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Public Domain Sci-Fi: ‘Le Voyage dans le Lune’ (1902)

We’re foregoing horror for science-fiction and heading back further into cinema history than ever before for this awe-inspiring slice of Public Domain heaven. French director, illusionist and special effects innovator Georges Melies’ ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’ in his native French tongue) dates all the way back from 1902 and is widely considered to be the first ever sci-fi movie. Melies employed innumerable groundbreaking tricks and techniques throughout the film’s (for the time, epic) 18 minute running time and in doing so expanded the horizons of cinema beyond the mundane and everyday and either directly or indirectly inspired virtually every director of the genre that would follow in his wake.

The film’s plot (at least partially inspired by Melies’ love for the novels of Jules Verne) is simple. A group of astronomers embark upon a trip to the moon. After building their rocket and arriving at their destination, the group encounter a number of hostile aliens (named Selenites after the Greek moon goddess Selene) and are forced to fight them off – including their King and ruler. Pursued by Selenites, our heroes beat a hasty retreat, crash landing into an ocean back on Earth, where they are promptly rescued and celebrations ensue. A statue is unveiled in the astronauts’ honor with the legend ‘Labor omnia vincit’ – ‘Work conquers all.’ A strong air of satire is apparent throughout, particularly in regard to the stuffy and overly confident Professors (the main one of which is played by Melies himself) and scientists. Perhaps the pioneering spirit of Melies’ characters is a reflection of his own go-for-broke attitude to foraying into uncharted waters.

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Nevertheless, this basic story of space exploration – travel to a new territory, encounter/conquer its inhabitants, return home a hero – has continued to provide the template for a large portion of sci-fi on the screen, but it is in the execution of it’s unique and surreal visual style that ‘A Trip To The Moon”s true legacy lies. The film is shot with single, fixed camera scenes meaning that the screen acts as a theater stage with the viewer as an audience member. This grounded and realistic filming style only serves to enhance the sense of wonder at the magic that occurs on screen, as we’re presented with a cannon-powered rocket, exploding moon creatures and of course, as in the film’s most famous and iconic shot, the face of the moon itself along with the human faces other stars, Saturn and the goddess Phoebe.

It goes without saying that the film is a favorite topic of discussion among devotees of early cinema, and that with each anniversary, newly discovered or restored print, the film’s enduring popularity is reaffirmed. Pop culture has also played a key role in bringing new audiences to Melies. In 1995, alt. rockers The Smashing Pumpkins paid direct and affectionate homage to ‘A Trip To The Moon’ with the award-winning video for perhaps their biggest hit, ‘Tonight, Tonight’, while French experimental group Air released an album titled ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ in 2012, based on their newly created soundtrack for a hand-tinted restoration.

Even well over a century later, ‘A Trip To The Moon’ still has the power to surprise and delight with it’s dizzying display of pure imagination. A timeless and evocative masterpiece. Enjoy.