Today I am celebrating the 1902 release of the world’s first science fiction film, Le Voyages dans le Lune (A Trip to the Moon) made by Georges Méliès. In the early days of cinema most films were documentaries showing scenes from everyday life. Méliès had strong connections with the theatre which made him interested in making films with a fictional narrative.
The plot revolves around a group of astronomers who plan to travel to the moon. They build a bullet shaped capsule and a huge cannon to fire it from. Their landing on the moon is actually shown twice in the film. In the first landing, which is the film’s iconic scene, the Man in the Moon watches them approach and is hit in the eye by their capsule. In the second they land more believably in an imagined lunar landscape. They climb out of their capsule, watch the earth rise then get out blankets and go to sleep. As they sleep, we see in the sky above them, a comet pass by, stars come out, each with a human face, the god Saturn leaning out of a window in his planet and the goddess Phoebe sitting on a crescent moon. She sprinkles snow on them to wake them up. The Astronomers encounter moon dwelling creatures called Selenites who, they discover, disappear in a cloud of smoke when they are thrown to the ground. They kill the moon dwellers king by pulling him from his throne and are chased back to their capsule and return to earth by simply pulling their craft over the edge of a cliff. The capsule plummets through space dragging an angry Selenite behind it and lands in the sea. The film ends with a celebratory parade and a statue dedicated to the chief astronomer.
Although the film is short by today’s standards, for 1902 it was an unusually long and lavish production. It took a whole three months to make and most of the ten thousand franc budget went on costumes and mechanical scenery. The astronomers have particularly fine wizard robes in the opening scene and the moon dwellers have quite elaborate insect like costumes. Méliès also uses every camera trick he has in this film. By splicing the film he is able to make telescopes turn into stools and an umbrella into a mushroom. He uses the same technique to make the Selenites disappear in a puff of smoke. For the scene in which the capsule approaches the moon, rather than move the camera towards his subject he sits his actor in a chair and pulls him towards the lens. There is also a double exposure during the return landing in which film of the falling capsule is set against a film of the ocean which was shot on location.
Filmed before there was such a thing as a movie star, there are no opening or closing credits. Méliès himself takes the rôle of lead astronomer, the rest of the cast apart from one of the cameramen, are theatrical people. The Selenites are played by the acrobats of the Folies Bergère. Each scene is shot by a single camera which gives the whole thing a very theatrical feel. Méliès has no problem with showing the same scene twice in different ways. In his work there is no such thing as continuity editing and the cinematic vocabulary we would recognise was yet to be built up.
At first Méliès had difficulty distributing his film. It’s long running time made it expensive and people were unwilling to pay. According to his memoirs he first got it screened by offering it for free to a fairground exhibitor. It was so popular with fairgoers that he bought the film immediately. It was pronounced a success and ran continuously in Paris for several months. A Trip to the Moon was one of the most popular films of the first few years of the twentieth century. It appeared not only in black and white but also a hand coloured version which was achieved by painstakingly painting each frame of the film. Work which was carried out by Elisabeth Thuillier’s colouring lab in Paris.
Méliès was keen to distribute in America, where the film also became hugely popular. Sadly he didn’t receive many of the royalties due to him as his film was copied by American distributors such as Edison who did not pay him or even credit him as it’s creator. He is now widely credited as being the first person to recognise the potential of narrative film. In his words: these fantastic and artistic films reproduce stage scenes and create a new genre entirely different from the ordinary cinematographic views of real people and real streets. His work would later influence the work of Edwin S Ported and D W Griffiths who said of him: I owe him everything.