Simultaneously both the oldest and newest film ever to be reviewed on Never Fully Dressed, the story behind La Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is almost as fascinating as the one told within it. Made in 1902, it is largely considered to be director George Melies' best known- and some say greatest- work. It is in this film that one of cinema's most iconic images, of the moon getting shot in the eye with a rocket, comes from.
La Voyage dans la Lune follows a group of bumbling scientist-adventurers on a journey filled with unusual sights and a satirical undertone that criticizes both the scientific community of the day and colonization. Today, it is widely considered the first science fiction film, but its deliberately theatrical style lends a sense of whimsical fantasy. Elaborate, painted sets, and costumes were created- all in greyscale as Melies found color filmed in unpredictable tones. Though most audiences would see the black and white film, several copies of the movie (perhaps as many as 60) were hand-painted in Elisabeth Thuillier's coloring lab in Paris. She organized workers assembly line style, with each assigned different colors as they painstakingly add paint to each frame. Films hand painted by her lab could have as many as sixty different colors! Many of the costumes, and all of the sets were designed by Melies and included pulley systems to move set pieces as needed. The camera, on the other hand, rarely moved. Meant to evoke the feeling of watching a play, in a time when most cinema showed everyday tasks, even this can be seen as a storytelling choice.
Clocking in at fourteen minutes, it was an usually long film for the time, and an expensive one. Because of this, Melies asked a high price for the film; at first no one would touch it, but a free showing proved its potential and it was soon being seen all across the world, and was, in fact, rampantly pirated. This would eventually lead to Melies' Star Film Company opening an branch in America, one of the worse film piracy offenders of the time, to protect their copyright. This would turn out to be a mistake. Poor management that resulted financial losses within the American branch, as well as other factors such as Edison's attempts to create a monopoly on the industry; and the onset of World War One, all meant the end of "Cinemagican" Melies' film career. Melies went bankrupt and was reduced to selling toys in a train station with hard, 14 hour work days. In his time, he had produced over 500 films, but many of his reels had been melted down in the war to create soldiers' boot heels. Then, in 1923, Melies himself burned most of the remaining negatives of his films, as well as any sets and costumes he still owned.
By the late 1920s though, a sort of Cinderella moment came to Melies. Renewed interest and research him and his work increased, resulting a gala in December of 1929 honoring him and his work; it was, as he described, "one of the most brilliant moments of his life." The work shown had been found mostly from others' film collections, sometimes those who had purchased old reels, others from former employees from the Star Film Company or any of the establishments that originally showed the films. Sadly, no full copy of La Voyage dans la Lune was thought to remain. Not until 1997 was a full version of the film finally restored, by piecing together film from various copies of the movie. Then, in 1999, the first known colored copy of the film, thought to be completely decomposed, was bought and restoration on it continued for over a decade. Set along with an incredibly modern soundtrack created by the French band Air, this hand-colored, restored version premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, and it is this version of the film most see today.
There is something of the surreal to the film, a sense of unreality. Perhaps only fitting for a science fiction tale about the moon, but the mood is added to by the jerky movements of the actors (due to the then-standard of 14 frames per second); the flickering, but bright colors hand-painted on, and, of course, the avante-garde soundtrack. Air employs variously unusual instruments, animal sounds and vocal recordings that at times seems unbearable jarring, especially in the first scene, but the music proves, perhaps, to be ultimately seductive as it seems to underline how far ahead of his time Melies really was, and how relevant his work is for any time, including our own. If this soundtrack proves too distracting to viewer,s they could find their own music choice to play along side the movie. Though silent films do not have sound, they were not meant to be watched in silence. In fact, Melies took a keen interest in what music was chosen, though he never specified or suggested any particular pieces himself. At least one piece of music, "A Trip to the Moon: Comic Descriptive Fantasia," was inspired by the film itself.
This film (which can be seen here, or on Netflix or Hulu), is- no other word for it- arresting, high art in the way only the best of cinema can be, sure to beckon you with its dark whimsy and still-relevant thematic issues. You will not regret taking A Trip to the Moon.