Georges Méliès’ 15 minute masterpiece Le Voyage Dans la Lune is a movie I knew precious little about. The silent film with a rocket lodged in the moon’s literal face. Méliès brief but brilliant short showcases many splendors for fantasy, science fiction, and silent film lovers.
Le Voyage Dans la Lune is produced like a stage play. The camera seems fixed on static wide shots where the audience sees everything on set all at once. Filmmaking technique has changed quite a lot in the 120 years since Méliès produced Le Voyage Dans la Lune and I expect its long flat shots would bore a modern viewer accustomed to fast paced wide-medium-tight sequencing, it is nevertheless full of excitement.
When does a film’s spoiler warning expire? 120 years should be enough, if you were going to see it you would’ve by now.
Le Voyage Dans la Lune begins in a chamber for higher learning full of astronomers in stadium seats. A man walks in from screen right and all the men begin putting on tall pointy hats embroidered with cosmic shapes like stars and crescents paired with their matching robes and uniformly long white hair and beards appearing more like wizards and than scientists. A man from screen right walks behind a row of secretaries on screen left and begins drawing the rudimentary shapes of an earth mounted rocket sending a projectile to the moon. The other Astronomy Club members roar with delight. They change into adventuring outfits and leave the scene.
The scientists walk the rooftops of turn-of-the-century Paris gazing across the urban industrial wasteland before climbing into their space capsule. This is where the brilliance and beauty of Star Films’ (Georges Méliès’ production company) set design begin stealing the show. Inspired by the woodcarving illustrations found in popular fiction of the day these enormous works of pure imaginative genius transport the audience to this fantastic world faster than a bullet to the moon. The men quickly climb aboard the spaceship and begin their journey.
The iconic image of the face of the moon, irrevocably spoiled by the penetrating thrusts of mankind’s urge for exploration is one of the most iconic images of the silent film era. From the rocket’s POV la Lune grows larger on screen as we near our destination. The moon’s pox-marked face as unmistakably human before the bullet-shaped transport lodges itself directly into the satellite’s eye. I watched Flicker Alley’s restored blu-ray version with ‘original’ 1902 colors which gave the moon a bloody red wound around the rocket’s landing site.
The astronomers turned astronauts exit their vessel on the moon and immediately bear witness to the wondrous lunar landscape. The stars shine, the Big Dipper is visible in the moon’s sky, Saturn and other familiar heavenly bodies appear before the men roll out their sleeping bags for a nap. It is a short rest followed by an expedition into the subterranean (is that the right word if you’re not talking about Earth or ‘Terra’? Should I say sublunerean?) caves full of enormous mushrooms growing on the banks of sublunar rivers. While exploring the astronomers make first contact with a Selentie, a race of native moon people depicted like many other depictions of indigenous people in colonial fiction, nearly naked insect looking people very large spears and a penchant for violence. Their carapace covered torsos prove useless against the earthling’s mighty walking sticks as evidenced by the moon-men’s immediate combustion when struck. Méliès was a master of the jump cut, apparently its inventor or discoverer, and he uses this special effect to replace the location of an object like a Selentie in one frame with a burst of powder in the next. This effective editing gives the illusion that the creature is destroyed and Méliès uses it frequently. Eventually the astronomers are taken to the Selenties King, after a brief conversation the leader of the Astronomy Club grabs the King from his throne and smashes him to dust on the ground. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. It’s unexpected and utterly hilarious. I took great joy in the immediate and unbridled efficacy of slapstick regicide. This extaplanar coup forces the astronomers to run for their lives.
Most members of the Astronomy Club make it inside their spaceship, now precariously perched on a lunar cliff, but the chief astronomer must hoist himself down a rope that pulls the ship off the shelf and plunges it earthward with a Selentie stowaway. The ship plummets into an Earth ocean and is pulled to shore by a boat. The astronomers are lauded as heroes and the the stowaway Selentie is enslaved, perhaps put on display for further scientific study? The film ends with the gathered men dancing around a statue built to honor their triumph over space and the moon. It’s not a simple plaque or a classy obelisk, no… they literally erect a statue to the astronomers showing one of them standing triumphantly crushing the moon underfoot, complete with bullet-rocket in its eye.
We saw Le Voyage Dans la Lune before watching the companion documentary The Extraordinary Voyage about the restoration of Méliès long lost masterpiece. It details the painstaking restoration process that helped us experience the film in as close as possible to its intended presentation. The documentary is a fascinating and informative examination of the film, its restoration, Méliès, and really should be seen paired with the restored film.
Méliès, as he’s depicted in the documentary, is a joyous magician using film cameras to concoct the greatest illusions known to man. He experiments with the medium like no one else and arguably invents the art of special effects. Le Voyage Dans la Lune is a 15 minute masterpiece you should make the time to see.