A pioneer of early film and of science fiction, and also of trick photography and special effects which have remained so central to the cinematic illusions of that genre, Georges Méliès is rightly celebrated by those who are familiar with his work, but even those who would be unable to name him would still recognise the iconic images of his most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune).
Released in 1902 and running around twelve minutes, it was an amalgam of three sources, Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune) and Around the Moon (Autour de la Lune) of 1865 and 1870 suggesting the mechanics of the journey and H G Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, published in Britain in 1901 and swiftly translated into French, whose underground world informs the second half.
It is the tale of Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès) who shocks the intelligentsia of French society with his proposal of a trip to the Moon mediated by a sealed capsule shot into orbit by the enormous barrel of a cannon, yet he persuades them with his mathematics and his demonstrations of industry, the creation of this marvel and its launch an occasion of fanfare and celebration.
Emerging after their impact on the Moon, the travellers are exhausted and settle down to slumber on the Lunar surface, succumbing to strange dreams before their exploration leads them to discover strange vegetation and the natives of the new world, hostile yet susceptible to the superior strength of men raised under the strain of a higher gravity field.
A huge hit upon release, to the frustration of Méliès his film was the subject of piracy, with copies sold without remuneration to him, and also competitors using his ideas in their own productions; despite making around five hundred films in his career, in his later years the innovator of cinema was heavily in debt and in a moment of rage and frustration destroyed much of his work.
Fortunately, A Trip to the Moon was widely in circulation and so survived, though only as a monochrome print rather than one of the hand-tinted versions which were vastly more expensive to produce and so considerably rarer, yet in 1993 a film can was discovered in an archive of the Filmoteca de Catalunya which contained a copy of the sought after alternative.
Presented in both the monochrome and the restored colour version on a new Blu-ray from Arrow Academy, the accompanying documentary of the astonishing eighteen-year process to recover the deeply degraded print is perhaps more fascinating than the film, fragments of frames individually peeled from the decaying mass, scanned and digitally reassembled in a trick worthy of the former stage magician himself.
Also included is a documentary on the life and work of Méliès who employed many of the tricks of that craft in his films, demonstrating his showmanship and expanding the language of cinema with double exposures and trick editing, taking what had been largely a medium of documentation and taking it on the first steps towards the narrative cinema which dominated the following century.