If you have ever picked up a book on the greatest movies ever made, you will be aware of the iconic reputation of the film still featured above. That image of the man-moon with a space capsule embedded in one eye comes out of Le Voyage dans la Lune or A Trip to the Moon, a 1902 14-minute French silent film directed by filmmaker and magician Georges Méliès (1861-1938) based on two of Jules Verne’s novels, From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870). H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901) is also a possible influence.
The son of a shoemaker, Méliès began working for his family business immediately after finishing his education. Later, after completing compulsory military service, he went to London to work as a clerk. There he would frequent Egyptian Hall – an exhibition venue in Piccadilly run by the famous English illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne.
Méliès returned to Paris in 1885 with a passion for stage magic and following a decade-long theatrical career began making films after attending the demonstration of a cinematograph developed by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Over the subsequent years, Méliès came to pioneer a number of special effects, among them dissolves, time-lapse photography and hand-painted colour.
A Trip to the Moon – his 400th short – was made on an budget of 10,000 Francs, astronomical for its time. Hugely successful, it was freely pirated internationally. In the US, it was copied and distributed by technicians of the Edison Manufacturing Company established by Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb).
Although the film has a strong “fantasy”quality, it contains all the elements that characterise the science-fiction genre: “adventurous scientists, a futuristic space voyage, special effects such as superimpositions, and strange aliens in a far-off place” [film critic Tim Dirks on filmsite.org] and could arguably be called the screen’s first science fiction story.
The narrative commences on Earth with a congress at the Astronomic Club during which its president, Professor Barbenfouillis, proposes a trip to the moon. The scientists soon enthusiastically leave for the moon in a spaceship propelled by a cannon. After landing safely, they explore the surrounding areas and encounter a race of lunar inhabitants called the Selenites. The astronomers are unable to conquer the aliens and are forced to return to Earth.
A Trip to the Moon looks like a light-hearted and imaginative piece of storytelling but it has deeper political connotations. Many commentators have interpreted the film as an anti-imperialist satire. In her 2000 book on Méliès, Elizabeth Ezra, Professor of Cinema and Culture at the University of Stirling, Scotland observed:
In its depiction of the exploration of a faraway place and hostile encounter with alien life forms, Le Voyage dans la lune can easily be read as a parable of colonial conflict. When the film was made, France was the second largest colonial power in the world, having emerged from a period of unprecedented imperial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century.
While Méliès mocks the pretensions of colonialist accounts of the conquest of one culture by another, his film also thematizes social differentiation on the home front, as the hierarchical patterns on the moon are shown to bear a curious resemblance to those on earth.
Watch the film below:
A hand-painted version also exists:
Featured: Still from A Trip to the Moon, Star Film Company.
French Cinema: From its Beginnings to the Present (2015) by Rémi Fournier Lanzoni
Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (1990) by
The Story of Film (2013) by Mark Cousins
Film History: An Introduction (2009) by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson