When I chose La Jetée as my topic for the Shorts Blogathon, I thought, why not also cover another influential French short sci-fi film? Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is about as different film as you can find from La Jetée, yet its impact on the development of narrative filmmaking can’t be overstated.
Georges Méliès was a French illusionist who took up filmmaking at its very infancy. He was one of the first to use narrative structure in filmmaking (rather than just recording everyday life). He was also a pioneer of special effects, discovering the “stop trick” method by accident. Amazingly prolific, he directed at least 500 films. Today, about 200 survive, but there’s no doubt his most famous is A Trip to the Moon, which he made in 1902.
While we consider A Trip to the Moon a “short” film, it was Méliès’ longest film to date (it clocks in at around 12 minutes) as well as his most expensive production. It was a huge success, and probably the first film to be widely pirated. American film companies such as Edison got hold of illegal copies of the film and made a lot of money off of it, resulting in Méliès installing his brother in America as the head of his own film company.
The film is loosely based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. A group of French astronomers, led by Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès himself) decide to build a rocket to the moon. It launches six men, including Barbenfouillis, from a canon. The rocket hits the “Man in the Moon” right in the eye. Once on the moon, the six men explore their surroundings. The goddess Phoebe makes it snow as they sleep. Later, they encounter moon creatures called Selenites. (The alien creatures are played by acrobats from the Folies Bergère.)
Fear not, dear audience, when confronted with acrobatic space aliens, ones trusty umbrella will dispatch them in an instant. (Fans of the band The Smashing Pumpkins will no doubt remember the video for Tonight, Tonight, which pays homage to A Trip to the Moon and also features the Alien-Zapping Umbrella.)
Captured by the creatures, they are taken to the alien king but escape back to their ship. (Apparently, these aliens are not too bright, because it never occurs to them to confiscate the lethal umbrellas.) They use a rope to pull the vehicle off a cliff on the moon and fall back to Earth, landing in the ocean. They eventually make it back to shore.
The film is so utterly fanciful that it’s not strange it became a smash hit in its day, and that images from it are still recognizable to most people. I love the opening with the astronomers meeting to discuss the venture. Méliès has them dressed like wizards, making it look like a Gandalf/Dumbledore cosplay convention. This is emphasized further when he uses stop-trick to have the astronomers turn their telescopes into chairs. (Convenient!)
Méliès’ theatrical background is apparent throughout the film (lovely young ladies wearing short-shorts, for one thing). The sets are very much like theatrical sets, which may make some viewers today laugh at them, but artifice in film was the exception rather than the rule back then. By manipulating images to tell a story, he paved the way for the kinds of films we know today.
He was also a political cartoonist, and it’s quite likely with his heroes’ exaggerated success over the aliens that he was satirizing imperialism. I’m certain there were plenty of imperialists who wished they could take care of those pesky native inhabitants with nothing more than an umbrella.
Méliès had some prints of the film hand-painted, which were thought to be lost until one turned up in 1993. While many technical aspects of filmmaking, such as sound, color and wide-screen projection, were invented while the medium was still quite young, it is mainly only Méliès’ special effects that were used continuously from the early days.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the astronauts go underground and discover giant mushrooms. One of them plants his umbrella (these are REALLY amazing umbrellas) and it grows into a mushroom.
O.K., O.K.–insert magic mushroom joke here. But the surrealistic vibe of the film is one of its most awesome features, and makes A Trip to the Moon a total trip.