A Trip To The Moon (La Voyage Dans La Lune) 1902

Director: Georges Méliès

A group of bumbling astronomers launch a rocket to the moon, where they encounter celestial beings and subterranean moon-men. Taking pride of place among the dusty vaults of the Devil's Manor is Georges Méliès' best-known work and an all-time classic of cinema. 

Professor Barbenfouillis, head of the Institute Of Incoherent Astronomy, persuades five of his colleagues (Nostradamus, Alcofrisbas, Micromegas, Omega and Parafaragamus) to join him on an expedition to the moon, and they construct a rocket in their workshop. Soon, the scientists assemble for the launching ceremony on the rooftops of Paris, where the projectile is fired into space from an enormous cannon. The rocket plunges into the eye of the Man In The Moon.

The explorers fall asleep on the lunar surface, watched over by a host of celestial bodies. Phoebus, the lady in the moon, wakes the intruders with a snowstorm, prompting them to move underground, where they are taken prisoner by the moon's inhabitants, the Selenites...

The scientists are brought before the leader of the Selenites. Barbenfouille drags him off his throne and beats him, allowing the party to make its escape. They are pursued back to their rocket, inadvertently bringing a stray Selenite with them as they plummet towards Earth. Soon they are rescued and brought back home, where all are awarded medals at a gala parade.

A Trip To The Moon's central image of a rocket landing in the eye of the man in the moon has become one of the most instantly recognisable in cinema history. The film was a great success for Georges Méliès when it was first released, and has since been recognised as a cinematic landmark, often cited by historians as the first true science-fiction film.

Made for the unprecedented sum of 10,000 francs, the film took more than four months to complete, an unusually long time made necessary by the complex mechanical effects and large numbers of costumes and sets required. Méliès went to some trouble in creating the Selenites. He later wrote: "Their shells, heads, feet, everything was made specifically, and in consequence, expensive. I myself made the models done in clay; the plaster moulding and the costumes were made by a maker of special masks, used to working with papier maché..."

The Selenites were played by acrobats from the Folies-Bergere; the chorus girls who assisted the scientists ("savants") in launching the rocket were on loan from the Théâtre du Chatelet. Méliès habitually acquired most of his performers from the Paris music halls -- theatre actors were at that time still reluctant to be associated with what they considered a low art form. "They only came later when they learned that the music hall people earned more money playing in films than they did working the theatre, for some 3000 francs a month... In the cinema they could earn double. Two years after this, my office was every evening filled with theatre people wanting jobs".

First released in August of 1902, the film was an international success. Unfortunately, it was also heavily pirated, which caused Méliès countless headaches. An oversight meant that the film wasn't copyrighted in the USA and the large numbers of illegitimate prints in circulation there (some pirated by the Edison company, under the title A Trip To Mars) led directly to Méliès establishing an office in New York.

(Incidentally, plagiarism was common enough for film-makers to regularly announce their identities within the films themselves: watermarks were used, production companies' names were displayed on intertitles. In the the present film's case, when the rocket returns to Earth we can see the words "Star Film - Paris" proudly displayed on it's hull.)

A selenite stowaway: Méliès' pre-production artwork
A Trip To The Moon is rich enough in detail to merit serious critical analysis, and subtexts are there to be found once you look beyond the film's many technical achievements. Méliès' lampooning of the scientific establishment has been suitably dissected, as has the subtle way in which the moon landing is presented in two consecutive contrasting shots, suggesting that Méliès had a more intuitively sophisticated grasp of storytelling than his otherwise rudimentary editing techniques might suggest.

What helps the film seem so charming even today is its sense of fun. There's no pretence to scientific accuracy, and the whole adventure seems more like a fairytale than anything we might now call science fiction. The 'savants' (who look more like wizards than scientists) stroll across the moon's surface in top hats and frock coats; planets and stars appear with women's faces smiling from their centre; and in a conceit worthy of Baron Munchausen, the six astronomers' eventual escape from the Selenites is brought about by yanking the rocket off the edge of the moon with a rope.

There is enough wit and imagination in the film's sixteen-minute running time (or twelve, prior to the discovery of a more complete print in a French barn in 2002) to put many a modern special-effects extravaganza to shame. In the end, it's difficult to argue with the orthodox view that this was Méliès greatest achievement as a film-maker.

End Credits:
Georges Méliès (Prof. Barbenfouillis), Bluette Bernon (Phoebus), Henri Delannoy (Rocket Captain), Victor André (Scientist), Chorus girls of the Théâtre du Chatelet
Writer/Producer/Editor: Georges Méliès, Cinematography: Lucien Tainguy. Loosely adapted from 'First Men In The Moon' by HG Wells and 'From Earth To The Moon' by Jules Verne.
Star Films, France
Running time 16 mins.

Start with the recently restored colour version: 'Georges Méliès' A Trip To The Moon'. Also recommended is  'Georges Méliès - First Wizard Of Cinema' (Flicker Alley), a dazzling collection of the director's work that includes 'Moon' in it's programme.

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