A Trip To The Moon

Year: 1902
Production Co: Star-Film
Director: Georges Méliès
Writer: Jules Verne
Cast: Henri Delannoy

It's far from the first film ever made, but for some reason the cultural firmament has latched onto Georges Méliès as the godfather of the story meeting spectacle that we love about cinema to this day.

At around 13 minutes long and (obviously) with no dialogue or even the gilt-edged dialogue cards that would epitomise silent cinema in later years, what's most curious about A Trip to the Moon is the social mores of the time. The wise white men of Europe were manifest destiny itself and anyone else (blacks, women, animals) were the spoils of exploration or evil enemies to be destroyed, even when the heroes encroached into their territory.

You can see the same thing all the way through to the 50s, when the threats on screen became truly alien and came from outer space. When everyone lands on Skull Island in 1933's King Kong and sees fantastic beasts the likes of which would revolutionise biology and anthropology, their first response is to shoot them dead.

In what seems to be a town hall meeting, a group of venerable and extremely bearded men are arguing – Keystone Kops style – over the possibility of a manned trip to the moon. The first thing you'll notice is the outsized dimensions of the performances. With no sound or words, it seems Méliès directed his players to adopt the style of the stage and turn it up to 11. Just watch the way they throw their arms wide, gesticulate everywhere and bounce theatrically from one side of the scene to the other so. One guy falls over completely at one point.

As it happens, the leader of the group (Henri Delannoy) already has a rocket, and after an appropriate send-off with an officer of the guard and some dancing girls (who shove the loaded vessel into the barrel of a huge cannon), they lift off.

After the famous image of the rocket embedded in the eye of the man in the moon (actually a woman), they settle down for the night in a Dali-esque landscape of coiled rock formations and outlandish plant life.

Next morning, after setting off to explore, they're set upon by the inhabitants, ape-like humanoid creatures with green skin and heads like Greedo. Moving towards the astronauts in what Méliès might have considered an attack, a battle ensues in which the nasty creatures have the good grace to explode in a puff of coloured smoke when hit with an umbrella – something no decent French society gentlemen would be caught dead without at the time.

The beast hordes chase the crew back to the rocket where the Captain valiantly stays behind to fight the last few off, grabbing hold of the rope attached to the nose and riding all the way back to Earth where a hero's welcome awaits them (the military guard and dancing girls again, complete with a ticker tape parade).

What Méliès might have done first was use visual effects. All the backgrounds and sets are line drawings, obviously with sections of a frame cut out similarly to the superimposition process that would still be used until the CG era. When the crew walks along a gangplank to board the rocket, the open hatch is a pencil sketch even as they disappear into it.

You're probably also not watching it the way Méliès himself intended – not that he'd have any idea his work would help generate a massive industry a century later. I believe the original version was black and white and a later copy was discovered that was hand-coloured. I also don't think there was ever any official music for the film, the current versions accompanied by an alt-ambient soundtrack by a trendy French music act.

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