Science fiction is a vast and long-running genre that pushes our imaginations to the brink, taking us into imaginative worlds and futures. Space sagas like the Star Wars franchise make the universe seem even more vast. Groundbreaking dramas akin to The Matrix films examine humanity and our possible futures. Countless movies, TV shows, and books fall into this category, thrilling us with their stories. While it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the first ever science fiction story because, well, human imagination predates text and video, this genre does have a huge milestone movie. And, you can actually watch it on HBO Max (in color) as well as YouTube. The first ever sci-fi film, aptly titled A Trip to the Moon, is a silent, short, and very trippy ride, indeed.
A Trip to the Moon‘s Ambitious Plot
A Trip to the Moon (French: Le Voyage dans la Lune) is a 1902 short film by director and writer Georges Méliès. We will dig into his history and how this film came to fruition later. But let’s start things off with explaining what A Trip to the Moon is about. Astronomy Club president Professor Barbenfouillis proposes a trip to the moon to his colleagues. After some discussion, several of them (including the infamous Nostradamus) agree to go on the adventure.
They devise a plan to use a space capsule that is shaped like a bullet and shoot it out of a very large cannon straight into the moon. They accomplish their mission but not without hitting the Man in the Moon right in his eye. (We will talk about that shot later, too.) After arriving, they hop out of the capsule and explore this new surrounding. And boy do things get very sci-fi and odd. You have to see it to believe what is transpiring. The travelers make a few discoveries and have to make their way home to tell the world of their exploits. It is meant to be rather satirical in nature while also taking some digs at colonialism and imperialism.
Is A Trip to the Moon a bit creepy by today’s standards? Sure. Most silent films are quite theatrical and wonderfully strange to the modern eye. The wild costumes and jaunty music also amplify its odd factor. But the plot is incredibly ambitious for that time period and the first sci-fi film pulls it off quite well.
A Trip to the Moon’s History, Inspirations, and Filming Challenges
Star Film Company/Lobster Films/Groupama-gan/Technicolor
Prior to this film, Méliès was an accomplished stage actor and illusionist with an eye for cinema. He began shooting his first films in 1896, setting standards by utilizing early versions of special effects like time-lapse photography and stop tricks. Méliès work would frequently dive into the strange and surreal while blending in his theater background, all of which certainly show up in A Trip to the Moon. The director affirmed that Jules Vernes’ novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870) were major influences for the film’s overall storyline. The former book follows a club of weapons enthusiasts who want to build a massive gun to shoot people into space while the latter digs deeper into the aftermath of that effort. We get both of those narratives packed into this film.
A Trip to the Moon was a challenging feat for Méliès as his longest film at the time (approx. 8-12 minutes for various cuts) with a relatively large budget (10,000 Francs), lots of theater pomp, and special effects. He filmed it at his studio in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, which had a greenhouse-like setup that allowed him to take advantage of the natural light. In fact, a portion of the ceiling shows up in the film itself when the capsule is being built. There were color prints (done by hand, no less) of his film alongside black-and-white (by far the standard of that time), with the HBO Max version being in color. This version is a big deal because, for decades, the film could only be found in black and white.
During this time, actors were often anonymous but Méliès did play Professor Barbenfouillis. The film’s themes of discovery, exploration, and otherworldly adventure along with a strong emphasis on storytelling are why it is credited as the first science fiction film.
A Trip to the Moon: Scammers, Posers, Influence and the Film’s Legacy
At the time of A Trip to the Moon’s release, it stood out among its contemporaries with a strong, humorous story, sleek production, and iconic special effects. (Just imagine what it was like to experience it in person.) Its popularity went far beyond France and into the United States for several years following its release. A Trip to the Moon made others want to dive deeper into fantasy topics and bring them to audiences for pure fun. We love a satirical take. The concept of transferring science themes into live-action became a thrilling challenge for filmmakers. However, the problem with being original is that others will want to copy and capitalize off your success. And that’s exactly what people did
Siegmund Lubin released a very similar film, A Trip to Mars, the following year. Spanish director Segundo de Chomón basically did a “copy my paper but make it a lil different” with Excursion to the Moon in 1908. Aside from a few small changes, it is literally the same film. And, film pirating (who knew it was even a thing then?!) took over when it hit America. Companies like The Edison Manufacturing Company and Vitagraph distributed illegal copies, subsequently hurting Méliès’ profits. That’s right, Thomas Edison once again proves himself to be a Messy Marvin who lives for legal drama. It led to a legal fight that was hard for Méliès to control and eventually led to bankruptcy. (It is interesting that Thomas Edison died in 1931 while Méliès outlived him by seven years with a more delightful legacy in his wake.)
Interestingly, the first sci-fi film almost fell into obscurity following Méliès’ retirement but film enthusiasts resurrected interest in the 1930s. Since then, the film and its images—particularly the scene where the capsule lands in the eye of the Man in the Moon—continues to show up in pop culture. There are so many examples of the moon’s depiction as sentient and male that we cannot name them all. Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) rightfully paid homage to the first sci-fi film in its prologue. Rob Zombie’s film The Lords of Salem features this film in its background and Katy Perry’s 2012 Billboard Awards performance of “Wide Awake” pays homage.
A Trip to the Moon certainly resonates. While the inspiration may not be as direct, a legion of other works about space travel came in its wake. It’s safe to say that Star Wars, the Apollo franchise, and countless others owe their success to Méliès’ groundbreaking work.
So, if you have a quick 15-ish minutes to spare, dive into the first sci-fi film. It will make you marvel at how the human imagination continues to evolve.