Professor Barbenfouillis (thank you IMDb) has a plan. He wants to visit the moon, and he wants to take his esteemed friends and colleagues with him. So, the professor has built a rocket and a giant cannon with which to launch it, and he – along with five others – gamely climb aboard and set off on their voyage of discovery.
I’ve said before that some films are on the list more due to their importance within the annals of cinematic history, regardless of whether they are actually any good or not. The Jazz Singer is my oft-quoted example, featuring as it does the first use of spoken dialogue on film, but within a film that would otherwise have been forgotten. Voyage Dans la Lune is widely regarded to be the first science fiction film of all time, and was also amongst the first films to be more than a couple of minutes long. By today’s standards, the 13-minute runtime is laughable, but along with the less-than-IMAX image quality it also makes it perfect for watching on Youtube, where it can be found here. So, is this amongst those films that are given an undeserved position within The List purely due to being made at the right time? Heck no, I love this film.
If you’ve seen an image from this film, chances are it’s the shot shown above, of a rocket causing severe retinal damage to the moon. This image is shown for less than five seconds, yet has become one of the most iconic images in movie history. It’s been parodied and paid homage to countless times, from the Smashing Pumpkins video for Tonight, Tonight, to Futurama and The Mighty Boosh, which features a dim-witted moon character whose face seems to be covered in whipped cream, but you can really tell that something has become famous when you can find it made out of Lego:
Now, the reasoning behind why this image has become so famous is up for debate. In the UK it could be put down to the film being used as the visuals for many appalling prog-rock songs on 70s music TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, but personally I think it’s because it is one of the first ever special effects, as there is a cut between the moon’s face without the rocket – which is zoomed into to simulate the rocket’s approach – and then the next shot of the rocket protruding from the face. Up until that point everything on-screen could have plausibly been achieved on a stage, but seeing the rocket suddenly appear in the face would have seemed almost like magic to audience goers of 1902. The fact that director Georges Méliès (who also played Barbenfouillis) was a former magician himself must have helped him no end.
So what do I love about this film? Well, whilst I’m no sci-fi nut, what I really appreciate is the creativity involved in the storytelling. Looking back on it now, many aspects of the plot – particularly the science behind it – are ludicrous and implausible, and even 111 years ago I can’t help but feel Méliès and the audience knew that most of this wasn’t likely, even though at that point flight had yet to be developed, let alone spacecraft. The very notion of the moon being close enough to reach via cannon – admittedly a very long cannon – or that upon it there lived a race of insectoid aliens called Selenites that could be dispatched with a striking of an umbrella is simply ludicrous, but it’s also a joy to behold. The sheer insanity and imagination behind it all evokes a childish sense of wonder at what you’re seeing. No, of course the rocket wouldn’t be able to return to Earth simply by ‘falling’ off the edge of the moon, because where the hell is the edge of a sphere? And the guy clinging to the outside of the rocket would have been killed in at least four different ways during the journey. Now, admittedly, you have to go into this knowing that what you’re watching isn’t supposed to be real, as otherwise you get a film like The Core, which takes scientifically insane ideas and posits them as fact, and therefore is routinely slaughtered because of it. I still love The Core, but mainly because it’s so god-damned insane yet remains straight-faced in spite of that. Seriously, go back and watch The Core, but from the point of view that it’s a parody of big-budget world-ending disaster flicks and you’ll enjoy it much more than if you take it seriously.
The sets in this film are beautiful too, and are almost entirely matte-painted background. Méliès went one further than the traditional inactive scenery though, he also included holes through which smoke poured to simulate fully functioning factories, to liven up the otherwise stationery camera. Elsewhere, multi-layered sets have been devised to rise and fall in relation to one another to depict the rotating of the moon. The scenes are always very busy too, with every character doing something different. Had this been a non-silent film, we surely would have had the pleasure of some Altman-esque overlapping dialogue, and you’d need to watch the film at least six times just to see what each of the explorers is doing. Granted, that would still take less than an hour and a half.
Choose film 9/10