Cinematic Firsts: The First Science Fiction Film - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Science Fiction Film

Alexander Wallace takes a trip to the Moon.
The experience of watching a silent film is strange nowadays; it feels almost like reading a comic book, but you can’t control when you turn the pages. We are so used to the notion that there is sound in film, with effects and environmental sound and music, that being presented with merely images is practically an alien experience.

But we mustn't be alienated by something so old. We must embrace what new experiences we can from the past, for it is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. This is especially so when we think about old science fiction, for we think of it as an inherently forward-thinking genre, one whose older incarnations are quaint at best and repulsive at worst. I propose we do something different: appreciate all that could be done with the methods of a century ago.

Enter A Trip to the Moon, the 1902 film directed by Georges Méliès.

This is widely agreed to be the first science fiction film, a groundbreaking instance of the portrayal of the fantastic in the budding medium. Among other homages, it became an important part of Martin Scorcese’s Hugo, my favorite film of his and a film of which I have written elsewhere. It gave the world the iconic shot of the man in the Moon so rudely having a capsule jammed into his eye.

That cold and desolate face is not the only entity that is done grievous harm by humans. If you watch A Trip to the Moon (quite short by modern standards - about twelve minutes - but long by the standards of its debut year 1902), you will notice that these enterprising astronauts end up killing multiple denizens of Earth’s satellite, who seem to combust quite luminously when they are given the slightest prod. In some ways, Méliès is quite the anti-imperialist, condemning the brutality of empire by showing how ugly it is and how gloriously it is portrayed in spite of all that. You have Europeans going to a foreign land and breaking damn near everything there; sound familiar?
But I do not want to only discuss Méliès in a context of political analysis; there is plenty to be wowed by in terms of craftsmanship alone. There were two scenes that impressed me me: the smoke rising from the factory right before the launch, and then the daring launch of the actual capsule in a manner strongly reminiscent of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Using very basic techniques by modern standards, Méliès wows you; he convincingly portrays the titanic industrial endeavor of constructing and launching such a capsule without anything resembling an actual factory.

This is a film who wears its historical context on its sleeve, looking at it from over a century later. This was a time when great scientific endeavors were seen as demonstrations of national pride; we certainly don’t respond to the latest SpaceX launch in such a manner. This was the time of a monoculture, when there was a sense of national belonging in a way that now seems quaint; there are brass bands and parades and women dressed in clothes that would have been scandalous in 1902. It was the age of the wilderness explorer, the adventurer archaeologist, the prodigal scientist, the world’s fair. These explorers are those who wouldn’t be terribly out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. This is a film that showcases an age where people were actually filled with wonder.

A Trip to the Moon is a priceless historical artifact, but who says historical artifacts have to be dull and best kept behind glass screens in museums. This is history in vivid liveliness (but not in vivid sound), one that allows you to step in, if only briefly, into a world where there were fantastic worlds within Earth orbit. It is dated, yes, but I’d say that’s part of the fun, and from there how you really get the most of it. Watch A Trip to the Moon and see how far we’ve come, and what we had earlier than you’d think.

View all our Cinematic Firsts articles here.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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