Georges Méliès’s 1902 work A Trip to the Moon is considered the first science-fiction film. It borrows its first half from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, and its second half form H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. Its stagecraft and special effects are remarkable for the time. And it is completely wacko.
Some scholars believe Méliès’ odd touches were meant to be satirical, poking fun at the culture of science and its pompous practitioners. Others think he wanted a dream-like quality where logic didn’t matter as much as cinematic beauty. Either way, the result is a strange, wonderful space fantasy that every sci-fi fan should see. After all, it’s only about 15 minutes long.
They said it couldn't be done
The film is silent, with no titles, so there’s no dialogue or even a Star Wars-style prologue. Here’s the basic plot:
Six wizened astronomers, led by Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès himself), decide to travel to the moon in a capsule launched by a giant cannon, an idea probably inspired by Verne. We see them make their plans over what looks like objections from others in the “Astronomic Society.” We see the workshop where the capsule is built; it looks like a giant steel bullet. What we might call Launch Control is staffed by “marines,” young women wearing sexy (at that time) sailor suits, commanded by an army officer. The cannon is fired. Then there's the famous shot of the Man in the Moon getting hit in the eye.
The six men emerge from their capsule among the canyons of the moon. Instead of space suits, they wear top hats and waistcoats, and carry umbrellas. They witness “Earthrise,” their home planet ascending over the craggy lunar peaks. American astronauts have described this as perhaps the most moving, perspective-altering sight of their entire lives. These travelers' response? Going to sleep.
After being awakened by a lunar snowfall (it is cold up there), the astronomers begin their exploration. They encounter giant mushrooms and then—intelligent life! An insectoid, bipedal Selenite. The greatest discovery in human history. How do our noble explorers react? By smacking the creature with an umbrella, causing it to explode.
Not surprisingly, the astronomers are quickly outnumbered. More Selenites appear, wielding spears. The team is captured and brought to the Selenite “king”; he’s seated on a throne, with women sprawled about him. Here, at least, is a chance to correct the miscommunication and begin a relationship between the two worlds in peace and—no, sorry, Barbenfouillis grabs the king and throws him to the ground, where he explodes like all the others.
The astronomers escape—detonating a few more Selenites along the way—and return to their capsule. Méliès eschews issues of gravity, so the explorers only have to tip the capsule off a cliff for it to fall all the way back to Earth; no cannon required. They land in the ocean (another prescient idea of Verne’s) and are given a hero’s welcome back in Paris. One Selenite hung onto the capsule during its return. The creature is captured and paraded through the streets. The marine girls and astronomers dance. The end.
Very special effects
Silly plot aside, the film is a visual treat. From the strange perspectives of the Astronomic Society hall to the foundry where the capsule is forged to the lunar landscapes, Méliès borrowed from French opera and live theatre to create beautiful scenery. The hand-tinted color version is particularly spectacular.
There are plenty of other effects that were cutting-edge in 1902. Méliès frequently used splice-substitution, which involves freezing the action, stopping the camera, making some change to the scene, and then starting the camera again. We’re not fooled by this trick today, but some of the effects of the Selenites exploding still look just about flawless. There are real pyrotechnics as well, as well as moving scenery and pretty cool costumes for the Selenites. As far as I can tell, every single background is “virtual,” with nothing shot on location—not even the final scene on the street. That allowed Méliès to create an entire world of fantasy in a short time.
The film was a huge success and is still iconic. Today, critics praise its anti-imperialist theme (those poor Selenites!) and its "pataphysical" (absurdist sci-fi) style.
120 years after its release, America has landed men on the moon six times. Rovers and landers continue to visit its surface. And our sci-fi filmmaking has matured into both the thrilling fantasy of Star Wars and the scientifically plausible drama of Gravity, aided by visual effects and 3-D cinematography that make the viewer feel like they’re actually in space.
But in a small way, all those adventures began with a Frenchman, a camera, and a very peculiar dream.
Jason Ginsburg studied film and theater at USC. He attended the launch of CRS-16 as part of the NASA Social program. He works for Discovery Channel.