Let’s get down to watching the first sci-fi film OF ALL TIME: Le Voyage dans la lune (1902).
But first, some background. The film was released in 1902, making it the earliest known science fiction film (and one of the first films, full stop), and it’s a silent movie by a French man named Georges Méliès (with help from his brother Gaston).
Méliès (pronounced Meh-lee-yes, I think. If you’re interested…) had been an illusionist by trade before he began experimenting with making films, and applied a lot of that craft to his works, innovating in the field of special effects (which, at the time, apparently consisted of “discovering” the substitution stop trick; that thing where you stop the camera and take objects away, and they appear to have disappeared by magic. Easier times…).
Quite a few of the early years of my journey through science fiction movie history will probably be represented by Méliès, since he really did seem to be one of the pioneers of the genre, and the technologies involved in making the films.
But enough of that guff, it’s time for the film…
We kick off with a shot of an astronomical society getting very excited about an announcement that’s due to be made by their President. This is notable for a few reasons;
- I would like to point out that you may as well imagine these guys as wizards. That’s basically how the fact that they’re astronomers has been conveyed.
- The President turns up and his hat falls off. It’s not reacted to in any way, and I can only assume it’s the first of many such awesome artefacts of the production style…
- His plan is to make a voyage to the lune. He demonstrates this with a pretty great Wallace and Gromit style diagram.
Only a couple of minutes later (the runtime of this film is only a bit over 10 minutes, so events unfold pretty sharpish), we see the President and his five brave colleagues being seen off by a big pompous ceremony. There’s been a bit of to-and-froing to get to this point; the crew go for a visit to the factory to see their spacecraft being forged, and one of them falls headlong into a vat of Nitric acid. I really thought that’d take the numbers down to five, but lo and behold, all six are ready to go!
The whole lot of them climb into their ‘shell’, and I have serious worries that this word means they won’t so much be flying to the Moon as being fired at the Moon out of a really big cannon. I think I should’ve paid more attention to the diagram at the beginning.
… I was correct. Cut to an absolutely fantastic special effects sequence of the view of the approach to the Moon. It’s got a face, a bit like you’ll have seen in The Mighty Boosh, and we’re treated to a bit of that good old stop-substitution as the space bullet smashes straight into its right eye. This is probably the most famous shot from the film, and I can see why – for something produced when it was, it actually represents both some pretty creative thinking about what people would like to see in a film, and some downright ingenious image manipulation trickery.
After arriving on the surface and getting very excited, our intrepid explorers start feeling the effects of their long journey and settle down for some sleep. In their dreams, the stars of the Great Bear decide to punish them for the tenacity of coming to the Moon, and send a harsh snowstorm which forces them down into the interior. This whole scene’s really great, because it’s all filmed within one two-dimensional set, with background panels sinking and an image of the Earth rising to show the passage of time. At some point which escaped me, the traveller’s craft disappeared from it’s initial position, freeing up the central screen space. It’s all really creative and fun!
Inside the Moon, things get magical; one of the astronomers puts down his umbrella, and it transforms into a mushroom and grows tall. The group are set upon by some local creatures (played by what must be stage contortionists, walking on their hands and flipping around) which vanish into a puff of smoke when hit by one of the scientists. Eventually, our gang’s overpowered, and taken in front of the King of the Moon-creatures. All looks bleak, but the President of the Astronomers makes a dash, lifts the King bodily over his head (I can only assume he’s supposed to be comparatively very strong on the Moon, gravity and such…) and throws him to the ground, where he too explodes into smoke. Cue chase scene!
They get back to their shell and rush inside. Now, I know what you might be thinking; there’s no cannon on the Moon – however will they fly back home? Well, one of them bravely pulls the shell off the edge of a Moon cliff, and it falls. Downwards. Which as we all know, is the way to Earth from the Moon, what with it being up there. Safely falling back into one of Earth’s mighty glass-sided aquariums, the gang are pulled to shore by a tugboat. fin.
Well, that was frankly outrageously entertaining. It never took itself too seriously, the story was a great mix of forward thinking and little fairytale-like touches, and I absolutely loved watching it.
My arbitrary score; 8 mad astronomers out of a possible 10!
What’s lovely is the sense of fun about the whole thing; as an example, the ‘Marines’ who help the crew into their shell and push it into the gun are in fact a troupe of 12 or so scantily clad (for 1902, at least) ladies who end up waving their hats and generally giving the scientists a jolly silly send-off.
You feel like Georges thought to himself;
This is a film about going into space, pretty girls and huge Moon-mushrooms, all of which are kinda cool. Everyone’ll enjoy that, yes?