Review: A Trip to the Moon [Film] (1902)
I noticed that my previous couple of blog posts are tangentially Moon-related. So I thought I’d double-down on the Lunar theme, and write a review of a science-fiction film classic: A Trip to the Moon (1902). Best known for the spaceship-in-the-eye scene, A Trip to the Moon is actually the oldest science-fiction film in existence, and 118 years after its release, still damned good fun.
However, the age of the thing means it is something of a culture shock. Most people understand the concept of a silent film, but whereas the later Nosferatu at least has dialogue (in the form of Intertitles), A Trip to the Moon has none of that. It’s thirteen minutes of watching French actors waving their hands about. That it keeps your attention even in 2020 is a testament to it being Good.
The plot is, fortunately, rather simple. An eccentric French Professor proposes that he and his colleagues travel to the Moon. After winning over the sceptics, our Professor (actually played by the director himself, Georges Méliès) and five colleagues climb into the spaceship, and are fired out of a giant cannon. Amid copious young women in sailor-themed costumes and very, very short shorts.
The film does not take itself at all seriously – as if you couldn’t tell from the academics dressing up like the faculty of Hogwarts, the spaceship hits the Man in the Moon in the eye. Luckily, that’s the last we see of the poor Moon-man.
Once on the surface – the Moon has perfectly breathable air here – the Professor and friends take a quick nap, before being woken up by a snow-storm. So they venture down inside the Moon, to find a world of giant mushrooms, and strange local inhabitants. These inhabitants disappear in a puff of smoke when you hit them with an umbrella, and umbrellas turn into mushrooms themselves. Because, why the hell not? It’s all supposed to be very silly.
Our protagonists are captured by the Moon-creatures, but in a tragic breakdown of Terra-Luna Relations, the Professor literally grabs the creatures’ ruler and murders him on the spot. Then they run back to the spaceship, tip the spaceship over a cliff (with the accidental help of one Moon-creature), and arrive back on Earth. There they are greeted to parades and celebrations. Our captured Moon-creature is tied up and exhibited, while the Grateful Populace erects a statue to Science.
What stands out for me is the film’s profound cynicism about scientific endeavour – and even about modern society. I would agree with those who see the influence of H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon on this, what with the inherent silliness of the scientist protagonists. A Trip to the Moon doesn’t critique “science for the sake of science” as much as Wells does, but dressing up the academics in wizard costumes, and later having them absent-mindedly interfere with the actual mechanical building of the spaceship deflates their authority. These are not heroic figures at all, but rather buffoonish eccentrics with more intelligence than wisdom.
A Trip to the Moon also has a noticeable anti-Imperialist theme running through it. After all, the Professor doesn’t actually do any scientific work on the Moon. He just murders the local inhabitants (and their ruler!) without even trying to communicate. Later, the poor Moon-creature is treated as a source of amusement, like some captured barbarian at a Roman triumph. It’s unwarranted interference at best, and outright invasion at worst… all dressed up as Advancement. Which considering that 1902 was the heyday of Invasion Literature (not to mention colonialism) means the film was addressing some rather relevant issues. Addressing, that is. Not lecturing. Much like H.G. Wells, A Trip to the Moon wants to entertain, as well as comment, and social critiques can be enjoyable pieces of art on their own terms.
So yeah. A Trip to the Moon. Definitely worth thirteen minutes of your time, even 118 years later. Just suppress the instinctive fear that something is wrong with the video volume.
As an aside, it may also interest you to know that the film was heavily pirated after its release, with Thomas Edison (yes, that one) basically ensuring that poor Georges Méliès never saw a cent out of North America. Yet another reason to hate Edison, I suppose.