A Trip to the Moon (1902)

As I dive deeper and deeper into film history with The Goods and my expanded set of movie reviews, I’d like to more systematically expand my understanding and coverage of film history. And so, I plan to start watching, in chronological order, every movie selected in the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” reference book.

I found a list online that aggregates every movie included in any printed edition of the book. I will be using that list and order as I watch through. Will I ever finish watching every one of these 1001 — scratch that, 1200+ — movies? Who knows! But I’m going to try, and you readers are going to share my journey. Wish me luck in the 1910s in particular, with its multi-hour serials and racist epics. Yikes.

For the first entry on the list, we have a classic (in every sense of the word) that I’ve somehow never watched the entirety of: A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) by the influential French fabulist and magician, Georges Melies. I watched a hand-colored copy that I found on YouTube. (One nice thing about starting at the beginning of film history is that everything is in the public domain!)

This very short, very early film shows cinema progressed beyond its “actuality” infancy, but still in a prototype phase: It feels more like a filmed stage play for most of its duration, but a stage play with elaborate sets and physical effects, including a large rocket ship prop. There’s a special effect of moon monsters vanishing into dust that is the most cinematic trick here — the clear technique that separates this from stage work.

The iconic image of a rocket ship crashed into the man-on-the-moon’s eye is evocative and foreshadows animation. No wonder it has become a symbol for nascent cinema: It captures in an unforgettable image the power the transporting and imaginative power of the moving picture. Like a great novel come to life, we can experience sights and sounds previously only dreamed of.

The hand coloring in the copy I watched, while degraded, give everything a playful, fantastical look — there’s something heightened about colors added in post-production that adds to the film’s heightened reality.

As with any early picture, it’s tough to evaluate this film with a modern lens. Even beyond being a silent movie with intertitles, already an alien, century-old concept, the language of editing and camera movement and acting for the screen had not yet been fully formed.

Despite its limitations, there’s true artistry in this film, even today. Passion and whimsy fill the frames. Anyone from a child to a passionate cinephile could find entertainment or craft in this short; that is the sign of a fully-formed piece of art. It feels transitional, but over a “hump” of sorts — not a technical experiment, but a piece of art.

It’s delightful to see a very early take on fantasy and science fiction in film, and I’m going to declare the kickoff to this 1001 Films To See Before You Die retrospective a success.

Up next is The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Apr. 2021 Update:

My 3-year-old daughter and I watched the first 4 episodes of Crash Course’s film history series, then watched this together. We talked about how the earliest movies had no sound or color. We narrated the story together — she laughed out loud when the moon monsters would disappear after being whacked by an umbrella. It made me love this even more!

Jan. 2023 update:

Now that I have made it through multiple books and courses on film history, as well as an ongoing deep dive of Melies’s extant films, I can say 1) my review above captures the right spirit, and 2) at some point, probably when I reach this in my Melies chronological deep dive, I need to write an updated review that provides a little more depth and content to what makes this short tick.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

A few words on "Is It Good?" ratings for early cinema.

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