Le voyage dans la lune or A Trip to the Moon is a 1902 silent movie by Georges Méliès. It is considered the first science fiction film. It is also the first of several silent films on this list. Silent films can be problematic when I recommend them to people. The narrative structure, the acting styles, the visual ques are much, much different than modern film making and many find it hard to access. And it is true, silent films have their own language, you kind of have to learn how to speak it to really enjoy them.
Personally I love silent films, I find them mesmerizing. Even the most mundane of movies have an otherworldly, almost surreal look to them. The over-the-top, wildly expressive style of acting always makes me smile and the crude scenery and stage-play design I find charming. All that being said I do know many people look at a silent era film no matter what its quality and just simply don’t like it. I get that and I totally respect that. There are certain films however that I feel you absolutely must watch because a) you will get a better understanding of the history of movie-making and b) they’re awesome.
Le voyage dans la lune definitely falls into both of those categories. And hey, it’s only 14 minutes. You can watch a 14 minute silent movie right? Of course you can.
What it Is
At a meeting of the Astronomic Club Professor Barbenfouillis gives a lecture and proposes a trip to the moon. He is met with some dissenters who make their disapproval known by throwing things at him (you know, like you do) but eventually everything settles down and five others – Nostradamus, Alcofrisbas, Omega, Micromegas and Parafaragaramus – agree to go with him. The six adventurers squeeze into a bullet-like capsule and are fired to the moon from an enormous cannon.
The capsule makes a slow approach to the moon’s face and (in one of the most iconic scenes in the history of film) slam into it’s eye. After landing the adventurers get out just in time to see the Earth rise in the distance. Worn out from the journey the men lay out blankets and rest.
As they sleep several stars come out, all with faces of women who look a bit annoyed by the sleeping men. Then a comet passes and the Big Dipper, and Old Man Saturn accompanied by Phoebe the goddess of the Moon sitting on a crescent-moon swing. The arrival of Phoebe causes a snowstorm and the men awake to take shelter in a cave.
In the cave they are amazed by giant mushrooms and when one of the men opens an umbrella it immediately takes root and becomes a mushroom itself. At this point an an insectoid alien called a Selenite arrives and is immediately killed by one of the adventurers by hitting it over the head causing it to explode into a puff of smoke. Shaking hands apparently wasn’t an option.
Several more Selenites arrive and are puffed away but soon overwhelm the men and they are taken to the King. Upon meeting the king Barbenfouillis promptly lifts him over his head and slams him to the ground causing him to explode. Diplomacy, not his strong suit.
The adventures head back to the capsule where they all get in except for Barbenfouillis who hangs from a rope on the nose of the capsule causing it to “fall” back to Earth. Before they do a Selenite holds onto the back of the capsule and comes with them.
After a splshdown in the ocean the capsule is towed by ship back to land where the adventurers are given a parade and a party and treated as heroes while the Selenite is abused. The last shot is a statue erected in their honor that is engraved with the motto “Labor omnia vincit.” Work conquerors all.
Le Voyage dans la Lune (1901)
“Labor omnia vincit (work conquers all)”
– base of a commemorative statue of Professor Barbenfouillis
Why You Must See It
Well from a historical perspective it’s the first science fiction movie, and if you like science fiction movies you should see the first one. But aside from that it’s a real wonder to see because the special effects were quite ground breaking at the time. Méliès was a stage magician and he took many of those tricks and illusions and translated them to film. He was able to accomplish this by pioneering techniques with double exposure, split screens, and use of the dissolve and fades. He also employed a technique called “stop trick” where the camera was stopped just long enough for something to be inserted in the shot making it seem as if just appeared (the capsule in the eye scene used this). He used elaborate backdrops and scenery, he employed acrobats in some of the parts so the characters moved in unusual ways and in some prints Méliès hand colored each frame making it seem even more otherworldly. Not to mention color in 1902, that’s thirty years before the fist official color film.
The film is also quite radical. Although comic and fantastical the film has a satirical take on colonialism. The adventurers are all really buffoonish and rush off to do things they really don’t understand simply for glory and adventure. And when confronted with native people the first thing they do is attack and destroy. And of course when the come home, instead of being ridiculed for their actions, they are instead treated as heroes.
Does It Have Flaws?
Well yes, it is a film from 1902 after all. From a purely technical aspect there are frames missing and even in the most “cleaned up” versions there are scratches and cracks. But as far as storytelling…well that’s a bit difficult to say.
A story written in 1902 is going to be perceived differently in the 2015, that’s just a given. Surprisingly it holds up well. It is very non-linear however. Directly after the capsule hits the moon’s eye for instance we see the capsule actually landing on the surface of the moon. These two scenes seem disjointed now but if you consider that continuity cuts and closeups and various other film language that we take for granted hadn’t been implemented or even invented yet this doesn’t seem like a flaw per se. Similarly the single camera view, that is to say it looks as if you are watching a stage play, is strange to us now but common then. These are not exactly flaws but just how films were then and just something you have to understand and get used to.
Acting of course is much different as well. What passed for a subtle performance at this time is far from what it is today. Now this film isn’t exactly going for “subtle” but still if you are looking for De Niro style method acting this will seriously disappoint. Basically “flaws” are very subjective with a film this old.
As I said I really like silent era films. There is just an aesthetic I am drawn to. To be simplistic I find them really neat. And strangely beautiful. There are ideas that I have to retrain myself to understand, women and race and equality were not on people’s minds at the time. So yes, massive grains of salt are used when experiencing these old films. But there are some that are forward and progressive – like the one we are talking about now. Méliès was pretty progressive in many ways – even if it was just a consequence of wanting to do things differently and not conscious effort. That’s kind of the beauty of art, when doing things different and against the norm you end up being on the side of fairness. A funny byproduct.
Regardless this is a movie that is a spectacle, something to behold. And its influence cannot by estimated.
One Last Note
I showed this movie to my daughter when she was very young, I figured it would be like a cartoon to her. And I wasn’t wrong she laughed and giggled along with the film. When the woman came down on her moon swing I commented how silly it was that some one could be swinging on the moon while being on the moon. My daughter commented that Saturn was right next to her and maybe that was Saturn’s moon. There are lots of moons after all.
It’s a humbling fact to be out thought by a five year old. But every time I see this film I kick myself for not thinking of it first. I chalk it up to the kid having a good influence.
Originally published Mar 20, 2015