A Trip to the Moon (1902)

by popegrutch

My review of this movie was originally a facebook post, then it became the first post I ever put on this blog. I attach it below for posterity, however given the fact that I now write much longer reviews of much less important movies, it seemed like it was time to update it at last. This review will now take its place on my index.

The movie begins by showing a meeting of philosophers and scientists (many of whom dress like wizards) to discuss a proposal by one of their number. A proscenium-style stage shows a conference set up inside of an observatory, with a large telescope prominent in the background and in front there is a blackboard with the images of the Earth and Moon drawn on. A group of women carry in telescopes and present them to the magicians standing in the front rank. They raise them into the air and the telescopes transform into stools, which they now sit upon. The presenter goes to his podium and speaks, gesturing excitedly, and drawing a line on the chalkboard between the two spheres, showing the route that could be taken. Most of the audience applauds, but one of the front-ranking scientists raises an objection, resulting the speaker hurling books and papers at him. The other scientists push him to a chair in the back, and congratulate the speaker. The servant-women bring packs of gear for the front-ranking scientists, so that they can go on the expedition along with the inventor. They change out of their robes into explorers’ garb and leave the stage.

The second set shows the construction of the rocket. We see a workshop, which actually more closely resembles the unadorned studio stage Georges Méliès worked from than most of the sets we’ve seen in his movies, although a large bellows in painted on the background, and a couple of men hammer away at an anvil in the foreground. The members of the expedition examine the bullet-shaped capsule in which they will ride, climbing inside it to get a better look while work goes on all around them. One clumsily pushes another to the ground, but he is helped up and the crew continues on their tour. Now they go to a rooftop viewpoint over an industrial city, with smokestacks billowing smoke and several large warehouses painted onto the backdrop. They watch, one using a telescope, as molten metal is poured into a well, casting the gigantic canon that will launch them into space. More smoke fills the screen and the scientists gesture frantically.

Now we witness the launch of the spacecraft. Another rooftop set depicts the breech of the cannon, with a few women in leggy uniforms lined up to witness the event. The front part of the capsule is pushed forward on the left of the screen, and the scientists climb up a ladder on the right, waving to the assembled soldiers and to imaginary throngs below. Another woman soldier puts a step ladder to the capsule’s door, and the scientists climb in. Then the capsule is loaded into the cannon by a group of women soldiers, who end by waving to the camera The next scene is presumably a different angle on the same gun (although the proportions aren’t quite correct). We see it extending into the distance, pointed at the moon in the sky. More women assemble in military formation and play bugles as a man with a long torch lights the wick. Smoke is seen to come out the end of the cannon as it firs and crowds of civilians now surge forward to wave at the moon.

The movie now cuts to the sky and we watch as the face of the man in the moon comes closer and closer. The capsule hits him right in the eye, causing him to tear up. This fanciful image cuts to a lunar landscape with jagged rocks all around. The capsule crashes into the scene and the explorers climb out. For some reason the capsule disappears after they perform some gestures, and the scientists watch the Earth-rise. Then a small crater geysers smoke and flame, causing everyone to fall down. After this experience, the scientists decide they are tired and go to sleep on the ground. We see their dream, in which celestial figures look down on them and make it start to snow. When they wake up, they are covered in snow, and they decide to go down into a cave seeking warmth.

The interior of the cave consists of a waterfall and a forest of huge mushrooms, which the scientists take a great interest in. One of them puts his umbrella into the ground and it transforms into a mushroom and grows to enormous height. Now one of the local natives – a demon-like Selenite – comes out to investigate, and intimidates the scientists with its tumbling antics until one of them strikes it with an umbrella, causing it to explode into smoke. Another comes out with much the same effect, and then a small patrol of Selenite soldiers takes the scientists into custody. They are brought to the throne room of the king, where several guard stand by with spears, and we also see several of the celestial figures from the previous night’s dream in attendance. The king remonstrates with them briefly, and we see a Selenite with an executioner’s axe enter, but suddenly the lead scientist breaks his bonds, seizes the king and throws him down, making him explode into dust as well. The scientists take advantage of the confusion and flee, before the guards begin a spirited pursuit with their spears.

We see the scientists flee across the lunar landscape, the head man fighting a brave rearguard action with his umbrella whenever a guard gets too close. They reach a cliff where their capsule has now remanifested (remember it disappeared after arrival). The scientists all climb aboard, except for the original inventor, who dispatches another Selenite before grabbing onto a long rope attached to the capsule and jumping off the cliff. His weight isn’t enough to drag the capsule over, and for a moment it looks as if they won’t be going anywhere, until a last Selenite leaps onto the back of the capsule, causing it to plummet over the edge just before the rest of the guards arrive. We get a shot of the real ocean waves before the double-exposed capsule is shown to splash down (still carrying the Selenite), and then a simulated underwater shot shows that it goes nearly to the bottom, before becoming buoyant and rising back to the surface. We see a miniature ship tugging it back to port and then a final shot of the celebrations honoring the explorers. The Selenite is brought forth in captivity to demonstrate the success of their daring mission.

I’ve watched this movie more than any other Century Film I think, and I always enjoy it. It used to be fashionable to make fun of it for all of its “inaccuracies” about space travel, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s meant to be a light-hearted fantasy, not a serious effort at “Hard SF.” More recently, there has been a school that finds in it a critique of colonialism, but I don’t see much here to support that. It’s too silly to be seen as any kind of intellectual argument, and the fragility of the Selenites has no obvious purpose, except that it makes for an easy special effect. I think it’s safe to say that, even if that were intended, it went over the heads of the audiences that enjoyed it at the time. The movie became a considerable hit, because of its creativity, its accessibility, and its successful telling of a full story by using multiple shots, not because it anyone learned anything from it. Both “Cinderella” and “Blue Beard” are other early examples of Méliès attempting the same thing, but somewhat less successfully, in a fairy tale setting. It seems that adopting Verne & Welles was the breakthrough he was looking for. I wonder if it ever occurred to him that this movie would last for over a hundred years?

Once again, here is the original review:

If you’ve never experienced one of Meliés’s masterful early-20th-century fantasies, you couldn’t do better than to start with this interpretation of countryman Jules Verne. Images from it (especially the bullet-like rocket implanted in the eye of the man in the moon) are iconic images of early film, and are sometimes unfairly used to suggest the scientific ignorance of people from the period. Watching the film makes it very clear that it was never intended to be serious. Much of the movie is taken up with the astronauts fighting moon men who burst like balloons at the slightest touch. At fourteen minutes, it’s an easy view for modern tastes, even those not comfortable with silent film.

Director: Georges Meliés

Camera: Théophile Michault, Lucien Tainguy

Starring: Georges Meliés, Bluette Bernon

Run Time: 12 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here (full color, no music) or here (black and white, with music)