There must’ve been something pure about making movies back in the 1900s. There was no structure put in place that demanded certain expectations of what a motion picture was, no ego involved that required the creation of celebrity, or the net profits reaped from the industry of filmmaking.
In the days of Georges Méliès, filmmaking wasn’t even an “art form”, it was a plaything. The movie camera was a new toy for magicians and engineers to fool around with. They used it to record performances – and when they realized the potential of technical, visual trickery, they began using the movie camera to manipulate the proscenium arch, devising realms of impossibility. In those days, a filmmaker was a cinémagicien.
How overwhelmed the imagination must’ve been in those halcyon days of the flickers. When trains speeding towards the audience was so realistic that it shocked audiences, Méliès took his craft two, three steps beyond and flung us off into impossible worlds.
A Trip to the Moon, or if you parles français, Le Voyage dans la Lune, is such a phantasmagoric spectacle that it must have really lit the imaginations of the world when it first debuted. In the era of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, fantasy was limited to text and the mind – then Méliès came along and changed all that. Suddenly it was all on display and the technical wizardry came alive with explosive special effects and lush, artistic qualities.
You may look at A Trip to the Moon today and find it cheesy, or perhaps even dull, heaven forbid, but you can’t deny the staying power of those images. It’s the painterly textures of the backgrounds, the flat wooden props, the strangeness of the costumes that make Méliès’s pictures so stylistic and dreamlike. It’s fantasy, it’s magic, and it’s transformative.
The plot itself is simple, but the way the story is told and the visuals executed are so strange they’re wonderful. A group of French astronomers debate over an expedition to the Moon. Professor Barbenfouillis, played by Georges Méliès himself, leads the way. I love the look of the Astronomer’s Club. It looks more Hogwarts than Diogenes. Everyone is dressed in robes and pointy hats, and of course, they’re bickering in the rooftop observatory. The hand-tinted colors are just beautiful – shimmering gold, with pops of ruby red and emerald green.
A space capsule is built and girls in sailor outfits, smiling and waving, launch them from a cannon. Why are there girls in sailor outfits? Who knows, but it’s a nice little touch, and one of the funny little things that Méliès does best. Doesn’t it just look like everyone’s having the time of their life making this picture?
The capsule is shot into space and we come to the most famous image of Méliès’s career, and one of the most famous images in cinema history. The Moon, depicted with a face made of whip cream apparently, is hit by the capsule in the eye. He seems to wince and sob at being struck. This image is so iconic and revered, but at the same time, it’s so simple in its empowerment of fantasy. This image gave filmmakers approval to do as they wished with cinema – to never let boundaries limit their imaginations. Everything afterwards is derived from Méliès’s consent to dream.
On the surface of the Moon, the astronomers revel in their accomplishments and cheer on the distant Earth. A smokey red fire compels them to take a short nap, and deep within their slumber, stars smile, planets plays, and Phoebe, goddess of the Moon, observe the Earthlings. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it whirlwind of apparitions, but you can tell so much care was put into making sure the images stick with you for the rest of your life.
In a cave of giant mushrooms, the astronomers are confronted by Moon aliens who swarm in and trap the men. The creatures are fragile, exploding easily, but in their numbers, they’re able to take the men to the palace of their king.
But nothing to fear, as one of the brave astronomers picks up the king and throws him to the ground, causing the king to explode in a smoke of green and red haze! In the ensuing anarchy, the men run away as the guards chase after them.
They quickly get back into their space capsule and tip it over the edge of a cliff, causing it to fall off the Moon, through space, and splash down into an ocean on Earth. The astronomers are rescued and celebrated as heroes in a parade. Even the alien relents and soon dances with them. A statue depicts an astronomer stepping on the face of the Moon, conquering it.
The reason A Trip to the Moon holds up is because it was invented by an illusionist. Had Méliès not the knowledge and tricks of a toymaker, a designer, or a magician, this picture wouldn’t have been possible. Only the kind of individual familiar with the art of illusions, prestidigitation, and misdirection could breathe life into fantasy narratives. He directs us into looking one way, then fools us into seeing the wondrous and unbelievable. Only after the emergence of film critics and Edison’s monopolization of motion picture patents did the purity of Méliès’s alchemy begin to fade.
There’s something innately charming and so lasting about A Trip to the Moon and its many brethren, some enduring, some sadly lost. It must have been the purity of that world at the time, and the freedom of artistic expression that allowed Méliès to do whatever he wanted. That Belle Époque era was characterized by so much optimism and innovations that the films of Méliès seem timeless by its very existence alongside the Exposition Universelle, alongside Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, alongside the Moulin Rouge and Art Nouveau.
What a golden age it was! And A Trip to the Moon gives us an enduring record of the national mood of that wonderful era and its enthused exultation of a brimming new century.