Let’s pause at the start to recognize that Georges Melies – director and star of this seminal short – did not employ title cards. It was the dawn of a new artistic era, with as many challenges as possibilities, yet A Trip to the Moon was so masterful in its handling of the image as drama that the movie didn’t even need that early crutch.
Perhaps that’s because A Trip to the Moon was in many ways (and mostly good ones) still tied to the art forms that birthed the movies. To create a fantastical, magical, utterly captivating adventure, Melies relied largely on painted backdrops, detailed costuming and elaborate props – the stuff of finer creative endeavors. He then sprinkled it with in-camera editing tricks (I love how the aliens are vanquished in a smoky poof) and suddenly we have the cinema – that glorious mutt art.
It’s astonishing how many delightful details are squeezed into this miniature film, from the alien costumes (bony and spindly, they resemble skeletal bugs more than anything else) to the fact that the astronomers who embark on this space voyage feel the need to take umbrellas. Even the earthly scenes are wonderfully wrought. Notice how, in one background cityscape, Melies managed to make the painted chimneys emit real smoke.
The result of all this special-effects artistry is potent, and evocative of the movie’s era. Just as the journey of the title has a sense of playful discovery, the film’s first viewers must have felt the thrill of something new. I have to imagine that the burgeoning wonders of the cinema, in Melies’ hands, felt something like taking a trip to the moon.