From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from October 21st, 2015…
Georges Melies, perhaps the grandfather of cinema itself beyond the Lumiere Brothers, made a staggering 520 pictures in his lifetime, 300 of which he starred in himself simply because the concept of a ‘star’ had not yet even been realised.
That is how far back into the history of motion pictures this goes, with A Trip to the Moon a pioneering piece of film and still the defining piece of work Melies is remembered for. Though only running fifteen minutes, featuring no dialogue and no character stories essentially, Melies film is one of the very first to employ not just a basic narrative structure but equally display, visually, concepts that would later be classified as science-fiction.
The plot concerns a group of Parisian scientists who launch a steampunk-style rocket to the Moon, only to be captured by the native Selenites, before escaping with a Selenite captive back to a celebrating Paris. It takes an enormous cue from primarily the groundbreaking 19th century works of Jules Verne & H.G. Wells, while stylistically pulling from French theatre and operetta. Though naturally over a century on it looks extremely primitive and different to film as we recognise it, just take a step back and imagine how incredible this would have looked to the eyes of a person circa 1902.
It would have been staggering.
Remember this was the turn of the 20th century, a year after the death of Queen Victoria and an era of Empire still essentially characterised by her epoch-lasting rule; indeed many have suggested Melies film is redoubtably anti-imperialist, perhaps in part a celebration of pushing off the shackles of monarchical repression, and it’s a key sign as to the technological and sociological revolution that was to make the 20th century the most standout period of human history to date.
Verne had proposed in fiction the idea of exploring places no man had gone before, while Wells had given us Martians & Morlocks. Melies displays here a pre-scientific vision of our nearest bedrock; his Moon has atmosphere, has character given the face his rocket ship iconically crashes into, has a landscape filled with jagged edges and plumes of bilious gases, plus the aforementioned natives. It’s a lost world akin to Conan Doyle, not the barren rock science and the Apollo missions would later bear out, and it’s a signature of Melies hopeful characterisation of man’s desire to discover.
His scientists are gregarious, theatrical and operatic in their portrayal, their movements overblown and stylised even without words, but the meaning remains visible and key to every frame.
More than theme or context, it’s truly the nature of Melies technique that makes his seminal piece of work stand the test of time, because he was truly venturing into unexplored waters, creating the rules of cinematography himself. He constructed his set to afford natural light, used camera operator Francois Lallement as the lead scientist on screen, and employed a variety of theatrical ‘stop trick’ techniques to characterise the more fantastical elements of his film; puffs of smoke, the rocket being shot toward the moon, all which almost feel like a piece of staging or even a magic act as much as film, but in the context of what he was creating work vividly.
Melies even designed and made his own costumes for the Selenite creatures, such was his work ethic and attention to detail. Alongside the imaginative set design which speaks gloriously to so-called Victoriana steampunk now, Melies’ colouring also bears mentioning; he ensured his stock had hand painted colours for the actors on screen and following the 1993 rediscovery of a colour print which led to a 2010 re-release (set to a score by progressive French rockers Air), the colour palette of his film remains astounding, certainly for the age this was constructed. It took three months to film and painstakingly construct. Three months almost seems nothing now considering how far reaching and inspirational A Trip to the Moon has become.
Georges Melies could scarcely have been aware of just what legacy he was creating with his short film, learning and building the initial rules of motion pictures, off the back of the Lumiere’s who created it, a form which would go on to perhaps be the single most beloved signature of entertainment of the 20th century across the globe. Like the Wright brothers taking flight or Yuri Gagarin launching into space after him, Melies was a true visionary and pioneer who shall always be remembered, as will A Trip to the Moon, as partly where everything we love as film fans and dramatists began.
Any fan of movies needs to see an example of the genesis of their passion.