No, this isn’t a Von Danikenist tract; it’s the first in a series of looks back at early science fiction cinema. And where better to begin than 1902, with Le Voyage dans la Lune?
Written and directed by French showman Georges Méliès, Le Voyage features one of the most indelible images in cinema history: the wounded Man in the Moon bleeding like a particularly runny Brie, grimacing in pain with a space capsule protruding from his right eye. For me, though, there is a much more iconic moment earlier in the film.
It opens at a meeting of astronomers, arguing violently as one of them proposes a trip to the moon. They wear pointed hats and robes embroidered with moons and stars. They wear starched ruffs. Nothing in any frame suggests their meeting isn’t taking place in the 14th century. And then, having agreed on the proposed voyage at last, the astronomers call in servants to bring them changes of clothing. They shed the wizards’ garb and dress in frock coats and top hats. Before our eyes, the Mage becomes the Scientist. This is the cinematic moment where the fairy tale mutates into science fiction, and every film Scientist—Rotwang, Dr. Zarkov, mad or otherwise—descends from this.
We get to watch the capsule being built and the casting of the great gun that will fire it moonward, before our heroes mount over the village rooftops to climb inside their vessel. Chorus girls in racy sailor suits load it into the great gun, a soldier flourishes a saber, and boom! Away go the intrepid astronomers, in a puff of stage smoke.
The stage moon becomes the smiling Man in the Moon, and then… eeeew.
But our heroes have landed! They stumble out on the cratered surface of the Moon and watch the Earth rise! A small volcano erupts, knocking them on their behinds! Fatigued by all this discovery they lie down and sleep. Several planetary gods appear, pretty irritated by human presumption, and send a snowstorm to punish the voyagers. Our heroes seek refuge in a crater and discover an underground world, complete with running water and mushrooms of enormous size.
The Selenites come bounding into frame, vaudeville acrobats dressed up in papier-mâché heads and lobster suits. With a magnificent disregard for Noninterference Directives, our heroes swing at them with their umbrellas and burst them like so many balloons, until they are overwhelmed and dragged before the Chief of the Selenites. One good body blow takes care of him, though—Captain Kirk’s diplomatic style foreshadowed here—and the astronomers race back to their space capsule with the Selenites in hot pursuit.
Tipping their capsule off a cliff into space, the astronomers plunge back down to Earth (talk about your gravity wells) dragging a Selenite with them. They land in the sea, in a nice little effects shot with a few real fish, and are given a heroes’ welcome and a parade. The captive Selenite is displayed. The leader of the astronomers gets a statue.
It’s all there in a nutshell, the template for future SF films. We will boldly go/go boldly to distant planets, we will see amazing things, and if we get into trouble we’ll kick some alien butt. No apologies, no regrets. Those were the days!