May 2, 2007
The First Science Fiction Movie
Today marks the 105th anniversary of the release of what is generally considered to be the first science fiction film.
George Melies' Le Voyage Dans le Lune ("A Trip to the Moon") was a French black and white silent film loosely based on Jules Vernes' From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells The First Men in the Moon. It runs about 14 minutes, and is probably the best-known of Melies' works. You've probably seen at some time its most famous image -- a picture of the Man in the Moon with a big spaceship that has landed in his eye.
The plot involves a group of astronomers who build a spaceship in the shape of a bullet, shoot it from a cannon, and go to the moon. There they discover many wonders: heavenly bodies with human faces, giant mushrooms, and a race of moon inhabitants called Selenites.
Melies was a stage magician who attended the first demonstration of the Lumiere Cinematographe in 1895, and was fascinated by what he saw. He attempted to buy a cinematograph from Luminere, but they refused to sell him one. Eventually he was able to obtain a machine from the Edison laboratories, and had it "reverse-engineered" to create his own apparatus.
Melies directed over 500 films, often incorporating elements reminiscent of his magic theater background. He made early use of multiple exposures, dissolves, time-lapse photography, and color (by hand-painting his films). He accidentally discovered the "stop trick", a technique where the camera is stopped, a change made, and then restarted, when his camera malfunctioned. When viewing the film he had made at the time when his camera had jammed, he was amazed to see a busload of people apparently change into a hearse!
Le Voyage Dans la Lune was also the first film to have been internationally released, primarily through piracy. Thomas Edison obtained a pirated version of the film, which he released and reputedly made a great deal of money on. Siegmund Lubin also pirated the film, and at one time accidentally tried to sell it back to Melies, who was outraged. Lubin took Melies' accusations pretty calmly (according to his then-assistant, Fred Balshover) and proceeded to tell Melies how difficult it had been for him to block out Melies' trademarks.
Although his films were widely acclaimed, Melies' business eventually went bankrupt, and Melies became a vendor at a toy kiosk. Many of his films have been destroyed, most of them melted down by the French army to make boot heels during World War I.
George Melies is also the director of what may be the first Horror film -- Le Manoir du Diable ("House of the Devil"). This was a 2-minute short portraying bats, Mephistopheles, skeletons, ghosts, and witches.
Le Voyage Dans la Lune is in the public domain and is viewable at The Internet Archive.
Photo Credit: George Melies, Public Domain