The Awe-Inspiring Work of the Original Movie Magician: ‘A Trip to the Moon’

In light of the success of Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, Georges Méliès is a name that should, ideally, be more easily recognized by modern audiences. In Scorsese’s nostalgic work of art, the French film pioneer is played by Ben Kingsley during the latter part of his life, when he’d become a quiet toy salesman in a Parisian train station. Long gone were the days during which he devoted his life to making magic through the new medium of cinema. While Scorsese’s movie is a remarkable tribute to the legacy of a true genius, even the iconic director understands that not even his outstanding stereoscopic compositions hold a candle to the primitive beauty of Méliès’ work.

This is why the most astonishing scenes in Hugo, surprisingly, aren’t those in which we see how far visual effects have come through the power of computers, but those in which Scorsese shows us fragments of Méliès’ movies. Suddenly we find ourselves in complete awe as we see an array of fantastical images appear onscreen, their ethereal quality comprising a haunting phantasmagoria. Mechanical dragons and ladies on top of stars, flying trains and crab men… but the images that become the most embedded in your brain are those of a rocket hitting the eye of the man in the moon.

If there is something Hugo gets right, it’s highlighting the timeless power of Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, the first science fiction movie made which celebrates its 110th anniversary in 2012. To commemorate this landmark anniversary, boutique video-distributor Flicker Alley has put out a restored version of the film in high definition, which already should be in the running for “best Blu-ray release of the year”.

The DVD and Blu-ray disc set contains no less than four different versions of the movie, the most impressive of all being a colorized version, which was created from the best preserved hand-painted reel found by film historians in the early 1990s. This is the most complete version of A Trip to the Moon yet, and one that was meticulously reconstructed and restored to make it look like it appeared to 1902 audiences who were seduced by its magic in carnivals, fairs and theaters.

The movies once were considered odd, sideshow attractions and A Trip to the Moon has always retained this otherworldly quality. It makes us want to peek behind thick, velvet curtains and be dazzled by its fantastical qualities. Nowadays movies are often reduced to silly spectacles, in which CGI has pretty much replaced the desire to “create”. Even if the early filmmakers wouldn’t have even dreamed of what can be done with computers, modern creators seem less enthralled by the possibilities of the medium, than by coming up with assembly line productions that lack personality, the awe factor and most of all magic.

How is it that a 110-year-old movie is more likely to amaze us than almost anything else playing at our local multiplex? One could say that our society’s access to all kinds of information makes it easier to lose our sense of wonderment. Nowadays we can say that everything is done with computers even if we ourselves would never be able to recreate what we see onscreen. Movies like A Trip to the Moon, however, possess a distinctively rich quality that sparks our curiosity and makes us wonder How, exactly, did they achieve that? The movie’s plot isn’t exactly mind blowing — most of it “borrowed” from Jules Verne, Offenbach and H.G. Wells — but its execution is filled with such ingeniously crafted details that you might revisit it time and time again just to delight yourself with its primitive wit.

Nothing in the plot seems to have any scientific accuracy and how could it? It took another six decades before men landed on the moon, but the film will forever remain as a testament to mankind’s capacity of always looking forward. It should be telling that in the movie, the trip to the moon is sponsored by the “Institute of Incoherent Astronomy”, Méliès, always the joker, had no doubt about how the limitations of technology could never deter human imagination, the incoherence in question being nothing but a minor obstacle.

Flicker Alley has done a phenomenal work for this Blu-ray release, beginning with the gorgeous steelbook packaging, that demands that we dive deep into the set’s treasures. The movie itself has never looked better and the colorized version is accompanied by a hypnotic score by French band Air, the members of which are also interviewed and tell how their unique brand of sensual electronica suited the film’s innovative rhythmic compositions. The other versions of the movie are all in black and white and include a choice of: narration, voiceovers or piano accompaniment. Sadly, because of a manufacturing problem, the narrated version isn’t included in the Blu-ray disc, however Flicker Alley have established that they would send replacement discs once the issue is solved.

Also included are two other Méliès shorts; The Eclipse and The Astronomer’s Dream both of which show the filmmaker’s eye for visual gags and comedic timing. Director Costa Gavras praised these movies for their importance as sociological documents that show us what people liked at the turn of the century.

The major bonus feature is a brilliant documentary called The Extraordinary Voyage which chronicles Méliès’ career from magician to depressed toymaker (did you know he was one of the first victims of bankruptcy via media piracy?) and then follows the quite extraordinary voyage traversed by his most beloved masterpiece. The latter portion of the film dealing with the restoration process behind A Trip to the Moon. The documentary traces the influence of Méliès on renowned filmmakers like Michel Gondry, Gavras and Michel Hazanavicius who refers to the movie as a “motion painting” and it also manages to make art restoration seem like something worth rooting for. Watching it we become emotionally involved in the tough restoration process (will they be able to remove those scratches?) and also are filled with extreme sadness upon the realization that most of Méliès’ work is now lost.

This set is a splendid inclusion for any film lover’s library as well as an educational tool about film preservation, restoration and the appraisal of classics. Best of all it rejuvenates one’s spirit and sends you on a quest for even more movie magic, after all, like one of the interviewees in the documentary says “this is not a film, this is a dream.”

RATING 10 / 10