A Trip To The Moon is a fourteen minute experiment by stage technician and magician, Georges Melies, so it isn’t exactly a movie. But I think in its name, an exception can be made. It is a movie by 1902’s standards (most of the recorded footage back then documented the everyday activities of the everyday man, woman, and child), and in its fourteen minute shell, it introduced and popularised many of the codes, conventions, and techniques that proper feature length movies of today use with such aplomb. It is a work of vivid imagination and incredible skill.
Melies made a career out of building theatrical props that could explode in a myriad of colours and textures. More than anything it seemed like he was waiting for someone to invent celluloid. Because when this new medium emerged, he was the first to grab it by its perforated edges and turn it upside down, inside out, and every which way imaginable. His theatrical background certainly gave him a hand, but when it came to actually manipulating the film, he concocted new formulas and tried out new ways of doing things. He realised that film could be cut, spliced together, placed on top of each other, burnt. But most importantly, he realised that it could tell lies.
One of these lies comes early in A Trip To The Moon. The head professor of a science academy (played by Melies himself) briefs his colleagues about his insane idea of huddling together in a giant bullet-shaped shuttle and launching it directly at the Moon. His colleagues enter the frame carrying portable telescopes. When they realise they have nowhere to sit, they raise their telescopes above their heads and transform them into stools. The technique is blissfully simple — cut out the frames of film where the actors physically replace their props, and splice the two ends together so that the change happens in a nano second — but the result is revolutionary. Little did he know that this little trick would influence the visual effects of cinema in classic shows like Star Trek, and science fiction movies, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to this year’s Gravity.
The movie has no story to speak of; the group of scientists embark on their journey to the Moon. There, they discover an alien race that looks like a cross between lizards and Greedo. They become the aliens’ prisoners, are brought to their leader, and then try to escape. While fleeing, they engage the lizard people in some mild hand-to-hand combat, which allows for more of Melies’ spectacular effects. Aliens explode and evaporate before our eyes; the chase picks up speed and intensity. The scientists make it back to their shuttle, which travels through some wormhole, back to the waters of Earth. They are then rescued and worshipped as heroes.
Melies understood the medium. He knew its potential and its limitations. His sets were gigantic paintings that hung from ceiling batons, and his props were simple and nondescript, but his imagination was wild and full of vigor. He dressed his cast in flamboyant costumes, and detailed the line-work of his background paintings with dedication. They are not meant to look real. They are meant to inspire realism. We look upon the backgrounds and immediately accept them as part of the movie — complete, beautiful, and effective. The smaller details work even better, as when Melies’ shuttle is shot out of the launch cannon. Try to determine what’s a painting and what’s not. There is so much thought in the construction of this movie that one could easily mistake his playfulness for serious planning. It is a movie about magic and innovation; indeed, magic seems to happen in it.
By now, it has entered the collective consciousness of cinema. Even if it’s not remembered for its effects, its imagery has remained strong. There’s Melies planting an umbrella in the ground that changes into a fast-growing giant mushroom. There’s the shot of the face on the Moon as the shuttle punctures its eye. There’s the shuttle itself, which appears to have been stolen from Moriarty’s war collection in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And there’s the throng of female helpers as they dance and prance their way to the shuttle’s launch. It’s a feast for the eyes, heavily theatrical, and exquisitely crafted. It has aged wonderfully over time — it’s a hundred and eleven years old, but you wouldn’t tell by looking at it.