It's difficult to deny that, for the casual filmgoer in 2015, there's something of a resistance to silent cinema, in much the same way that some people flinch from black-and-white movies. Part of it, I think, is the difficulty of considering them outside of time, and independent of history. A century or so on, it's hard not to see these stuttering, faded images merely as primitive gestures—signposts on the way to something else, more refined and sophisticated, rather than as texts complete unto themselves. (Much harder, weirdly, that it is for a modern-day reader to enjoy Stendhal or Hardy or Flaubert.) It's a question of exposure, as much as of taste.
So what did it mean, in 1902, to watch Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon? The first sci-fi film ever made? The medium was not yet a decade old. Audiences still found wonder in the demonstration of simple movement, in representations of the most commonplace things: workers emerging from a factory, a train pulling into a station, crowds lining up to vote or shop. Everything was new, and therefore miraculous.
Filmmakers had been quick to sense the narrative possibilities of moving pictures: a Life of Jesus was made in France in 1897, and Méliès himself had recreated scenes from the Greco-Turkish War, with actors, the same year. Less than 12 months after that, Robert W. Paul demonstrated the possibilities of continuity, with one shot (a couple entering a doorway) being followed immediately by another (the same couple seen in another room). An elementary breakthrough, one might think—but suddenly more complex stories seemed possible, and Méliès responded with a string of short fictions: a take on the Dreyfus Affair, a Cinderella, a 13-minute Joan of Arc. In 1900 alone he made 33 films, all the while experimenting furiously with techniques: dissolves, time-lapse photography, multiple exposures, animation...
But A Trip to the Moon was another order of achievement altogether, more ambitious and imaginative than anything yet conceived on celluloid. Its signature shot—the Man in the Moon sporting a rocket poking out of his left eye—is one of the keynote images in all cinema: a shorthand for the fantastical and strange.
The plot is rudimentary: a group of six astronomers journey to the moon, where they encounter giant mushrooms, and a race of insectoid 'Selenites' (named after the Greek moon goddess Selene) who attempt to capture them; they manage to escape and return to Earth. Like any good magician, Méliès finds the scientists faintly ridiculous (they're first seen dressed as wizards, after all); nevertheless, a coda—lost for many years, until a complete print was discovered in a French barn in 2002—shows the explorers being feted at a parade in their honour.
Ironically, for all its visual invention, its actual construction is elementary, with Méliès mostly foregoing the possibility of inter-shot continuity. Every sequence here is complete unto itself, a mini-tableau that plays out before a fixed camera, then proceeds to the next. But many of the shots are remarkable: the third, for example, of the explorers gazing at the launch site, is phenomenally detailed: a factory-scape belching smoke from many chimneys that recedes into the distance along a diagonal line of perspective. It's pure cinema, nothing remotely theatrical about it.
Equally intriguing, for film scholars, was the director's decision to depict the actual landing twice, in very different ways: once, as the sock-in-the-eye to the Man in the Moon; then, immediately after, as a landing upon a mostly flattened landscape. Suggesting that Méliès wanted to make the former a conscious symbol, at once outside of and referential to the primary narrative.
Two versions were made to be distributed: one in black-and-white, another with hand-tinted colour. The last existing colour print was rediscovered in Spain in 1993, by the Filmoteca de Cataluña; it was, however, in a state of severe decomposition. A restoration process began in 1999—and involved 12 full years of painstaking attention, with each individual frame assessed, extensively laboured over, finally transferred to digital. Those frames which could not be salvaged were jettisoned, and their equivalents taken from a newly-restored black-and-white print, which was then colourised, at the Technicolor Lab in Los Angeles, to precisely match the hand-tinting of the original. (Those little green men are, again, pea-green.)
An accompanying, 65-minute documentary - The Extraordinary Voyage – also screening here, reveals the intensity of these labours. Its co-director, Eric Lange, was the film's chief restorer, and he exhibits the requisite balance of all-consuming obsession and tender diligence. Meanwhile, a succession of mostly French filmmakers, from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) to Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), to Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), attest to Melies' influence upon the medium in general, and their own work in particular.
While I'm a fan of the French band Air, I'm not entirely convinced by their newly-commissioned soundtrack here, which seems to split the difference between Chic and Vintage, to the advantage of neither. It's by no means as egregious an addition as Giorgio Moroder's synth-tastic 1984 score for the restored Metropolis, yet I sense that the passing years might be just as unkind.
Sadly, the film also represents one of the first instances of piracy, with Méliès' plans to sell the film in the United States scuppered by no less than Thomas Edison, whose technicians made copies and distributed it in the US themselves. If the result did not directly bankrupt Méliès (as some, including Martin Scorsese, have claimed), it certainly accelerated his decline. By the mid-1920s, he was working as a candy and toy salesman at the Montparnasse station, his achievements all but forgotten.
Today, of course, any and every imaginable thing can be rendered onscreen, thanks to the much-vaunted wonders of digital technology. Yet with such ease comes an oddly impoverished feeling: if everything is possible, then nothing seems especially worthwhile, or urgent; our dreams are devalued ones. Méliès' vision might seem quaint, compared to the vivid panoramas of, say, James Cameron's Avatar—but it also feels weighted, artisanal, a record of actual craft as well as imagination. How ironic, that something made over a century ago should seem more truly alive than the flawlessly-rendered hobbits, vampires and aliens who overpopulate our movie screens today.
Watch 'A Trip To The Moon' at SBS On Demand
Editor's Note: And you can also watch its 'making of' documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage. The fascinating documentary charts Méliès’s career and the history of silent cinema alongside the painstaking restoration of the only known hand-coloured film print of A Trip to the Moon
Watch 'The Extraordinary Voyage' at SBS On Demand