Jonathan Salem Baskin

Looking Back

Today, a futuristic vision showed us the past.

As far as plot goes, it’s pretty simple: The astronauts of Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon are scientists who wear long cloaks and pointed Merlin hats. After a trip lasting all but a few seconds, they get right to work annihilating the locals, called Selenes (after 
the Greek lunar god), then kill the alien’s king and return to Earth, where they’re celebrated as heroes. Scientifically speaking, it’s embarrassing silly, since they go to the moon in a giant bullet, and come prepared with bedrolls to camp under the open sky. They discover giant mushrooms in addition to combustible aliens (who explode in little puffs if you hit them hard enough), and everyone seems able to talk to one another. The flight home requires them to tip their capsule over a ledge so it can fall back to earth, and one of the astronauts travels outside the ship. A Selenite tags along, too. The movie represents some technical innovations of filmmaking — the special effects were revolutionary — but it was edited in a herky-jerky manner that almost defied any sense of real narrative flow between scenes.

Deconstructing the culture of it is so amazing, though. The Moon is a giant face that watches the scientists approach, and then they land by poking him in the right eye. All the celestial bodies are similarly anthropomorphized: The Big Dipper’s stars are faces, and Saturn is a guy who leans out of a window in, well, Saturn. The Selenites are human shaped (two arms and two legs). So both the structure and the inhabitants of the Universe are based on mankind. And what do the scientists do when they get to the Moon? They try to kill everyone, and while the exaggerated gestures of silent films shouldn’t be overly analyzed, it does seem like the scientists aren’t surprised that the cosmos pretty much looks like them, or that they should do anything in it other than kill things.

When this first-ever science fiction movie debuted in Paris on this day in 1902, it was really about mankind’s past and present and, in revealing it, showed much of what was yet to come.