- Director: Georges Méliès
- Writer: Georges Méliès
- Starring: Georges Méliès, Bleuette Bernon, François Lallement, and Henri Delannoy
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video
Premiering in 1902, Le Voyage Dans La Lune (usually anglicized as A Trip to the Moon) was not the first moving picture, period, but it is the earliest movie on the timeline that we’ve done so far (it is also, for example, the earliest film in the book 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die). Some would argue that it was the first movie to really understand the power of film to transport the viewer somewhere else. It also serves as an even earlier connection in film history. This is where it all started.
There is a great deal of dispute over who actually invented the movie camera, and who made the first “motion picture.” However, probably the first commercial movie screening (i.e. people paid for tickets and sat in a theater) took place in Paris in 1895, and was an attempt by the Lumière brothers to show off their new invention. The story goes that one of the brief films they showed, L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), caused panic because the audience thought the train would come through the screen and run them over. Modern research has shown that this is probably an apocryphal story, but it is true that these seemingly very simple films caused a sensation.
Also in attendance at that screening was a stage magician named Georges Méliès. He had an immediate revelation that he wanted to get into this medium, and asked the Lumières to sell him a camera. Wanting to protect their new invention in a time of rampant copyright infringement, they refused, so Méliès literally set out to build his own camera. He eventually succeeded and immediately started making movies using tricks he learned from the stage. He may not have 100% invented movies, but he definitely invented what we today would call “special effects.” Again using his stage background, he is generally thought to have been the first director to use artificial sets and the first to specially light his movies.
Less than seven years after being in attendance at that first movie screening, Méliès directed, wrote, produced, and starred in Le Voyage Dans La Lune, which was 16 minutes long and cost the equivalent of $5 million. Or, as they put in on the Unspooled podcast, “this was basically the 1902 version of Armageddon.” It was considered so long at the time that Méliès initially had trouble selling it to theater owners, who didn’t think people would sit still for 16 whole minutes, so he staged a single free screening himself, at which the response was so enthusiastic that sales took off. However, he never did make back his full budget, because the movie was widely pirated, especially in the US by none other than Thomas Edison. On the one hand, that sucked for Méliès, but on the other hand it might be the biggest reason we have a few different versions of the movie today. There was even a hand-painted color version that was produced in a Paris factory, which was thought lost until a copy was found in 1993 in an anonymous donation to a library in Barcelona. This is the version you can watch today on the Criterion Channel, though I’m sure there’s a bunch of different versions floating around on YouTube.
Le Voyage Dans La Lune is thought to have been at least inspired by a couple of different Jules Verne novels, along with a handful of other sources. It follows several members of the “Astronomers’ Guild,” weird pointy wizard hats and all, as they formulate a plan to shoot themselves to the moon using a huge gun (as in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon), crash through the “crust” of the Moon, meet the “Selenite” natives beneath the Moon’s surface, get taken captive, escape, and return to Earth to a hero’s welcome. Méliès himself stars as the lead Astronomer, “Professor Barbenfouillis,” and hired acrobats from the Folies Bergère to play the “Selenites,” which is how they can do all those crazy flips and stuff they do in this movie. This is a movie so far ahead of the curve that it has a fairly elaborate depiction of aliens well before the use of “aliens” to mean “people from another planet” was even a thing.
What I find really interesting watching the movie today is what still completely works and what’s very different from watching a movie today. Méliès’ effects still work, including the movie’s most famous, definitive shot, of the space capsule landing in the eye of “The Man in the Moon.” This shot is so ubiquitous that I was shocked to discover, watching the color version for the first time, that it shows red blood seeping down from the Moon’s eye. It’s weirdly gory in a way I was not expecting at all. What Méliès did not have at his disposal were the absolute basics of cinematic language that we take for granted today. There are no close-ups in Le Voyage Dans La Lune, nor anything that could properly be called a “camera angle,” or any editing within scenes. Méliès still basically thinks of the camera as a person sitting in an audience, looking up at a stage. If anything, his compositions seem “too busy,” with many of them having too much going on in different parts of the screen at once for a viewer who is used to being subconsciously told where to look to take in at one time.
Nor does Le Voyage Dans La Lune have any titles to help you along with the story like many later silent films would. In fact, the common practice at time was for the movie to be accompanied by an in-theater narrator, who would explain to the audience what they were seeing. This likely enabled shades of meaning that we might not get watching the thing today. One thing that you can pick up on that modern viewers might find surprising is that the whole thing is basically an anti-Colonialist allegory. This is the story of a bunch of ridiculous white dudes wearing pointy hats who barge in on native people with spears, fight them instead of making any attempt to understand them, come back to Earth, and end up with very stupid-looking statues of themselves. Perhaps the most important thing to know about this story from a story standpoint is that Méliès thinks that the “Astronomers’ Guild” is a bunch of dumbasses.
So as a historical document, Le Voyage Dans La Lune is of course very interesting today. But will modern viewer’s still enjoy it from a story standpoint? That is obviously hard to know, but I think the answer is probably. It is sometimes called the first Science Fiction movie, or the first Fantasy movie, but really it is probably the first real movie that you can watch as a movie, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with fun adventure stuff happening in the middle. It also has a really fun handmade feel, an aesthetic that I, likely along with many others of my generation, became familiar with through the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” music video years before I knew about this movie.
If you do find it interesting, you might consider checking out Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which features Ben Kingsley playing a character that the movie eventually reveals to be Méliès himself and shows scenes of the making of Le Voyage Dans La Lune at one point. I personally found about the main 75% of that movie to be pretty forgettable and boring but the 25% that was a love letter to the super early days of cinema to actually be pretty fun. I also think it was that portion of the movie that was the reason Hugo got any awards momentum at the time, but that is probably another story. In the meantime, from your perspective it will probably be a pretty fun 16 minutes to watch this slice of history, so why not give it a try?