Monday, July 9, 2012

A Trip to the Moon


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A Trip to the Moon
1902
Director: George Melies

Of all early primitive films, A Trip to the Moon is perhaps the best remembered and the most well loved. It has an image that is incredibly well known and several others that are only slightly less well known, and has been referenced dozens of times by everything from The Simpsons to Smashing Pumpkins. The simple plot involves a scientist (or president, or wizard – in any case, some authority figure) deciding to take a trip to the moon. He enlists five helpers. A rocket shoots them to the moon (cue super-famous shot) where they encounter strange sights, including a grotto filled with magical mushrooms and dangerous moon warriors, the Selenites. After narrowing escaping, the explorers return home.

There is a lot here that will appeal to a modern film viewer if they have just a touch of patience. The greatest aid to its palatability is the fact that A Trip to the Moon is pure spectacle. For the little bit of film history I know, I think this is one of the earliest example of a film showing you something that you just plain couldn’t see in real life. This was not a recording of an every day event – this is perhaps the furthest from an every day event you can possibly get! That’s, ultimately, the charm of this film. It’s showy, it’s whimsical, it’s completely ridiculous, but how many other films do we know like that? Hundreds, if not thousands. This is the one that started them all.


I enjoy the artificial world that Melies created. Nearly all the sets very clearly look like they were made on soundstages, with cardboard cutouts for most of the backgrounds and props. Each scene looks like an illustration out of a science fiction picture book. By today’s standards for such things, it’s incredibly basic, but you have to remember – this is the first one. Who cares that it’s cardboard? Melies dared to create something otherworldly for his movie. More than the sets, Melies actually has special effects. There are cuts as people disappear and reappear, as puffs of smoke replace the Selenites. An umbrella changes into a mushroom, then starts growing dramatically. Stars appear in the sky, then are shown to have women’s heads in the middle of them. The goddess of the moon appears in the sky, conjuring snow over the explorers as if from nowhere. The most famous effect of all, the man in the moon getting a cannon shot in his eye, is also the most famous shot from the film, and one of the most famous shots in all of film. I cannot overstate this: no one had done this before. No one had done special effects before. Sure, they may look a little silly nowadays, but everything that came after it, every single computer-generated effect in this summer’s Dark Knight Rises owes a tip of the hat to Melies’ creativity and ingenuity.

The costumes are a giggle. The scientists, or whoever they are, that go to the moon are dressed as wizards. The “sailors” who see off the scientists are a line of chorus girls dressed in hot pants. Who wore hot pants in 1902? I’m amused that even in 1902, Melies was being sure to add some sex appeal to his sci-fi epic. I am certain that there are some Edwardian sensibilities he offended by showing too much skin.


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On a slightly more serious note, I found it interesting, when going back and rewatching this (really, it’s 12 minutes, you can find the time to see such an iconic piece of film history) to also note how violent it was. Melies’ scientists or whatever land on the moon then start attacking the Selenites, brutally killing them off as fast as they can. What is that saying about our humanity? We discover a strange new world, then want to destroy everything in it. I know this is Melies’ work, not humanity’s as a whole, but much of that same philosophy has been copied over the years in subsequent science fiction work. Aliens – kill them! Different people – kill them! In a sad sense, Melies certainly fostered that ideology.

Do you really enjoy film? Take it seriously to any degree? You owe it to yourself to see A Trip to the Moon. Go to youtube. Find fifteen minutes. You won’t be sorry. It took film from simply a recording of life to something that can show you an imaginative and magical new world.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10 for sheer ingenuity.

6 comments:

  1. I always took it that the Selenites attacked first. Now I want to go back and see this again.

    It's hard from a modern perspective to call this a "great" film, but it is. It's imaginative and silly and sort of wonderful.

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    1. It's difficult to wrap my brain around just how game-changing this was. It's hard to imagine a world without film as we know it, but this movie changed that!

      It's such an easy rewatch, too.

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  2. Melies is like a big child. Who would come up with showgirls in hotpants to operate the cannon? Or the moon with a face that gets the rocket in the eye? He must have had so much fun.

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    1. It DEFINITELY looks like a fun film to make!

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  3. The first big budget, special effects blockbuster. It was also the first movie to be widely pirated, by none other than Thomas Edison. Melies got no money from the American showings of this film.

    I was glad that Hugo showed the version found in a French barn about 10 years ago because it included the final parade sequence in the town whichI had heard about, but not seen.

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    1. Yes, I had read that about Edison. It certainly seems like the early days of film were a bit of a free-for-all.

      I haven't seen that parade sequence! (And I haven't seen Hugo... I know, I know...)

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