As far as I am aware this is the very first narrative film ever made. It is based on the works of Jules Vern and H.G. Wells. As a result of these two facts it is even more interesting that the first narrative film was a science fiction. If you admit out loud the fact that you watch a lot of science fiction movies then you are classed as a nerd and there is not very much you can do about it. Writers of the sci-fi genre are also looked down upon to some extent even though they are some of the smartest and most creative. On the other end of the film business genre films are usually seen as a risk by production companies because any genre film that gets produced has to appeal to a big enough chunk of the population of movie fans who are also sci-fi fans. What is interesting is that Georges Melies did not chose to produce something he knew would be popular like the works of Shakespeare, rather he took a risk on something he thought would stimulate the imagination.
Regardless whether or not Melies had access to the translated works of Shakespeare or not there are some interesting similarities between theatrical productions and this film. For starters both theatrical productions and early cinema were forced to rely on small fixed sets. We are not talking about the kind of sets they use in movies and TV today, we are talking about painted back drops and age old tricks to fool the audiences. This may sound odd in reference to a filmed performance but not when you consider the camera technology of the time. The cameras they were shooting on were very large and equally stationary. They lacked the ability to pan or tilt or even zoom. Also the film stock was delicate and expensive so they had to be isolated from the elements. This meant the sets had to be very compact and detailed enough to trick the audience into a sense of depth and place. This is why the early scenes of Le voyage dans la lune feature what to us is a somewhat comedic attempt at special effects.
Because of the limited functionality and mobility of their filming equipment you will notice that the set is only ever as large as the shot can capture. This puts the film into a nicely sized frame. When we look at the highly stylized aesthetic we start to get the feeling that we have been drawn into this bizarre moving painting which takes on a life of its own. This is most readily noticeable in the backdrops and set pieces since they are visually exaggerated and contorted. Melies plays with our sense of depth and distance by distorting our perception of three point perspective. Objects that we would expect the look a certain way as the trail off into the distance end up looking either too flat or over stretched. This intensifies any feelings we have of having left our own familiar reality only to be subjected to one of a stranger.
Clearly this is a silent film and so to talk about the sound quality would be a little redundant. However what I like about these early films is that where ever they were screened there would be a different person playing the music. What is interesting is that the music was not regulated. This means that every time you watch the movie the music could set a different tone: with a more whimsical tune you might see it as a comedy but with a more ominous tone one might sense more suspense and foreboding. Personally I prefer to watch the film silently rather that allow the music to shape the tone or alter my impressions of the narrative. Finally there was a script that was circulated with the film that was to be read aloud by a narrator. The narration guided the audience through the events of the film and gave us more details then we might assume on our own. That being said I prefer the film without the narration because I feel it is unnecessary. Also the fact that without the narration each audience member is guaranteed a unique experience is a lot of fun. Different people will notice different details and see things in different ways, this means they can all talk about it later.
As it turns out the film has passed into the public domain to rather than force you to fend for yourselves, as i have done in the past, here is Le voyage dans la lune for your viewing pleasure: