Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902)

A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902)
Directed by: Georges Melies
Written by: Georges Melies (uncredited)
Starring: Victor Andre, Bleuette Bernon, Henri Delannoy, Georges Melies (all uncredited)
(14 minutes, B&W)

A Trip to the Moon, made 110 years ago, is one of the oldest movies that is well-preserved and available to the public. Watching the film and thinking of its age is almost mind-blowing. 110 years is a hard age to imagine for a film so full of life and creativity. Georges Melies, the first "Cinemagician," is perhaps the single most influential figure in the history of cinema. At the very inception of cinema, no one thought it would stick around for long. It was a circus trick, a brief flash in the pan to amuse audiences before the next fad came along. Melies was enraptured by film for the first time in 1895, when he attended the first public screening of the films of the Lumiere brothers, the earliest filmmakers in history. Melies immediately offered to purchase one of their cameras, but was denied. Instead, Melies procured a projector and film from an inventor in London and later, with the help of a few mechanics, was able to construct his own film camera.

The films of the Lumiere brothers are the earliest films in history, but when compared to Melies's work, are utterly unremarkable. The first film of the Lumieres ran only fifty seconds, and showed a recording of workers leaving a factory. Another showed a train pulling into the station. These films, while remarkable in their time, pale in comparison to the achievements that Melies was able to achieve. He revolutionized filmmaking with his incorporation of entertainment, narration, and breathtaking special effects. Within a span of seventeen years (1896-1913) he created 531 films, each focusing on worlds of the spectacular and impossible.

A Trip to the Moon was one of the first narrative films ever made, following a story (albeit only a 15-minute story) as opposed to documenting brief events. The movie opens as a raucous group of scientists debate the possibility of transporting men to the moon. As one professor draws his planned trajectory on the board, the others shout insults and wave their hands in protest. One protestor attempts to lunge at the professor, and in response gets papers and textbooks thrown at his head. This is a goofy movie, with a comically wondrous tone.

Subsequent scenes show the construction of the rocket which will transport five astrologists into space. The rocket sits comfortably upon the houses of the town below, and when the astrologists board it with pomp and circumstance, they stride upon the roofs and wave to an apparently admiring crowd below. The rocket slides into a cannon which is then fired into space. What follows is the film's most famous and technologically impressive sequence: as the moon approaches, the audience sees it through the eyes of those in the space shuttle. It starts as a speck in the distance, and gradually grows as the face upon its surface is revealed. Melies's understanding of depth and direction in this scene is remarkable. When watching the spectacular achievements in this movie, one should understand that Melies was the original who pioneered every single one. His tricks were honest and made all the more satisfying by the hard work behind them: he engineered them without the help of computers or precedent. Melies thought up the fantastic worlds of his films, from costumes to sets and frequent physical comedy that borders on early slapstick. The comedy in A Trip to the Moon stems from the entertaining circumstances of the plot and characters. Melies knows just how fantastic and wondrous his movie is, and he is able to execute his story with a lightheartedly yet with total, utter diligence.
The interior of Melies's studio

The special effects would pass in a movie today, and when viewed in understanding of the time period, they are downright jaw-dropping. All of the effects are very theatrical in nature but are also flawlessly executed (suitably mixing Melies's history in the theater and passion for technology and innovation). When the astrologists land on the moon's surface (their cannon is shot straight through the moon's eye, as seen above), they find themselves confronted by fantastic creatures. Stars and planets with faces and gods and goddesses descend upon the scientists as they sleep, bringing with them a massive snow storm. For warmth, the Earthlings descend into the depths of the moon below its surface. One man's umbrella grows to the size of a massive mushroom. The men are soon plagued by violent, lizard-like creatures who explode into dust when attacked. The first explosion of an alien caught me by such surprise that I needed to rewind the film to make sure I saw it right. Sure enough, the creatures simply disappear in an explosion of powder. There's no technical trickery to be found, and no flaws in the special effect, as would erroneously be expected in a movie from this time period. I can only imagine the shock and amazement of audiences at the time period. These are the very first special effects, and since there were obviously no computers to execute them, their stylishness is even more impressive.

Other innovations of the film include fade transitions between shots and scenes and the creative zooming or widening of camera shots to convey action. At the start of the film's final scene, the rocket that launched the astrologists into space teeters dangerously on the edge of a cliff. The camera closes in on the rocket and its rocky motion. When the weight of a person is added to the end of the space vessel, it drops. The camera, in the next shot, widens out on the rocket as it plunges into the sea. When it hits the ocean, the camera stares straight down on the water. These different vantage points were manipulated and utilized by Melies to enhance the narration, the first time that had ever happened.

Despite its technical and creative mastery, the real magic in A Trip to the Moon is its inspiration and fearless storytelling. In 1902, people all over the world could only marvel at space or occassionally view the stars through telescopes. There was little science to quell peoples' unanswered questions. Melies seized the opportunity to turn film into an instrument of the fantastic. He made it so much more than the carnival trick it was thought to be. Film is the most accessible and powerful art form in modern society. Without Melies, things would have turned out much differently. Melies intended to release this film in America after its completion and make a fortune. Unfortunately for him, technicians employed by Thomas Edison stole prints of it and distributed it themselves. Within a few year Melies was broke. As with many great artists, he spent the majority of his life unappreciated. After his death, people began to appreciate his genius. Chaplin called him the "alchemist of light." D.W. Griffith said of him, "I owe him everything." All fans of cinema owe him everything.

A Trip to the Moon is obviously unrated. It contains no objectionable material.

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