(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week Brad Cook dives into the new Blu-Ray release of Georges Méliès’ indispensable A Trip to the Moon out now via Flicker Alley.)
I have a faint childhood memory of seeing the famous shot of the rocket ship hitting the moon in the eye, from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. It was probably shown during one of those Star Wars making-of specials that also used clips from Metropolis and other early science-fiction films to demonstrate what influenced George Lucas.
However, I didn’t learn much about Méliès and his contributions to cinematic history until I took in a showing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo with my family on Christmas Day a few years ago. That exposure led me to seek out A Trip to the Moon and learn more about the director, so when I had a chance to take in this new Blu-ray + DVD release from Flicker Alley, I jumped at the opportunity.
A Trip to the Moon, which runs a mere 15 minutes, tells the simple story of six astronomers who travel in a rocket to the moon, encounter aliens who try to take them captive, and escape back to Earth for a triumphant heroes’ reception. It’s basic “Chase your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him out of the tree” storytelling, but it was one of the first science-fiction films in cinema history. In fact, it also became one of the first blockbusters, as well as one of the earliest victims of piracy.
A Trip to the Moon is also an important achievement because Méliès was an auteur intrigued by the new medium. He used editing tricks and other techniques that may seem quaint today but were revolutionary at the time, such as showing a character vanish in a puff of smoke or superimposing an actor’s face onto the moon. Some copies of the 1902 film were colored by hand – all of them were thought to be lost until one turned up in Spain in the mid-1990s. It was painstakingly restored and released in a Blu-ray + DVD set, along with a booklet, from Flicker Alley a few years ago.
As far as I can tell, this new edition from Flicker Alley is the same. A Trip to the Moon is presented with three options for the score, one of which features a spoken narration that was originally written by Méliès. The bonus features include a black-and-white version of the film, also with score options, and two of the director’s other shorts: The Astronomer’s Dream, which is a thematic precursor to A Trip to the Moon, and The Eclipse, a 1907 work with the sun, moon, stars, and planets represented by anthropomorphized characters. Yes, interstellar voyages were common in his movies.
Méliès had a bit of a dada approach to his films. He was a magician who was fascinated by early motion picture cameras and accidentally stumbled across some techniques, such as stopping filming to make a character vanish or turn into another one, that he used in his films. His skill involved creating visuals that were groundbreaking for their time and attracted many fans and copycats. He wasn’t really much of a storyteller capable of creating rich narratives, so his work is best appreciated through that lens.
The centerpiece of the bonus materials is The Extraordinary Voyage, a 75-minute documentary that traces Méliès’ career through his later years, when his weakness as a storyteller led to a decline in his box office revenues. He ended up selling toys at a train station kiosk to make ends meet, but he did live long enough to experience a revival of appreciation for his work, including a film festival dedicated to the few films of his that had survived. (Unfortunately, he burned all his prints when he had to shut his studio down.)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michael Gondry, Tom Hanks, and others lend their thoughts to this documentary, which also covers the discovery of a colorized version of A Trip to the Moon. The print was in very bad shape, so the restoration team did their best to photograph its frames before it fell apart. Then they had to wait several years for computer technology to get to the point where those frames could be compared to the best copy of the black-and-white version of the film so that a colorized edition could be created. The team put in enormous effort to restore the movie as close to the 1902 colors as possible, even going so far as to mimic the imperfections of the brushes that were used over a century ago to colorize the movie by hand.
The booklet features an essay excerpted from a book called A Trip to the Moon Back in Color, along with notes about the restoration.
– Brad Cook (@BradCWriter)