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Trip to the Moon, A (Blu-ray Review)

25 Apr, 2012 By: John Latchem

Flicker Alley
$39.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Not rated.

Many people would recognize the iconic image of a bullet-shaped capsule crashing into the eye of the Man in the Moon, remaining blissfully ignorant as to its creator. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo has done much to change that, shining a light on the career of the great French filmmaker Georges Méliès, the pioneer of early cinema who produced the famous shot for his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (known as Le voyage dans la lune in its native France), a 14-minute silent epic about a journey to Earth’s celestial companion.

Now, modern audiences can enjoy this beautiful new Blu-ray edition of A Trip to the Moon, which instantly becomes the definitive presentation of the film for any collector.

Two things set this Blu-ray apart. The first is the intricate restoration of a long-lost color version of the film that had been hand-painted frame-by-frame by Méliès’ team. The other is the new documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, which recounts Méliès’ career and legacy.

Méliès fell in love with film after witnessing a demonstration of the motion picture by the Lumiere Brothers. It was the dawn of the 20th century, when radio was in its infancy, streets were still lined with horse manure, and films were relegated to carnival attractions consisting of minute-long depictions of everyday life, military parades, fancy events or comedy sketches.

After building his own equipment, Méliès accidentally invented special effects when his camera jammed while filming a street scene, and when he played it back he noticed the carriages he had been following disappeared and transformed. He quickly thought of new ways to use the effect by transposing his magic act onto film, culminating in several shorts in which he interacts with himself. Eventually he realized he could use film to tell longer stories, the best known of which became A Trip to the Moon.

The effects are crude and the quality pales in comparison to the average homemade YouTube video nowadays, but were revolutionary at the time, and the ease with which Méliès’ techniques can be emulated by modern technology speaks to how much his genius changed the nature filmmaking and inspired others to pursue similar dreams.

The documentary includes interviews with several well-known French filmmakers familiar to American audiences, such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien Resurrection), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Michel Hazanavicius, who recently won the Oscar for directing The Artist.

Hazanavicius astutely likens these early techniques of filmmaking, which bordered on the surrealistic side, as less about realism and more about creating living art, and describes the process of painting color into each frame by hand (a common practice at the time) as “motion painting.”

Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras, now a major figure in French cinema, likens A Trip to the Moon to the Avatar of its day.

And Tom Hanks appears via a 15-year-old archive interview from the set of HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, which re-created Méliès making his film. Hanks relates that Méliès’ imagination made him the spiritual forbearer of the architects of the Apollo program.

Méliès based A Trip to the Moon primarily around three sources. First was Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel, A Trip Around It (often published together in one volume), in which a group of explorers are shot toward the moon in a cannon. Second was Jacques Offenbach’s operetta A Trip to the Moon, which featured many similar visual details. And third was a novel that was newly released in Méliès’ day, H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, which depicted travelers encountering the alien inhabitants of the moon known as Selenites.

The film was so popular at the time that it was widely pirated, and another studio produced what was basically a shot-by-shot remake in 1908.

Eventually, however, Méliès found that creativity alone was not enough to keep up with the demands of the growing film industry. And newsreels from real-life adventures would undercut the audience’s need for Méliès’ unique imagery. When he finally had to sell his studio to make ends meet, he destroyed most of his film library, as film preservation was not much of a priority to the early industry. But A Trip to the Moon had been his one masterpiece that always persisted despite his subsequent descent into anonymity, even as scholars began to rebuild archives of Méliès films using newly discovered copies of his work. Though several hundred copies of his films remain lost, many hundreds more have been found, and the vast majority are collected in volumes previously released by Flicker Alley.

As detailed in the documentary, this color version of A Trip to the Moon was uncovered in a Spanish film vault in 1993, but was in bad shape, since the chemicals used to create early films often cause the stock to degrade, requiring the content to be transferred to a more stable medium (indeed, Costa-Gavras estimates that 75% of silent films are now lost due to neglect after the advent of the talkie, which led most people at the time to abandon earlier works).

By 2001, preservationists were able to manipulate the partially petrified reel enough to unwind it, and 13,375 frames were photographed one-by-one and stored digitally on computers for eight years, when technology advanced enough to allow the film to be reassembled and cleaned up.

There’s a certain satisfaction to be had seeing how modern visual effects techniques are employed to restore the earliest visual effects blockbusters in ways that would have made Méliès proud.

The disc also includes the more common black-and-white version of A Trip to the Moon, which offers multiple audio options featuring a choice between a couple of traditional musical scores and a version in which actors voice several of the roles, a technique that had been common during the original presentation of the movie.

The only real gripe I have is with the music on the color version, which sounds like they matched the film to a Pink Floyd album. It’s actually a new score from the French electronica duo Air, who appear in an interview about the creation of the music. I don’t mind that it’s here, but I found the anachronism of the sound to be distracting, and I wish the color version had the same music options the black-and-white version does.

Rounding out the extras are two other thematically similar Méliès films: 1898’s The Astronomer’s Dream, a strange acid trip of a film in which the moon travels through the telescope to devour a stargazer’s office; and 1907’s The Eclipse, about a class that studies a homoerotic encounter between the sun and the moon.

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