#171 (tie) – A Trip to the Moon (1902), dir. Georges Méliès

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That’s gotta hurt! One of the most famous images in the history of cinema also happens to come from one of the medium’s earliest triumphs, the 1902 science fiction romp A Trip to the Moon.

We will be bouncing around a lot in this blog, but we plan to generally present the Sight & Sound 250 roughly in the order in which they were produced. So without further ado, we present the oldest film on the critics’ list, the 1902 science fiction classic A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage danse la lune). French filmmaker George Méliès was a magician and one of the first directors to really exploit the possibilities of special effects and fantastical narratives. This short film draws from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to tell the story of a group of surprisingly medieval scientists using a cannon to fire themselves to the moon. There they encounter a race of moon men and things get kind of crazy. The copy we watched was the hand-coloured version of the film and featured a score by the French ambient duo Air. (13 min.)

S. – This is a playful pantomime that packs an awful lot of story into that 13 minutes. What it lacks in subtlety is more than made up for in creativity; this is really wacky and kinda wonderful. Just look at the face on that moon!

J. – It is truly over the top, which is definitely a big part of its appeal. And it is pretty remarkable to think of what they were able to devise special effects-wise so early on in the medium. It represents a major leap forward to be sure. But I think this film raises an issue we are likely going to end up addressing a lot during these early films: how much should innovation count for in determining a movie’s greatness? I really enjoyed A Trip to the Moon, but more for its quaintness and old-timey zaniness than for any particularly strong attraction to its story, acting, or imagery. And when put that way, does that mean I liked it at all?

S. – For me it had a very immediate appeal but no lasting impact. All razzle and dazzle with little to return to once the spectacle had passed. The only ideas about this film that have come back to me after watching it probably speak to its being so out of step with current social mores, such as the initial reaction to the moon men being to kill them and also keeping one as a pet to parade around. But I agree with you J. about the quality of the special effects, this movie was crafted with care.

J. – And it moves with an energy that is surprising for so early a film. It really doesn’t waste time and is genuinely funny as well. But yeah, those poor moon men. It really reflects poorly on an imperialist power like the French that their foremost filmmaker’s first reaction to encountering a new race is not “We come in peace” but “We’ll beat you to death with an umbrella.”

I can’t help but think that this film was an outlandish visual spectacle in its own day, and however dated it may now be, it is definitely to its credit that it still looks and feels wildly inventive and bizarre.

Also, it was nice to watch this film for the first time not long after seeing Hugo. Scorsese’s depiction of Méliès really added depth to the viewing experience.

S. – Good point! Without the primer of Hugo it’s doubtful that I would have appreciated the detail of what was brought to the screen in A Trip to the Moon. The choreography of the ensemble cast is really astounding.

J. – With that in mind, let’s close with a screen shot from the throne room of the king of the moon people. However strange the aliens may appear, it’s the women with star headgear that really let us know Méliès was righteously insane.

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‘Cause, why not?

Related yammers:
#235 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Weine
#39 – Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang
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