Georges Méliès | 16 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | France / silent | U
Of all the defining images of cinema — certainly of the silent era — the face on the Moon with a rocket in its eye must be one of the most recognised, though you have to wonder how many have actually seen Méliès’ full vision. More than it could have been, though, because A Trip to the Moon was so popular that, in the copyright-lax world of early cinema, it was widely copied and ripped-off; the kind of thing that destroyed Méliès’ career and, along with it, much of his work.
Unsurprisingly for a film only quarter of an hour long, the plot is quite straightforward: a group of gentlemen are shot out of a giant cannon in a little bullet-shaped craft (not that far from how we actually ended up getting to space), which crashes on the Moon, where they meet a race of man-sized insect-ish creatures (I believe this also happened to the crew of Apollo 11), kill most of them (that too), and take one back to Earth as a slave/performing monkey (now that’s just silly).
As you can see, the politics of the film have dated somewhat… though it’s not a world away from the storyline of some blockbusters — just make the aliens more overtly threatening and the slave a willing volunteer and you’re there. What’s equally remarkable are the similarities to actual space missions — not only what I’ve already mentioned, but the craft splashing back into the sea at the end, for instance. In fairness, this could be as much coincidence as design, because there are plenty of other bits that are way off the mark.
But Méliès wasn’t making a documentary, he was making an entertainment. Indeed, the analogy to a blockbuster is a good one, because this is essentially the turn-of-the-century equivalent. The fantastical sets, costumes and story are all designed to wow the viewer — and remember, we’re only a few years on from people diving out of the way of film of a train arriving in a station.
The spectacle is even more evident in the hand-coloured version, which is what I watched. Discovered in 1993 but (for various reasons) not fully restored until 2011, it made its public (re-)debut at Cannes and was released on UK DVD at the tail end of last year (if you have deep pockets, there’s a pricey Blu-ray version available from Flicker Alley in the US). The colours are vibrant and rainbow-like, though somehow not garish. They emphasise the fantastical nature of the journey very well, and this kind of thing must’ve been a sight to punters familiar with only black-and-white images. From a technical point of view, considering the film was hand-painted frame-by-frame, it’s amazing how consistent and stable the colours are.
This version comes with a new soundtrack by French electronic music duo AIR. It’s somewhere between obtrusive and exciting, depending on your predilections. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not period-authentic.
A Trip to the Moon is a defining moment in cinema, undoubtedly a must-see for cinephiles. But, more than an obligation, it’s an entertaining experience in its own right; a burst of imaginative storytelling and impressive technical achievement, even more so in the coloured version.
See also my review The Extraordinary Voyage, a documentary about Méliès and the recovery and restoration of this silent print, here.