Sunday, March 23, 2014

Le Voyage dans la Lune (Star-Film, 1902)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Made in 1902 at Georges Méliès’ Star-Film studio in Paris (the Star-Film logo actually appears in the movie — Méliès put it there himself in a futile attempt to deter piracy of his movies, an interesting forerunner of the logo watermarks that afflict virtually all TV showings of anything these days), Le Voyage dans la Lune (usually translated as “A Trip to the Moon”) is generally considered the first science-fiction film ever made. It’s based, more or less, on From the Earth to the Moon by Méliès’ countryman, Jules Verne, but about all the two have in common is that the actual trip to the moon is accomplished by firing the space capsule as a shell from a giant cannon (which rather begs the question of how Méliès’ astronauts get back to earth). The plot is as simple as you’d expect from a 10-minute movie: a bearded old professor (played by Méliès himself) lectures a group of disbelieving colleagues on how he plans to fire a cannon shell to the moon. He does so, as a bevy of scantily-clad (at least by 1902 standards) bathing beauties see him and his fellow astronauts off — even that early they realized that sex could sell movies — and they make it to the moon, giving the Man in the Moon a black eye (apparently the moon was also played by Méliès in that sequence) in what’s become the most famous clip from this film. They meet a bunch of menacing Moon creatures, but the moon inhabitants are relatively easy to deal with because if you club them with something, they turn into a puff of smoke and disappear. Eventually the astronauts make a triumphant homecoming (the landing, with the capsule falling into the sea and a parachute opening to slow it down, looks uncannily like the actual splashdowns of the Apollo capsules) and bring a Moon-man back with them. Primitive in some ways — the camera seems to have been nailed to the studio floor, and there’s virtually no editing — Le Voyage dans la Lune is highly sophisticated in others, not only Méliès’ special effects (he’d been a stage magician before he started making films, and it showed) but the fact that virtually every transition is a dissolve, at a time when post-production effects simply didn’t exist: every one of those dissolves had to be done in the camera, first by reducing the exposure to create a “fade to black,” then rewinding the film inside the camera and shooting the next scene with a fade-in done by simply opening the lens wider. The movie also shows the cleverness and whimsicality of Méliès’ work generally, and it’s nice that the first science-fiction film ever made should show this unique sort of Gallic charm, a quite different aura from that the sci-fi genre got used for in too many bad movies over the years!