’ Motorist
Our number eight is yet another movie from the UK, but this time it’s a three minute short from 1906, directed by Walter R. Booth. Booth, known primarily for his work with stop-motion animation, was one of the early pioneers of cinema, although many of his movies seem rather crude in comparison to the stuff being done in France at the time. This short film is a subversive and funny trick film about a couple of mad motorists that speed through the British streets, toppling police officers, riding up store fronts and finally circling the rings of Saturn. Inspired by Méliès, but with a creativity of its own.
The ‘?’ Motorist contains many of Booth’s trademarks: dynamic editing, a creative mix of animation, miniatures and visual effects, as well as something akin to a gleeful anarchy, both regarding story and visuals. A shot of the motorists’ car suddenly turning into a cardboard cutout making its way up a wall is wonderfully bold. The way a police officer just gets up and brushes his pants after being run over with a car anticipates later Looney Tunes cartoons. The movie combines many of the elements that were hot topics of the day: aviation, cars and space. The film is not terribly pioneering in any way, but it uses the effects of the day well and the filming and editing feel surprisingly modern for a 1906 film, and it has a wonderful whimsical charm. Read the full review here.
7. The Impossible Voyage
We’ve namedroped him already, and here he is: the astounding French film pioneer Georges Méliès. In the summer of 1904 Méliès and his team set out to make a film that would eclipse all his prior successes, a follow-up to A Trip to the Moon. La voyage à traverse l’impossible cost 37 000 francs to make – almost four times as much as A Trip to the Moon. The director created astonishingly vast landscapes that are constantly flying by the camera by means of movable set pieces, in his cramped studio space. The plot follows a group of explorers setting out on an impossible journey using every means of transportation known to man, that it will be a feat to eclipse all feats.
A bus journey takes the explorers right through an inn, before the car crashes down a ravine. The expedition is taken to recuperate at a local hospital, before they’re back on a dirigible train, and off to the sun. The train crashes on the sun, where all but the professor himself enter an ice box. But all the explorers are frozen in a block of ice, so the professor lights up some straw he finds among the wreckage and thaws his grateful companions before they enter a submarine. The submarine traverses off a cliff on the sun, and plunges back to Earth, and into the sea, where our heroes enthusiastically view the marine life. The engine overheats and blows the front end of the vehicle straight out of the water and into a fishing village. Their impossible journey over.
The film was 24 minutes long – the longest of Méliès films at that time, and it was technically superior to anything he had then made. The number of sets that the team has had to make and paint for this film boggles the mind. However, this is yet another spectacle without any real plot nor characters. While this worked in 12 minute films, 24 is pushing it. The story is of minimal importance in Méliès’ films, and many of them simply consist of people moving from one beautiful set to the next, with some slapstick and special effects to spice things up. Still, it is a marvellously beautiful film to watch, and jumps in at spot number seven. Read the full review here.
6. A Trip to the Moon
So here we are at last, at the film that we’ve alluded to in almost all our previous entries. Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune. 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. In many ways French stage magician-turned-film maker Méliès’ film 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 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. The film incorporates all the elements that became the hallmark of Méliès: the meeting where the trip is planned, the scene from the factory floor where the moon projectile is built, the parade at the send-off and the great rocket shooting the explorers to the moon. Here they encounter selenites in wonderful costumes (played by circus acrobats), whom they strike at with their umbrellas, making the hostiles go up in tinted puffs of smoke. The explorers are captured, but escape, re-enter their vehicle and fall back to Earth.
Meliès directed his films in a uniquely theatrical style, completely studio-bound with painted, two-dimensional sets. This enhances the feeling of a fairy-tale, 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. A Trip to the Moon 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. However, even compared to films that were made five years later it looks cheap and static, as film industry was growing and developing rapidly. Read the full review here.
5. A Trip to Mars
Himmelskibet, released in 1918, is he first serious movie to deal with a trip to a distant planet. Poetically filmed and featuring lavish Martian designs, this Danish space opera is at heart an endearing pacifist message in a time when the first world war was ravishing Europe.
International movie star Gunnar Tolnæs, renowned for and made rich by his roles as Arabian sheiks, stars as adventure-hungry pilot Avanti Planetaros who sets out on a six months long space journey in order to reach Mars, along with a small team of fellow astronauts. A Trip to Mars is fairly unique among early space films as it tries to portray the tedious and claustrophobic business of space travel, with egos and psyches rubbing against each other. However, at the breaking point our heroes reach Mars, a Greek-styled pacifist and vegan society where men where togas and funny little baby bonnets on their heads, and where magical forests are adorned with glowing flowers, dancing fairies and mystical springs. The barbaric Earthmen commit a cardinal sin by first shooting a giant bird for dinner and then throwing a grenade at poor Swedish/Martian Nils Asther. But as the Earthlings think they are about to be executed, it turns out that The House of Judgement is simply a correctional facility, where they learn about their evil nature and are set free again by repenting. As time goes by, the Earthmen learn the ways of pacifism and peace, and Avanti falls in love with Corona, the Princess of Mars, whom he brings with him back to Earth as an emissary for a new way of life.
The movie was made as the fourth year of WWI raged, and was commission by Nordisk Film’s founder as a pacifist anti-war film. Occasionally plodding and sometimes hilariously over-acted, with Tolnæs dramatically pointing at things all the way through, the film is a surprisingly fresh take on space adventure, anticipating films like Aelita(1924) and The Woman in the Moon (1929). The set designs and special effects are awesome, despite a comparatively small budget, and the Martian scenes carry a beautiful poetical quality. The naive moral story is sledgehammered into the audience, but this is understandable considering the circumstances. Read the full review here.
4. Our Heavenly Bodies
At number four we now get to our first German film. Wunder der Schöpfung, a forgotten educational film with strong SF elements, takes us on a ride in a spaceship to visit the planets and the stars. Director Hanns Walter Kornblum worked with nine animators and six cinematographers to create astounding special effects that hold up to any other masterpiece made in the twenties. In essence, it is Carl Sagan’s TV show Cosmos, only condensed into an hour and a half, and released in 1925. This epic documentary takes the viewer all the way from the history and fundamentals of astronomy and explains things like the tides, night and day, the changing of the seasons, etc. The movie gives an explanation on how life started and evolved on Earth, and then takes the viewer on a sprawling tour of the solar system in a spaceship, visiting not only the moon and all the planets, but also different stars. Finally the film speculates on the destiny of Earth as the sun cools and dies.
About two thirds of the movie consists of special effects work, for the most part created with stop-motion animation, but pretty much every trick available at the time was used, such as claymation, replacement shots, double exposure shots, rod puppets, stop-trick photography, traditional animation and forced perspective photography. There’s also a number of impressive miniature shot and live-action special effects. The last segment of the movie rivals any disaster film from the era. Several parts of the film influenced the visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Read the full review here.
3. Aelita, Queen of Mars
Cracking the top three is a cult classic from the Soviet Union. Directed by Yakov Protazanov, and released in 1924, on the surface Aelita may look like a heavy-handed communist propaganda vehicle. However, Russia’s first sci-fi film lays down a surprisingly intelligent criticism of the communist revolution, once you look past the clunky, propagandistic symbolism, which to some extent is actually ironic. Although most of the movie is Earth-bound, it is remembered for the amazing constructivist sets and costumes on Mars, designed by internationally famed artist Alexandra Exter.
The film is for the most part set in Moscow — where the rich and powerful usurpers have been dethroned, and the ordinary people of the USSR are building a better world based on equality and hard work. Mars is ruled by a and a rich and ruthless elite who live in luxury, enslaving the working class in underground factories. A duo of starry-eyed adventurers from Moscow have a hard time adjusting to the tedious work of building up a better society at home, and instead set off to Mars in a newly invented spaceship. One of them is escaping a troubled marriage in order to find the mysterious Martian princess Aelita, the other — a returned revolutionary soldier — is on the hunt for yet another adventure. While they successfully carry out a socialist revolution on Mars, the ending of the film points a critical finger at the romanticised revolutionary ideals of the young Soviet Union. Aelita: Queen of Mars, has been just as highly praised as it has often been misunderstood. There are few, though, who contest its visual influence on the genre of science fiction. While nominally based on Aleksei Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, the two works have very little in common. Read the full review here.
2. A Trip to Jupiter
A Blast from the past, you might call this, as Segundo de Chomon’s french short film claims second place on our list. The Catalan director’s second movie featured here follows the exploits of a king who climbs the ladder to heaven, does duel with Jupiter himself, and is thrown back through space to Earth. While derivative of Georges Méliès’ space voyages, Chomon’s film is a tour de force of innovative camera use, seamless special effects and stunning artwork.
Chomòn uses more traditional sets than the two-dimensional façades and matte paintings that Méliès preferred, and they are all extremely beautifully designed, as are all the props and costumes. The movie is partly filmed on location at an old castle, which gives it a gritty and majestic feel. The hand colouring of the prints in this film is exquisitely done by Pathé. There is a bit of camera genius when Chomón describes the ladder to Jupiter. The climb is done in a classic trick shot where the king and the other actors are actually crawling on the floor, with the camera suspended from the ceiling, filming straight down. The effect is completely obvious, but clever nonetheless, and one of the very earliest tracking shots, showcasing Chomon’s cinematic inventiveness. The king’s fall through space is superbly done in a hallucinatory sequence reminiscent of the psychedelic colour displays in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
While Georges Méliès will forever remain king of early cinema — he practically invented the narrative film — Segundo de Chomon was actually a bolder and more adaptable director. Read the full review here.
1. Woman in the Moon
Finally, the best silent space film comes from Germany, and it is directed by the legendary demon of Austria, Fritz Lang. This 1929 movie is the grandfather of the modern space rocket film. You name a trope, Frau im Mond created it. It’s one of Lang’s sillier entries, and has a reputation for being over-long and sluggish during its first half. But if you like Lang’s spy yarns, the build-up is pure cinematic delight — and when the actual space voyage gets underway, it is as riveting today as it was 90 years ago. Thanks to the help of the world’s leading rocket scientists, the scientific accuracy is eerily prophetic.
Watching the film today, it’s perhaps difficult to grasp just how novel it was in 1929. That’s because we forget that this isn’t just an old moon landing film, it’s the original moon landing film. Sure, there had been films involving space trips and moon landings, but most of them were very vague on the subject of how these voyages would work practically and scientifically, and portrayed the moon and the planets in a fantastic rather than realistic manner. No-one had ever described space travel or moon landings with such a realistic and detailed approach in fiction before. Overall the production design for the movie is stunning, and both cinematography, editing and special effects are marvellous. Hermann Oberth, Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun, who basically created the US space program, all worked on the film.
The space adventure is preceded by an Earth-bound spy yarn that takes up almost an hour of time, and it is understandable that someone waiting for rocket action can find this rather boring. But Brian Orndorff at Blue-Ray.com sums up what some overly critical reviewers have missed: “Woman in the Moon doesn’t present a simple space opera, but makes an effort to build a story of discovery and manipulation along the way, with extensive screen time devoted to creating proper motivations before the picture launches into space. […] Woman in the Moon intelligently examines pieces of its puzzle, but it also pays attention to larger acts of intimidation and human connection, with Lang developing personality and dramatic need before the special effects display begins.” Whatever one may think of the first half of the movie, there is no denying Frau im Mond’s amazing technical and artistic values when the second half commences. This was the moon film that spawned all moon films. There really was no contender: Woman in the Moon is the best space film of the silent era. Read the full review here.
DISCLAIMER: Some of the films appear lower or higher on this list than the star rating I have given them in my original reviews would suggest. That’s because I normally grade films according to the technology and conventions existing at the time they were made — in a sense I’m trying to view them as if I would have seen them at the time they were made. However, in respect to these lists, I’m also taking into account what the films seem like to a modern viewer, so it’s a bit of a trade-off. This is mostly an issue with short films made during first decade of cinema.