Movies were shown to a paying audience for the first time in 1895, in the Salon Indien du Grande Cafe in Paris. They were the work of the Lumiere brothers, using a camera and projector they'd invented the year before. The films' content was rudimentary, mind you. The Lumieres were inventors, not storytellers, and they made their 45-second films by pointing their camera at whatever happened to be passing in the street.
Georges Melies though was different. He was a stage magician who'd been in the audience for that first show by the Lumieres, so fell in love with movie-making and started using it as part of his act. Before long he'd invented stop-motion, dissolves, multiple exposures and all kinds of special effects. An early Melies movie is basically a magic show, but later on he got interested in narrative and started recreating scenes from literature and myth. By the time the 20th century arrived, Melies was making movies that lasted an entire reel and had a storyline, which by all right should have made him a fortune. Of all his films, the most famous is A Trip to the Moon.
It's kind of cool, actually.
Obviously it's primitive, but it's very watchable. Melies always gives you plenty to look at and so for instance will happily have twenty or thirty people running around on what might look like a big set, but is actually being achieved with false perspective and raised levels. I imagine he did most of it in a theatre, which means you've got so many painted backdrops that the film almost feels illustrated. It's nice, actually. Every scene in the film that isn't animated or a special effects trick is a one-shot take with a static camera placed back to see the full stage, but the advantage of this is that it gives Melies complete control over his compositions. Even Melies's Paris cityscape reminded me a bit like the cover of an Edgar Rice Burroughs sci-fi novel, so it shouldn't be surprising that we're into full-flown fantasy by the time we reach the moon.
The film's borrowing from both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but scientifically speaking it's as loopy as you'd expect of this era even before you get into the whimsical stuff. Every celestial body is alive. The moon is played by an actor and Melies's spaceship smacks into his eye, which is presumably what emitted that splash of what looks like broken egg. Is it just me or is that rather disgusting? After that the stars in the sky are played by pretty girls and so on.
Of course the moon also inhabitants. It's more crowded there than it was on Earth! The costumes for these guys are more convincing than you'll get in most 1950s SF, for a start, although obviously they'd have been more impressive if they could have had a few close-ups. If I hadn't known that they're the Selenites from H.G. Wells's First Men in the Moon, I'd have said they were lobsters. They've got spiky lobster-like heads, armoured breastplates and, if you look carefully, claws instead of hands. However they don't seem that way because Melies has them being played by acrobats and contortionists, so your main impression is of costumed men jumping about like fleas on a griddle... until they explode. Yes, Selenites explode. Any sharp blow will induce this, such as from an umbrella. It certainly got my attention, although it did make me wonder how these creatures managed to evolve in the first place, let alone build what appears to be a martial society.
To be fair to Melies's science, his initial launch comes from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, in which Verne's calculations about spaceflight requirements are almost spookily accurate, despite at the time there having been no hard data to work from. Verne's projectile-ship and the Apollo 11 command module both launch from Florida with the same number of crew members, similar physical dimensions and even nearly identical names. Melies isn't going quite that far, but the goofy stuff in the early scenes is merely things like Paris astronomers looking like the wizards of Unseen University while their servants and mechanical engineers are all girls in tight shorts.
Their return to Earth is brilliant, though. You just push your spaceship off the edge of the Moon and let it fall back down to plunge into the sea, perhaps clinging to the outside for the entire trip if you'd been the guy doing the pushing.
The special effects are great, by the way. There even exists a hand-coloured version of the film, which was found in a French barn in 2002. It's no surprise to learn that Melies had spent four months and a ton of money in making his film look spectacular, which expenditure he was hoping to recoup in America. Unfortunately he was driven bust by movie piracy. Thomas Edison's company smuggled a copy of this film to the States and made a fortune from it, after which Melies never made a penny from the prints that eventually got across to his American distributors. Admittedly this had happened to him before with other movies, but nothing on the scale of this project and in the end Melies went bankrupt. He ended up burning all his remaining prints and negatives in a rage in 1924, living in poverty while the pirates who'd profited at his expense had spawned an entire industry, but ironically it's thanks to those very pirates that we have most of what little remains of Melies's films.
To a modern audience, this film is a quick bit of fun. It's enjoyable. We're used to movies being international blockbusters, so we don't realise what a disproportionate amount of time, money and technical ingenuity it took to make this one back in 1902. It's a piece of movie history, this is.