Thursday, July 19, 2012

The First Science Fiction Film

A Trip To The Moon(1902)
Director: George Melies
Cast: George Melies, Henri Delannoy, Bleuette Bernon

George Melies was one of the most pivotal names in the history of the cinema. His is a name that all fans of the fantastic should tip their hats to, for this is the man who pioneered the special effect and thus created the fantastic film, tapping into science fiction, fantasy and horror. His films are little more than quaint curiosity pieces by today's standard, and certainly lack the sophistication of later filmmakers, but there's a charming quality about them that still fascinate cineastes to this very day.
The most famous of his films, and the one of the most famous in the cinema, would have to be 1902's A Trip To The Moon, which next to The Great Train Robbery(1903) can be classified among the first films to have a "plot." A Trip to the Moon runs only about 14 minutes, but's a highly inventive and fairly wild film, complete with some of the most striking images of the silent cinema. Virtually everyone remembers the image of the rocket sticking out of the eye of the man in the moon, for it has been duplicated and parodied on everything from Smashing Pumpkins music videos to episodes of Futurama. However, the film is more than that singular image, for it's really a remarkable effort that just happens to be the cinema's first journey into science fiction.

The film begins, in what century, I know not, with a group of robed philosophers heckling a Professor(George Melies) as he proposes to mount an expedition to the moon! He shows the men his progress on a ship(which is basically a giant bullet) and the work of a massive cannon that stretches for miles. For some reason, not that i'm complaining, all the officers and soldiers present are young women showing a lot of leg. It's pretty bizarre stuff, but it's only the beginning, for the Professor and a crew of other astronomers gather into the rocket/bullet and are launched from the cannon straight into the grotesque face of the man in the moon! For some reason, a colorized version that has crept up in recent years, believes that the man in the moon should be bleeding, but I have always believed, as the original poster art suggests, that he is merely crying. Way to be more graphic, modern cinema!
Anyway, they arrive on the moon, with nary a scratch, despite the fact that they just landed on the moon via being shot out of a cannon! Things get even more absurd, as the stars and constellations take on a life of their own, and are nearly all women(i'm seeing a pattern here). The men fall to sleep on the moon, because the journey was rough and no one bothered to pack any supplies, either. The constellations get angry because the earth-men are intruding and proceed to make it snow on the moon, causing the men to seek shelter inside the moon, where they discover giant, growing mushrooms!(Huh?)
They also discover strange insect-like inhabitants called "selenites" who are malicious, but easy to kill creatures, considering all one has to do is punch them and they burst into dust! Somehow, the men are captured anyway and brought before the moon king, but the Professor must not like the way he looks, because he just picks him right off his thrown and smashes him, causing him and the men to hightail it out of there, with the selenites on their tail.
They get to the edge of the moon and all the men gather into the rocket, and the Professor jumps on board, along with a stray selenite and they fall towards earth(too late to question the film's science, folks) and they land in the ocean, where they are bailed out by the navy. Back home, they are given a king's welcome and they relate they're fantastic tale, while also making the captive selenite do a dance.

Scientific implausibility aside, A Trip To The Moon is a wildly imaginative and entertaining little film and must have been a genuine marvel when it first premiered. It's no surprise that Melies' work is still so regarded and admired, because the man's enthusiasm was infectious. Little of the film's plot makes much sense, but it's so strange and fun, that it's doubtful that anyone has ever really cared. What makes it all work so well is it's naive nature. Melies does not care if his film has any relation to modern science, pulling instead ideas from ancient philosophers, mythology and folklore. The constellations are actual God-like figures, the moon is a living being, and there are monsters on the moon, taken from H.G. Well's The First Men In The Moon, which this is partially based on.
The design is based on simple backgrounds, like one would find on the stage, but the effect is astounding and enchanting. Somehow, as if by magic, Melies makes his world come to life and what a world it is! A cannon that stretches for miles across a vast metropolis, a moon saturated with crevices and jagged formations, encasing all forms of dangers and treasures, along with the fact that all one needs to do is shoot high enough and they may end up on the moon as well! There's something in that, i'm sure, for certainly this is a film for dreamers, a marvelous fantasy that suggests the possibilities of imagination and foresees even greater dreams to come in cinema's future, as more spectacular flights of fantasy are unleashed from Germany and the United States in the next decade. This was the embryo, really, the one that got the ball rolling. Without it, such future masterpieces like Faust(1925), Metropolis(1927), King Kong(1933), The Bride of Frankenstein(1935) and Things to Come(1936) would be stillborn. George Melies, recently immortalized in the excellent, Hugo(2011), should be first remembered as a purveyor of a good time, for surely that's one will have if they decide to dig up any of these beautiful time capsules, of which, A Trip To The Moon, is merely one.
We as filmgoers, particularly as fans of this genre, owe much to this film and this remarkable Frenchman who helped inspire and allow generations of artists around the world to reach for the stars.

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