A Trip to the Moon (1902)

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*. Film restoration. It can be a marvelous thing. If you’re young enough you may have only experienced this movie in the fantastic restored hand-coloured version that premiered in 2011 to much deserved fanfare (the print had only been discovered in 1993). You can view it for free, in high definition, on the Internet.
*. That is not, however, how most people saw it in 1902. I’m not even sure if anyone saw it that way, or at least quite the same way, in 1902 (the colouring was a laborious process that took quite a while). The majority of prints in circulation were in black and white.
*. This is the thing about restorations: they’re often not restoring the film to anything like an actually existing earlier version, but rather transforming it into something new and improved. It’s like what George Lucas did to Star Wars, going back to digitally re-insert the Jabba the Hutt from The Return of the Jedi into a film where he was originally just played by a normal actor. Lucas didn’t have the money to do Jabba the way he wanted to do him in the first film, but later he could make the change through the magic of technology. But that’s not the movie anyone saw in the ’70s.
*. Or think of all the “director’s cuts” that you’ve probably seen. Do they improve on the “theatrical release”? In many if not most cases I would say they don’t, but my point is that they’re different movies. They “restore” material that was cut at some point in the process, but they aren’t really restorations.
*. So, to try and get back on topic, my point is just that when we talk about the HD version of A Trip to the Moon complete with all the bells and whistles, I think we have to recognize that it’s not a definitive version but more like an anomaly.
*. This is sometimes described as the first science fiction movie. It depends on how rigid your classification schemes are. Most hardcore (if not “hard”) SF fans I know would balk at calling it science fiction. It’s more fantastic than anything in Wells or even Verne.
*. The scientists are introduced as a bunch of wizards. Along with their robes embroidered with astronomical signs and pointed hats, those telescopes and umbrellas they carry may as well be wands. The French academy prefigures Hogwarts.
*. It’s a circus show, with Méliès himself as the head wizard/ringmaster Professor Barbenfouillis. The Selenites, or moon men, jump and do somersaults for no reason at all. It’s just part of the show. Frantic action and visual clutter would be Méliès’s way of getting around the limitations of a static camera.
*. How static? That famous moon shot isn’t a dolly in to the face of the moon — which, and this is the important point, would have been easier— but rather was achieved by bringing the moon toward the camera. When you’re that rigid you have to keep getting more elaborate with the tableaux.
*. And they’re certainly elaborate here (though they would become even more so in the sequel, An Impossible Voyage). The layered sets create an effect much like animation. Terry Gilliam must have been a fan.
*. With such a static frame, composition becomes very important, and it’s very well handled here. Note how in the opening scene there are a whole series of diagonals leading up to the moon, at the top center. It’s the same basic structure as in the opening shot of The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), but much more developed. The diagram on the chalkboard flows into the statue of a telescope affixed to the pillar, which flows into a giant telescope which ends with the moon itself. There are three different components to the one diagonal but they form a composite that ends at the same focal point.
*. The impression of animation is enhanced by the colouring, which gives the frame the appearance of a psychadelic paisley. Add in a journey to the land of mushrooms and we have a hallucinogenic trip worthy of 2001.
*. It’s not fair to write Méliès off as a mere magician with a camera. But he was an impresario still putting on what was in the end a very elaborate, very fanciful stage show. There were definite limits to what he could do — even, I think, to what he wanted to do — but what he did remains impressive in its own right to this day.

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