A Trip to the Moon Blu-ray Review: Simply Magnificent

A newly restored print makes this classic silent film even better.
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As still-photography technology developed and exposure times dropped, the idea of taking a series of photographs and piecing them together to form a moving picture began to percolate in the brains of some of the world’s greatest minds.  In May of 1887, a Frenchman, Louis Le Prince, created the first motion-picture film, Roundhay Garden Scene, which consists of a few seconds of people walking in a garden.  Others tinkered with similar devices but they were all bulky and unreliable, and the images came out poorly.  In 1891, Thomas Edison created the Kinetograph, which took a series of instantaneous photographs on a standard Kodak machine.  This was much easier to use and the images were much clearer, but the film could only be viewed one at a time by peeping into a box.  It was the Lumière brothers in France who found a way to project the moving images onto a screen for a large audience.  

In 1895, illusionist, magician, and theater director Georges Méliès attended one of the Lumière brothers' cinematography demonstrations, and the world of film has never been the same.  Struck by the potential of this machine, Méliès attempted to buy it from the Lumières but they would not sell.  He bought a similar machine in London and began making his own films. At the time, most films were documentary in nature.  They featured animals in their habitats, or simple scenes of daily life.  With a background in theater and a focus on spectacle, Méliès aimed for something completely different.

By accident, he discovered the substitution trick.  While filming a street scene, his camera jammed for a minute and then continued filming.  The results were that a bus changed into a hearse and women changed into men.  Méliès began using this trick with great imagination, changing the old theatrical trick of the vanishing lady into something more - the lady not only vanished but turned into a dancing skeleton and then back again.  For the next several years, Méliès began to experiment and often invent tricks for the camera, essentially inventing special effects for the cinema.  His films often had a fantastical element, incorporating trick effects such as multiple exposures (his film One Man Band finds seven different versions of himself playing different instruments).

In 1902, he adapted Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon and invented the science-fiction movie.  A Trip to the Moon is Méliès masterpiece and one of the greatest films to come out of early film history.  Coming in at just under 18 minutes, it was the longest film he’d ever made at the time and it uses every trick and special effect he knew. It features elaborate moving sets, beautifully constructed costumes, multiple exposures, substitution tricks, and even live tadpoles superimposed in one scene.The plot is a simple yet imaginative thing.  A group of scientists build a bullet-shaped space capsule and launch it via a giant cannon to the moon (the capsule lands by hitting the Man in the Moon’s eye, creating one of the most iconic images in all of cinema history).  There, they meet some aliens, promptly kill one of them, are then captured, kill the King, and quickly rush back home where they are hailed as heroes.

As any lover of film can tell you, it is not the plot that makes a movie but how it is told.  A Trip to the Moon is told with such imagination, beauty, and brilliance that one can hardly believe it was made more than 100 years ago.  There is a quaintness to the effects viewed with today’s eyes.  Multiple exposure and substitution tricks are old hat to modern eyes and with modern cameras and CGI we can pull them off much more believably. But it is that quaintness that gives the film a certain magic.  And the wondrously constructed sets and individually hand-colored frames give it an otherworldly feel that is undeniably breathtaking.

No hand-colored prints were thought to exist for many years.  In 1993, one was given to a film archive in Spain by an anonymous donor, but it was in a state of total decomposition.  In 1999, the film was given to Lobster Films in France and they began the painstaking process of restoring it.  As the film stock decomposed, it congealed together at the edges and so the team had to very carefully pull it apart in small sections.  Then they would digitally photograph each frame, one by one.  This process took several years.  Once it was all digitally recorded, they had to wait until the technology caught up with their desire to be able to restore it into a workable print.  In 2010, they were able to digitally reassemble the frames, many of which were only fragments, combining them with another black and white prints to restore the film to as close to the original as ever imagined.  Lobster Films and Blackhawk Films are now presenting this new print for the first time on Blu -ray.  It is stunningly gorgeous.  I’ve seen A Trip to the Moon multiple times over the years but never like this.  Never as clean and clear as it is seen here.

It comes with three audio scores: a more traditional one by Jeff Mills, a modern one by Dorian Pimpernel, and an improvised piano one with optional narration written by Georges Méliès.  Bonus features include a restored black and white version from original 35mm elements with two other musical scores and an optional soundtrack that includes actors voicing the various characters in the film.  Personally, I’d stick with the new color print and the more traditional score but that’s just me.  There’s also a really wonderful new film, The Extraordinary Voyage, that documents the life of Méliès and the restoration of this new print.  It would be worth buying on its own, even without this lovely new copy of A Trip to the Moon.  Also included are two other lunar-themed short films by Méliès, The Eclipse and The Astronomer’s Dream.

A Trip to the Moon is of incredible historical value. It is the first science-fiction film ever made; it is the greatest film from Georges Méliès, one of the earliest and greatest filmmakers who invented many of the cinematic effects we still use today. He helped show audiences that moving pictures could be more than of documentary value.  But beyond all that academic importance it is a wonderful film that still manages to delight.

This new restored print is a revelation and this set is a must-have for film lovers of all ages.

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