That Moment In A Trip To The Moon (1902): Alien Encounters
A Trip To The Moon is a French silent science fiction film regarded as one of the most influential movies of all time for its groundbreaking special effects and visual artistry in time when cinema was just beginning.
(Original title: Le Voyage dans la Lune) One day, at a heated meeting of scientist at an astronomy club, its fiery president announces plans to travel to the Moon, which causes a brief uproar until his plan is revealed and soon, five fellow members agree to join. They design and build a massive cannon, which will shoot their bullet-shaped capsule into space and onto the moon’s surface into celebrated history.
After inspecting the construction process, and satisfied with the rocket’s production, all gather on the platform and the six brave men load themselves into the steel riveted ship as a group of women dressed in skimpy, stylized sailor costumes insert them into the chamber and the fuse fires them into the night sky while everyone cheers.
Out in space, watching all of this, is the Man in the Moon, who is helpless in stopping the fast-approaching projectile from embedding itself straight into his right eye, which it does. From there, the astronauts disembark and explore the surface and sleep under the stars and even meet the indigenous insect-like creatures that live underground.
Directed by and starring Georges Méliès, much as been written about this monumental and highly influential silent film that it once again finding a new audience. Thought long lost, it was rediscovered in 1930 after Méliès came to be better known for his gift to cinema and then again in 1993 when a hand-colored version was anonymously donated to the Filmoteca de Catalunya, a film archive in Spain. It was finally properly restored in 2010.
The film’s legacy is, if you’ll forgive the wording, astronomical, with Méliès creating–with inspiration from classic adventure novels–a cinematic experience that still grips to this day. Purposefully meant to resemble a staged production, the camera sits stationary throughout, like a member of the theatrical audience as actors make bold, grandiose gestures to relay their silent reactions (There is a lot of jumping and pointing). As well, the main characters are exaggerated figures with heavy make-up and prosthetics to better characterize their roles, and are also dressed in elaborate costumes. What’s interesting is the narrative, a style that Méliès helped pioneer with films like this, building a story from start to finish with specially crafted scenes and sets to propel the tale. And while critics and artists and filmmakers and historians have debated and credited the work to high intellectual levels, having now watched it several times (its restored version runtime is less than 15 minutes), I’m more taken by how it feels than what it offers to history.
Silent films are like no other medium, and rely wholly on what we can see to tell a story. Some use occasional title cards to express bits of dialog or set a scene, but in these early days, it was all action, no sound. The first time I watched this restored version, I played it as intended, with the beautiful score by French duo Air, a popular electronica band who has worked in film before, most notably with Sofia Coppola. The music is lush and fitting and yet feels a little out of sorts with the film itself, especially with odd animal sounds in the opening Astronomer’s Club debate scene. On my second viewing, I watched an original cut, black & white with no score. The experience was surprisingly different. Now, to be sure, even in its first release back in 1902, Méliès never intended his film to be seen with no sound. While he wrote some music for some premieres, in those days, theater owners were given free reign to accompany films with any selected music and sound effects they wanted to give their audiences a more immersive experience.
For both versions, I was taken by how quickly I was drawn into the film. The jerky gesturing, the comical outfits and that always fixed camera had me hooked from the start, and I admit, much of that was the obvious comparison with modern film, and by extension, modern life. How far we have come in the medium, and yet how unchanged it still is. As I fell deeper into the story, despite the unfamiliar style and presentation, I can’t discount that I was as taken by the characters, their well-being, and their story as I was with any modern movie. It’s short length may prohibit greater investments, but it also creates an urgency, and an oddly satisfying reduction that served the plot well. The viewer is given hints and images and then left to fill in the remainder, allowing us to imagine on our own. This is perhaps best represented by the film’s most iconic shot: The rocket on the face of the moon. In the image, the rocket is gigantic and the wound authentic. Yet, immediately after she sequence, it cuts to the rocket landing again on the actual surface and the scale is much more appropriate. What can we learn from the double take? What is Méliès attempting to provoke from his audience? It certainly breaks the continuity and even the sense of realism, though there is little doubt realism was ever on the top of the priority list. Most assuredly it is metaphorical, in that the mystery and fantasy and even the unknown itself will one day be punctured by man’s ever-reaching scientific quests, effectively ending the age of superstition. He goes one step further in populating the Moon with alien beings that, when struck by a scientists hand explodes into a cloud of vapor and disappears. It’s a powerful image.
This is of course juxtaposed by the very nature of the film itself, which satirizes scientific societies of the time, dressing the members in wizard cloaks and pointy hats, revealing their inept behavior and theories and reducing the wonder of scientific exploration to pretentious men in chambers arguing over scholarly rights and fame. That’s the glorious dichotomy of the film’s message as it creates a world of cynicism but inspires imagination.
It is important every once in a while to stop and look back, to reflect and consider what got us to where we are. We may tend to think of time gone by as archaic and outdated, but watching A Trip To The Moon reminds us of how true visionaries made “magic” in their times, pushing the medium, setting new standards, and inspiring countless generations after. It’s an appreciation well-deserved.
The Astronauts have their ship built and the rocket is aimed at the Moon. A crowd has gathered and there is hope and excitement in the air. The crew make no preparations for their journey, not even changing their clothes, and head off into the great unknown with only each other’s company to take with them. With a ferocious thud, they land on the moon and after a bit of exploring, fall asleep under the stars, each swaddled in their own blankets. The night sky comes alive as The Big Dipper appears as faces in the stars before giving way to Saturn and Phoebe, the Goddess of the Moon who welcome the dreaming men into the great void. They awake and take cover from a snowfall by going underground filled with giant organic flora and mushrooms.
The men enter a cavernous space and momentarily explore the treacherous landscape, which features a small natural bridge connecting a narrow divide. One man open an umbrella and drives it into the ground where it immediately transforms into one of the mushrooms and begins to grow. In comes the first Moon inhabitant, a gangly humanoid creature with insect-like face and skin.
It doesn’t seem too threatening, but jumps around a bit, and when one of the man confronts it, and beats it once with the handle of his umbrella, the creature explodes in a big puff of smoke, dissipating into the air. It is then immediately replaced by another who is dispatched just as quickly before a collection of them arrive and overwhelm the astronauts, taking them to their leader.
The moment is chilling and even a bit frightening in that Man faces his first off-world conflict. As mentioned above, the metaphor of science and superstition are obvious, but what it is more prevalent, and much more fun, is the powerful connection to modern films and just how much this film has shaped and even the established the formula for action movies in our time.
This movie, and Méliès work, have been credited with creating the sci-fi genre, though others can certainly trace their roots back to it. Fighting monsters on other worlds have been a staple of sci-fi action films for decades and it can traced to this very moment, when an aged astronomer with an umbrella meets, fights, and defeats an alien in 1902. The first movie action hero.
There’s a lot to like about this moment, especially concerning the incredible details and special effects that fill the screen. Again, filming as if it were a theater play, the actors are standing on platforms that are set-dressed to look like a version of a subterranean Moon, but there is also some wonderful animation and what’s called ‘stop trick’ filming where the cameraman stops filming just long enough for a change on set to be made. Add to this some clever dissolves and flashy pyrotechnics and the scene jumps to life. This is a great cinema moment and one that still influences more than a 100 years later.
A Trip To The Moon (1902)
Director: Georges Méliès (uncredited)
Stars: Georges Méliès, François Lallement, Jules-Eugène