Over the past 10-15 years, I’ve had reverse schooling in film history, as I started out as a music reviewer and ultimately film took over, another creative industry I’ve always respected and been fascinated by. While I’ve always seen the name of Georges Méliès as someone to investigate, and Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo also encouraged, it’s somehow taken me this long to immerse into his film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), which was the first-ever Science Fiction in 1902, and my experience was genuinely magnificent.
Méliès wasn’t just an early cinema pioneer, as you’ll learn from the Special Features, he was also an animator, magician and inventor who undoubtedly influenced so many methods you see today in filmmaking, across the genres and styles. While he did have the money to create such visions, you still need creativity and Le Voyage dans la Lune is packed to the rafters with originality.
Motivated by the works of Jules Verne, the 16-minute film sees a group of Scientists invent and build a spaceship, and then fly to the Moon to explore the wonders of space but, once there, they encounter Alien-beings and have to escape to come home. Méliès’ film, presented on this Arrow Films limited edition release in black and white and colour, contains more expansive storytelling than many lower-quality films that are lauded for being no budget to this day. While I’m not intending to make one filmmaker get ‘one over’ another, the sheer scale, invention, progression and creativity that was required to make this, prior to its release in 1902, is utterly remarkable.
With captivating visuals from the start, including epic costume and set designs, we first meet the team of academics and Scientists, and ladies who are also facilitating things, as they make their plans to go to the Moon. Whilst they develop the process of how to get there, each moment is packed with life, decisions, and action from (loosely) discussing the Science of getting there, right through the construction of the spaceship. There’s a wonderful ‘on Earth’ scene with a huge industrial, working town back-drop, which – in a bizarre way – isn’t too far off what NASA would have create many years later. You often wonder what inspires what, and I’m starting to believe our inventions and imagination absolutely produces what comes later in history.
Once the rocket is realised, with aplomb, we’re off to the Moon to land with that iconic “the man in the moon with a rocket in his eye” landing-shot. On arrival, and the scientists settle in, have a sleep (it was a long journey), and there’s a smart transition shot which takes us from their landing, to the Earth disappearing in the background and then Stars appear – I’ll later learn that Méliès also invented this shot transition.
But this isn’t just about the moon landing, there’s other species to discover, aliens to attack them, cultures to embrace, it’s tremendous. It’s exciting, it’s inspiring even to this day, nearly 120 years later. I discovered that the restoration process was a tough one, with some of the colour-film destroyed but they’ve recoloured, layered, restored and show it in the finest glory that it can be. When you consider how long this would have taken and how smooth, progressive and interesting it is, well, an icon beyond icons. This is true film history and every moment is fascinating.
A short 30-minute French film ‘Le Grand Melies’ by Georges Franju, available with an English voiceover, pays homage to Méliès after his death in 1938, meeting the original Madame Méliès, and his son. It’s very loving and emotive, despite its age which might be in the 60s? You get a closer look into his life, a visual clue to where Scorsese got his ideas from for Hugo, including a small moment with his toy shop – in recreation – which opens up that world up even further.
There’s also video essay The Innovation of George Méliès by Jon Spira, that explores A Trip to the Moon further and also his career. Spira talks about how he defined early cinema with props, set designs and filmmaker. It celebrates his work as a pioneer in technical advancement and, to be true, how we use it even today. They also talk of the Lumière brothers, how he copied their ‘cinema’ idea because they wouldn’t sell to him, and thus became one of the very first to show films on the big screen. It also talks about his love of phantasmagoria, illusions, and the nature of special effects at the start of film creation.
The Extraordinary Voyage is Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange’s 2011 documentary about the rediscovery of the film, alongside interviews with the likes of Michel Gondry, Michel Hazanavicius and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This dox explores the beginning of the 20th century, takes you through early films and their place in society. It also recalled that although Méliès may have money at the beginning, he was very broke by the end of it all, and could have easily been lost in film history, which would have been tragic. This one runs for over an hour and doubles-up with the aforementioned essay but goes a bit deeper. You can also see why Directors like Gondry have been inspired, which is evident in his own creations as Méliès films weren’t about recreating reality, they were about dreams, escapism and trying to make sure that anything was possible.