The first thing notable about this earliest of sci-fi movies is the expressionist sets. Very quaint and avante-guard at the same time. They’re theatrical, but oddly dreamlike. The moonscape actually looks somewhat realistic; but the surreal human faces in the sky, living stars, as they’re called, are bizarre. We see them again in the underground moon civilization.
So, there’s aliens, the Selenites. They’re kind of toyishly creepy bird-like creatures. And fragile, as they basically disintegrate when hit by the ‘astronomers.’ Our guys, after landing and exploring a bit–first lunar snowstorm I bet), escape from captivity, and have a very improbable return journey. Pretty much we’d have to buy that the Moon is flat, as the spacecraft literally falls off its edge to launch.
The very helpful TCM introductory and concluding comments tell us that director Georges Melies was a magician. He hoped to incorporate cinema into his acts, which explains the theatrical elements. Not to mention that some of the cast were recruited from acrobats (for the Selenites), and dancing girls (the women for the star-faces, probably also for the ‘man-servants’ accompanying the launch and return festivities).
The narration has a sort of fairytale aspect, as the French-accented English is very expressive. It complements rather than intrudes. Plus there’s background music. The actual return to earth is prophetic, in that the capsule lands in the sea, and is retrieved by a ship. In some ways, that sequence is one of the highlights, as, unlike the sets (modeled for the most part) in the other scenes, this part is animated.
Another fascinating scene–amongst a whole movie of fascinating bits–occurs when an astromers’s umbrella sprouts into a mushroom in the subterranean part of the moon. It has a sort of ’60s style hallucinatory feel; a sensory blurring, as the only connection between the two objects is their similar shape.
Also surprising is that all of the movement is very natural. There’s little of that notorious jerky quality that was still evident in many films for twenty or more years after this one. The film quality was similarly much more modern than expected. Not grainy; in fact, there’s very distinct contrasts that admirably showed all the painstaking detail that went into the sets, costumes, and special effects.
There’s a sort of mixture of the futuristic with the quasi-obsolete. The introductory scene, with the astronomers’ meeting, seems positively medieval. The guys look like wizards; it has an aura of magic. But then we get the dance-hall girls, in militaristic garb, a Moulin Rouge motif; same thing at the ending scene. Plus soldiers–these groups in uniform seem to function in both festive and official roles–another playful touch.
Also anachronistic would be the absurd, jocular portrayal of the moon as a sort of human face. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that this is simply fanciful, child-like. In fact, A Trip to the Moon is much more fantasy than science-fiction. As such, it does deliver on its adventure premise. The ‘science’ is obviously absurd, even by the standards of its time. For example, I’m pretty sure that enough was known about ballistics such that if any living thing were encased in an artillery shell (which is what the spacecraft is essentially) it would die when the shell’s explosive charge went off. The non-propelled return journey sets the whole deal on its head anyway.
But I don’t think that Melies loses anything with these pseudo-scientific elements. He’s positing a fantasy world, which the new century seemed to promise (and eventually delivered too, albeit with rocketry and a few subtleties like spacesuits). What he’s left us with is something as miraculous in its own way as space travel; the ability to see a simulation of it, wrapped in a sort of comfortable enchantment.
Farmermouse wants to make those Selenite dudes go poof!–so he gives this ten star-faces. 10/10.