A Trip to the Moon (1902). 16 minutes. Directed by Georges Méliès. Starring Georges Méliès (as Professor Barbenfouillis); Bleuette Bernon (as Phoebe); François Lallement (as officer of the marines); Henri Delanney (as captain of the rocket); Jule-Eugène Legris (as parade leader); Victor André, Delpierre, Farjaux, Kelm, and Brunnet (as astronomers); Ballet of the Théâtre du Châtelet (as stars and cannon attendants); and the acrobats of the Folies Bergère (as Selenites). Written and produced by Georges Méliès.
A Trip to the Moon is without a doubt one of the most iconic movies ever made. Fritz Kramer has argued that the film’s moon, which is styled as a human face, is so famous that it “is instantly recognizable even to people who have never seen a single silent film.” The movie is based on the Jules Verne novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870), as well as H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901), but its ambitious art direction and beautiful staging are purely the brainchild of director, writer, and producer Georges Méliès. Filmed entirely indoors in Méliès’s custom-built greenhouse studio, the movie was the most expensive, most complex, and longest that the director had made to date and was a roaring success, both in France and abroad, where it was pirated extensively.
A Trip to the Moon tells the story of a team of astronomers who embark on an intergalactic voyage. We watch them manufacture and board a space vessel (it looks like a time capsule), which they propel by means of a cannon to the moon’s face. Once on the moon, they explore the terrain and then slumber; we see a parade of constellations studded with humans move across the sky as they sleep. When they awaken, they discover nefarious moon creatures, the Selenites, whom they vaporize with a whack of their umbrellas. The astronomers are apprehended by a large group of Selenites and taken in bondage to the Selenite king. They quickly manage to escape, rush back to the capsule, and board it. As the capsule is dislodged from the moon and falls to earth, a stray Selenite tags along. They land safely in the ocean, and when we next see the astronomers, they are on parade, having returned to earth in triumph, with the stray Selenite bound and trailing behind them. A statue is dedicated to the head astronomer, Professor Barbenfouillis.
Méliès made over three hundred silent short films during his lifetime, and many of them were fantasies like A Trip to the Moon. His style of filmmaking fell out of fashion within a few years of its debut. Neither its fantastic content nor its techniques left their mark on the films of the ensuing years, which tended to favor more realistic subject matter and editing styles. For instance, in A Trip to the Moon, Méliès uses a form of editing called substitution splicing, in which a shot is established, stopped, and then resumed when something of note has been added or removed. The way that the astronomers attack the Selenites is an example of substitution splicing: their umbrellas make contact with the Selenites in one moment, then the camera cuts to other footage of the astronomers in the exact same positions, revealing puffs of smoke in the Selenites’ places. The film also makes use of non-linear storytelling. For example, the astronomer’s space capsule lands in the eye of the moon in one shot (from a distance), then in the next, we see the space capsule landing again on the surface of a landscaped moon (up close). Although A Trip to the Moon was wildly popular in France and abroad, both substitution splicing and non-linear storytelling did not become commonplaces in the burgeoning cinematic world.
Perhaps in part because its fantastic subject matter and techniques were not popular in the years immediately following, this film, like Méliès’s other works, feels particularly special. One of the things I love most about it is that although it was inspired by the writings of two men who were very earnest in their use of real scientific concepts, A Trip to the Moon does not rely on actual science to guide its characters on their fantastic voyage but rather relies on art itself to shape their journey. The space capsule is ludicrously cannon-propelled, it simply falls back to earth at the end, the atmosphere of the moon is perfectly compatible with our own, and Selenites evaporate at the touch of a humble umbrella. The movie is faithful only to its own celestial whims, which largely involve humanizing outer space: the moon with a face that reacts to the rude landing of a rocket in its eye, the idea that each star in the big dipper has a human face, or that Diana and her nymphs really adorn the night sky with their beautiful forms. Méliès’s story reminds me of an older means of storytelling, perhaps dating from the Renaissance or the classical period that inspired it (for example, Lucian’s second-century Greek novel True Story), when characters traveled across the universe and encountered the people living in the skies, in heaven and in hell. For a sixteen-minute-long film, A Trip to the Moon manages to make gestures of epic proportions. Like an old epic, it features the journey through the stars, the rising and falling of the heroes in their capsule, and the vague impressions of empire present in the Selenite court and the parade afterwards with the stowaway Selenite in chains.
On that note, I am not sure how enthusiastic to be about popular claims by scholars such as Elizabeth Ezra and Matthew Solomon that A Trip to the Moon is anti-imperialistic in nature. These claims make particular use of the scene where the captive Selenite is paraded in the triumph at the movie’s conclusion, to the cheers and waves of large crowds. The idea is that this demonstration is anti-imperialistic because the astronomers look slightly goofy as they march along with the Selenite—indeed, that they have looked slightly goofy all throughout the movie, armed with umbrellas as they explore the moon rather than with guns or other weapons. How could the film be an endorsement of empire given that this is the case?–or so the argument runs. I am reluctant to say, however, that merely by making characters look silly (even, one might say, endearing) is to launch a critique of empire. It is true that the film is constantly expanding and contracting, both making grand gestures and then deflating those same gestures with humor and whimsy. If it does have a tinge of anti-imperialism about it, it certainly seems to be having fun both with imperialism as a concept and with its own critical stance. There is a great deal of complexity in this sixteen-minute-long short.
Given that A Trip to the Moon is so iconic and so short, it makes sense for anyone who cares about film to see it. It is easily found, and this version has a modern soundtrack by the French group Air. If you have never seen a silent of any kind, it is a fantastic and lively introduction to the period. And if you just plain love the creative possibilities of film, Méliès’s fantasy will delight you with its beauty and inventiveness. It is a treasure from beginning to end.