Saturday, 15 October 2011

LFF 2011: A Trip To The Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902) Review

A rare chance to see Georges Méliès 1902 classic in its intended form... A Trip To The Moon.

Contrary to popular belief, cinematic magician Georges Méliès had always intended his classic 1902 short to be in colour, and it's only now, with the discovery of old prints, that we have been able to see the film the way its creator had intended. There's a rare opportunity to see a restored and re-coloured version of the film at this year's London Film Festival, as the short precedes the equally rare showing of Roberto Rossellini's The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952). A brief discussion by cinema historian Ian Christie was held before my screening, in which he revealed that Méliès' films were the most expensive of their time, not only for their lavish sets and visuals, but also because he demanded on them being hand-coloured. Fortunately Méliès' films were also guaranteed box office hits, and they raked in returns across the world.

This restoration is accompanied by a brand new score, composed and performed by French electronic duo AIR, who also provided the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999). This anachronistic orchestration drones, glitches and soars over the 16-minute running time, recalling the controversial re-scoring of Metropolis (Lang, 1927) in 1984, by artists such as Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar. I could sense that my audience was divided over this new accompaniment, but personally I loved it.

Projected in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the film has never looked better, and it's clear why Méliès' vision has become so influential, referenced in everything from Godard's La chinoise (1967) to the video for The Smashing Pumpkins' 1996 single 'Tonight, Tonight'. The spectacle of the film is still what surprises me most; the fact that a film 109 years old can take my breath away with its daring ambition. Even beyond that classic shot of a bullet ship lodged in the moon's eye, Méliès crafted a fascinating world for his bearded astronomers to explore, rocky and sandy on the surface, and inhabited by a green insectoid race, who explode into a puff of smoke when attacked. The director also manages to create an astonishing amount of depth with flat backgrounds, largely because of the detailed sets and the magical tone he establishes through costume and lighting. The argument against 3D stretches all the way back to the premiere of this film.

As well as being one of the most groundbreaking films of its time (argued as the first sci-fi, certainly a step into the avant-garde), A Trip To The Moon is still most awe-inspiring for its ability to hold an audience's attention a century after its creation. The NFT1 was packed with audience members old and young yesterday afternoon, and we all gasped with excitement during the film's final set-piece, where the protagonists escape from the planet, plummeting off a cliff into the earths crystal oceans. Even if the Rossellini film weren't so brilliant, it would be worth paying full price just to see Méliès' finest hour back on the silver screen once more. Exactly the way he dreamed it would be.

A Trip To The Moon will be playing before The Machine That Kills Bad People on Sunday 16th October. This review is also part of Cinema Strange and the Aurum Sci-Fi Quest.

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