Ratings: A Trip to the Moon, 5/5; The Extraordinary Voyage, 4/5
It was impossible to give Georges Méliès’ short film anything other than five stars – it’s a mini masterpiece, with its images remaining some of the most iconic in cinema history. Over a hundred and ten years after it was made, A Trip to the Moon , perhaps the first true narrative film, is still breathtaking; Méliès’ unique vision is an example of pure fantasy, and it’s utterly bonkers. There are several versions of the film available, varying in length, colour, and quality. The version I watched is the best available; painstakingly restored, it is as crisp and clear as it ever was, the original hand-painted colours are gloriously psychedelic, the story finally told in its entirety. It comes with new accompanying music by French electronica band Air, whose specially written score is a perfect addition, adding tension and excitement at times, bringing (unintelligible) voices to the silent performances on screen, and adding another layer of whimsy and magic to the highly stylised, timeless images.
Film buffs will no doubt know just how important Méliès and his films were, but for those who don’t, a brief history lesson. While moving images had been around for several decades during the 1800s, the early pioneers of cinema were the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès. While the Lumière Brothers concentrated on providing spectacle through presenting general activities – leaving a factory, knocking down a wall, a train arriving at a station – in as realistic a form as possible, Méliès, a magician by trade, quickly saw film’s potential for trickery and fantasy. Having allegedly discovering such possibilities through a mistake – while filming an innocuous street scene, Méliès’ camera jammed, and it took him several seconds to get it running again, with the result being that, when he watched the footage later, a carriage suddenly transformed into a hearse – the filmmaker took full advantage of the new technology, and his early films are filled with trick shots and creative deceptions.
Rooted in fairground attractions and the sideshow, Méliès’ films generally consist of one or a series of staged tableaux; the camera doesn’t move during scenes and there is minimal editing, resulting in a distinctively theatrical style of presentation. Méliès was not concerned with realism, and his films in particular are obviously created, with painted sets and backdrops offering an instantly recognisable, entirely unrealistic aesthetic. A Trip to the Moon, featuring a group of academics who build a rocket and are shot through a cannon into the moon, where they discover a race of strange lobster-men, is overtly inspired by the written works of Jules Verne, and was later (illegally) remade by Pathé in 1908. The most iconic shot of the ambitious fifteen minute film, which became one of the earliest box office hits, is the rocket’s moon landing – splatting unceremoniously into the moon’s eye, it has inspired everything from music videos (The Smashing Pumpkin’s Tonight Tonight) to Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). Yet none of the subsequent homages and rip-offs come close to matching the unfettered imagination of Méliès, whose vision is both childlike in its innocence, and absolutely mad in its showiness.
This restored version reveals the true beauty of this strange and unusual voyage, and each scene is a sight to behold – the troupe of scantily clad showgirls pushing the rocket into its launching position, the explorers first encountering the fantastical jungle on the moon, the fights between the lobster-men and the humans, the way in which the moon’s inhabitants are unceremoniously turned into multi-coloured puffs of smoke when hit with umbrellas. It’s one of the most important films in cinema history, and the fact that it still survives is a miracle.
While Méliès’ vision, and his influence on film history, is the initial focus of Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange’s accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, they also show the painstaking process of restoring the film. The colour version was believed lost until 1993, when a single print, in terrible condition, was discovered in Spain. With great care and optimism, the film was carefully unreeled, piece by brittle piece and, in a process lasting over ten years, eventually it was brought back to life. The documentary, including talking head interviews with Tom Hanks, Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), reveals the restoration as a true labour of love – an impossible journey made possible, ironically, because of extraordinary technical advances. While perhaps not providing any new information for those with a basic knowledge of early cinema history, it does nonetheless offer an excellent overview, while also including a substantial number of Méliès’ other films, including The One Man Band and The Man With Four Heads, demonstrating the magician’s penchant for trickery and his undeniable achievements. What is so wonderful is that, while modern film effects can so easily be dismissed as CGI – without the viewer necessarily understanding any of the complexities involved in that process – the early trick films remain magical somehow. We know they are an illusion, but explanations remain beyond our grasp, and all the more impressive precisely because of this. Like a real magic trick, the solution is often infuriatingly simple, but it’s a cynical person who really wants to know it. Instead, we can lose ourselves in the illusion, and embrace our childish, often forgotten, sense of wonder and awe.