Film Title: A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune)
Studio: Star Film Company
Silent or Talkie: Silent
Genre: Science Fiction
- Georges Méliès
- Bleuette Bernon
- François Lallement
- Henri Delannoy
It would be fairly easy, and maybe even somewhat expected, for a person to scoff at a rudimentary film. To a generation that has seen mind-blowing innovation in every technical field imaginable, watching something like 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) promises nothing if not disappointment. And as likely as it may be that modern audiences will gaze upon this 15-minute journey and come away with “That’s it?” waiting to escape their lips – there is more at play here than meets the eye.
The plot of Georges Méliès’ effort should be well-known to most film history aficionados. A club of wizardly astronomers, led by Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès) discuss the possibility of – you guessed it – travelling to the moon. Aside from Barbenfouillis himself, the general consensus is that such a notion is ridiculous. However, there is a swift change of heart, and the rest of the club agrees to face the challenge – with nothing but a crudely-drawn chalk blueprint of the course as a reference. The next step is to build the vessel that will carry them out of the Earth’s atmosphere – a bullet-shaped rocket fueled only by lighting a fuse. Once completed, the men climb into the capsule and are propelled into space for a short time before crashing through the eye of the moon.
After a good night’s sleep in an environment with no oxygen, the men arise to explore their new surroundings, and quickly encounter a group of alien-like creatures called Selenites. Both the Selenites and the astronomers are aggressive towards each other and a cosmic war breaks out, in which most of the Selenites are reduced to puffs of smoke once Barbenfouillis strikes them. The astronomers are briefly overcome and taken to the Selenite King – but the King is defeated unceremoniously. At this point, the astronomers have decided that enough is enough, and that heading back to Earth seems like a win-win. Without hesitance, they rush back to their capsule and force it off a cliff, plummeting into an ocean on Earth, where they are rescued by a passing ship.
What I’ve just described sounds like a strange dream – which isn’t far from the truth. And if you watch this film on the surface without bothering to delve any further, you will probably experience the disappointment I mentioned in the opening paragraph. But A Trip to the Moon can’t be watched superficially – not if you are to fully understand it.
Méliès was a visionary. This film was a borderline epic for the day – running on a budget of ₣10,000 (about $10,000 US in 2015) and taking three months to complete. Even at 15-minutes, it was Méliès’ longest film. His cameramen worked tirelessly, as did his cast, most of whom were plucked from the French theatre and supplemented their acting with additional chores around the set. The film was shot entirely in Méliès’ Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis studio, which was structured like a greenhouse to allow natural light through. To capitalize on sunlight, Méliès shot only in the late morning/early afternoon (the brightest hours of the day) and edited when it got darker.
Most the cost involved in filming revolved around the mechanical devices needed to orchestrate the effects. In certain shots, there is a great deal of background animation – including the movement of the Earth as seen from the moon – and different constellations weaving in and out. Méliès also used a method of cutting and splicing scenes together to facilitate quick transitions, or to give the impression of objects and people disappearing. This was accomplished by having the cameraman stop filming long enough to rearrange scenery and props, and then resume, knowing that the result would look like magic. But by far, the most famous scene is the rocket busting through the moon’s eye.
As performances go, A Trip to the Moon is chock full of exaggerated gestures and dramatic behavior. This was intentional on Méliès’ part (and would become a recognizable aspect of silent film going forward). He followed the traditions of 19th century stage productions – which were overly dramatic – and filmed with a single camera to replicate the perspective of an audience member. Eighteen years later, a German Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, would use a similar technique. Interestingly enough, there are no intertitles used, and every bit of plot is determined simply by watching the mannerisms of the cast.
There are literally so many releases of this film that it’s hard to recommend one over the other. But in the interest of common sense, the restored blu-ray from 2012 seems like the best option. Of the restoration, the release offers the following information:
No original hand-colored copies of A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune – 1902), by Georges Méliès, had been known to survive until one was miraculously found in Spain in the mid-1990s, but in a fragmentary condition thought too fragile to handle for either viewing or restoration. In 2010, three experts in worldwide film restoration – Lobster Films, and two non-profit entities, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage – launched one of the most complex and ambitious film restoration projects ever to bring an original, colored version of Méliès masterpiece back 110 years after its first release. Using the most advanced digital technologies now available, the team reassembled and restored the fragments of the 13,375 frames. The two foundations, which carried out specifically the music part of this project, decided to approach AIR s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, to compose an original modern soundtrack to accompany this cinematic milestone. Packaged in a limited-edition, SteelBook case, this publication also features The Extraordinary Voyage, a fascinating new documentary, directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, which chronicles the journey of A Trip to the Moon from the fantastical Méliès production in 1902, to the astonishing rediscovery of a nitrate print in color in 1993, to the premiere of the new restoration on the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. The documentary includes interviews with contemporary filmmakers, including Costa Gavras, Michel Gondry, Michel Hazanavicius, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Méliès enduring significance to cinema.
Director Martin Scorsese released a film in 2011 called Hugo. It is a lighthearted tale that wraps the story of Georges Méliès and A Trip to the Moon in with the story of a young boy’s hijinks in 1930s Paris. This is significant not only because Méliès is the foundation of the film, but because Scorsese chose him out of every filmmaker in history. A Trip to the Moon might require several viewings, because the power of what Méliès did is not always evident the first time around. As of this year, the film is 113 years old – and historians still marvel over its ingenuity and innovation. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your cinematic bucket list.
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