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A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Restoration Hardware

Before this morning, A Trip to the Moon topped my List of Films I Should Have Seen By Now. Despite decades of pop culture references and Martin Scorsese's slobbering love letter to it, I'd somehow missed director Georges Melies's silent masterpiece. Fortunately, I received a copy of the new blu-ray last weekend--a gorgeous 2-disc edition that boasts a restored, hand-colorized version long thought to have been lost forever.

Many discussions about the movie center on the context and controversy of its release. I'm not well versed enough in the lore to get into it. You can find plenty of places on-line that discuss how Thomas Edison apparently invented douchebaggery as well as the light bulb, at least in his dealings with Melies's work. This is not one of those places, mostly because I knew none of this before a hefty amount of Googling after I watched the film--twice.

This review will touch on the film itself, partially, and my reaction to the new restoration, mostly. First, A Trip to the Moon:

Simply put, I can't believe how little filmic storytelling has advanced in the last one-hundred-and-ten years. Sure, the toys and techniques have become more impressive than I'm sure Melies and his cohorts could have ever imagined. But compared to the creativity and daring on display here, modern filmmakers are practically Neanderthals. In thirteen minutes, I saw a man execute a vision so ahead of its time and so unique to the art form that backwash like Prometheus and Avatar are lenticular packaging on a Happy Meal in comparison.

Loosely adapting his story from similarly themed novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Welles, Melies stars as Professor Barbenfouillis, a mad genius who plans to lead a manned expedition to the moon. He gets the permission of his local council, and off to the stars he goes. In the film's most iconic scene, the bullet-shaped vessel crash-lands in the eye of the moon--in this case, a literal face that drips viscous goo from the wound.

The professor and his crew find the air breathable and the terrain unsteady. Exhausted from the journey, they take a nap, only to be awakened by a lunar snowstorm caused by celestial deities unthrilled at the prospect of Earthlings growing too big for their rock. Forced underground, they encounter a race of bug-eyed humanoid lobster-things that burst into puffs of smoke when attacked. And there's a lot of attacking, on the part of the scientists and the creatures. Barbenfouillis and his men are overtaken and brought before the moon monsters' king.

Not one to take the prospect of imprisonment lying down, Barbenfouillis kills the king and ushers his men from the throne room. They escape the angry horde and board the rocket, which plunges off a cliff and lands safely in the ocean back on Earth. The explorers return as heroes and parade around the village square, proudly displaying a shackled alien, who'd been unfortunate enough to cling to the ship on its way down.

Like many modern sci-fi blockbusters, A Trip to the Moon makes up for an incoherent story with lots of visual thrills. Unlike those movies, Melies's quest is born of fantasy, which uses science as window-dressing in service of answering The Big Questions in nonsensical ways. I hate to keep bagging on Prometheus,* but when a director goes out of his way to establish his film's world as being believable, I have no choice but to call him out on letting so-called "scientist" characters get away with wholly unscientific behavior. In A Trip to the Moon, Melies's scientists are established as being a kooky band of aged pseudo-wizards, more akin to the classic Monty Python troupe than a NASA conclave. When they parade around the moon without helmets and smash every non-human thing in sight like they're Super Mario's lost New Jersey relatives, my suspension of disbelief remains firmly intact.

Story aside, A Trip to the Moon is a triumph of costume design, art direction, and special effects. The Earth setting appears to be a mash-up of Medieval village and Industrial-Age hamlet, with a bickering elderly council in one scene and a crew or technicians putting the finishing touches on a spacecraft in the next. Maybe this lack of concern for coherence and boldness of vision was a product of an age where focus-grouping, branding, and corporate notes hadn't yet infected mass art; whatever the case, Melies's goofy mini-adventure is perfect in its strangeness in ways that today's neutered directors can only hope to achieve. For me, it was also a marvel of optical illusion, as I was rarely sure what parts of the sets were paintings and what were objects that could be lifted from their apparent 2D state and put to use; it's Terry Gilliam as parlor trickster and imagineer.

Which makes the film's new blu-ray treatment such a let-down. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that the full movie has been restored to display in high-def, and is accompanied by a feature-length documentary on said restoration (which I haven't watched yet). But the marketing pushes the "Original Colors" angle hard, as well as a new score by the French band AIR.

I mentioned earlier that I watched A Trip to the Moon twice. Actually, I sat throught the opening two minutes three times. AIR's music isn't a classical accompaniment; it's a tech-y, new-wave abomination that has absolutely nothing to do with the action on-screen. It's so distracting that I had to stop the movie, mute the sound, and start over again--just to concentrate enough to figure out the story. In silence, everything popped, and I fell headfirst into Melies's crazy world.

As if the music wasn't bad enough, the colors reminded me of Ted Turner's "improvements" to classic films back in the 1980s. Weird pastels pervade, and the detail on many of the characters is splotchy, mimicking Photoshop's "sponge" filter. This is sacrilege, I know, but as a movie fan with no connection to the material, I can't just praise an accomplishment that's all feat and no fruit. This tribute to the "original" color version of A Trip to the Moon is just plain bad.

Fortunately, if you go to the disc's "Special Features" section, a cleaned-up version (I believe) of the black-and-white film is available with three soundtrack options. I watched it again with a traditional classic score and a real treat of a narrative track by Melies, which helped fill in some of the silent version's gaps. This cut is also two minutes shorter; from what I could tell, the excised material came from the opening bureaucratic meeting scene--I was glad to see it go.

I wonder who this re-issue was marketed towards. No one is going to fool a kid into buying this as a companion piece to Avatar. A Trip to the Moon is for cinephiles only,** and it seems really weird to me that the colorized version is shoved front and center--especially when it's more of an anti-selling point (for instance, in when Barbenfouillis draws an Earth-to-the-moon trajectory on his chalk board, I couldn't tell that the moon had a face--until I watched the scene again in black-and-white).

If you've never bothered with A Trip to the Moon--or if you've just never heard of it--I highly recommend taking a few minutes to give it a look. Considering the time, resources, and conditions under which it was made, you'll likely walk out of the next James Cameron or Ridley Scott picture wondering, "Is that all they've got?"

*No, I don't.

**If you doubt this, ask the next five people you see on the street if they'd be interested in watching a silent, French short-film from 1902. Feel free to post your results in the Comments section.

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