We Live 1001 is a new column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. We’ll be covering a new film on the list every Friday. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
The first film on our 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list should come as no surprise to anyone. It’s a film school staple, after all, and contains one of the most enduring images of early cinema that stands as a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the first pioneers of filmmaking. It’s a shot of the man on the moon, floating peacefully in space — until, that is, a rocket crashlands into his face. He contorts in annoyance, and this entirely human response highlights the magic of cinema: bring the sublime to our ordinary lives. This is, of course, A Trip to the Moon, directed by the father of special effects, Georges Melies.
Born in Paris in 1861, Melies began his career as a stage magician, cultivating skills that would eventually define him as a director. Nuanced narratives rarely factor into his unique brand of storytelling, and character development would play an even smaller role. Instead, Melies was known for his technical abilities as a special effects pioneer, constantly developing new forms of camera trickery that operated as an extension of on-stage illusions. Making characters disappear or reappear at will, creating outlandish sets that would replicate the imagined landscapes of the surface of the moon or the depths of the ocean, dressing his stars in lavish costumes as they portray mysterious moon creatures, celestial beings, or wizened scientists: Melies’ imagination was virtually limitless.
A Trip to the Moon, released in 1902, was based on the work of Jules Verne (a writer he would revisit two years later with his adaptation of The Impossible Voyage.) The story is simple but packed to the gills with enchanting, ambitious set pieces that take us across half a dozen locales at breakneck speed. A Trip to the Moon is only about 18 minutes long, but it doesn’t waste a single second. Each shot has been carefully orchestrated by Melies, whose penchant for visual experimentation demands full exploration of rudimentary yet surprisingly effective practical effects. The result is a film that would capture the imaginations of contemporary viewers, and generations later, we’re still talking about it.
Although filmed almost like a stage play, with a stationary camera capturing all the action in a long shot (the art of cinema was still in its infancy, with few closeups or internal cuts yet), Melies possessed a keen understanding of the magical potential of the movies. A Trip to the Moon was widely popular not just in Melies’ native France but throughout Europe and the United States, and it played a key role in the transition of film from a novelty to an art form in its own right.
Viewed nearly 120 years later, A Trip to the Moon is still enchanting. I’ve seen it at least a half-dozen times, so prominent a role does it play in most film history classes. The beginning sequences with all the preparations for the astronomers’ journey into space are entertaining enough, but A Trip to the Moon truly comes to life after the launch. I love the sequences of the anthropomorphized celestial bodies, and the character design of the moon creatures is delightful. It’s a clever touch to have them so fragile that a gentle rap with an unopened umbrella (somehow deemed essential space gear for the intrepid astronomers) is enough to make them explode into a puff of smoke — it imbues the moon scenes with perpetually frenetic energy. As the first glimpse of what science fiction film would eventually become, it hints at a future full of creative possibilities.
As synonymous as Melies would become with this sort of technical wizardry, there were several other filmmakers from the same time period pushing the boundaries of film from a special effects standpoint. If you find Melies’ work intriguing, consider delving into the films of Segundo de Chomón, a Spanish filmmaker working at the same time as Melies and similarly exploring practical effects. As Melies’ career began to decline around 1907, de Chomón was on the rise, collaborating with the French production company Pathe to make several innovative shorts that would rely heavily on the new technique of stop-motion animation. The Haunted House (1908) and The Gold Spider (1908) are both tremendous fun and excellent representatives of his style.