Before Armstrong: Moon Missions from Méliès to Kubrick

I should have written this article weeks ago. But I got the idea a month too late.

On or around July 20, The Rafael, The New Parkway, and The Roxie celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. But most of their programs centered on documentaries.

But why not celebrate the anniversary with a series of fictitious trips to the moon made before the real thing? Here’s the series someone should have done. I call it Before Armstrong: Moon Missions from Méliès to Kubrick.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

George Méliès’ most famous movie helped turn cinema into a story-telling medium, and spread science fiction from the printed page to the silver screen. Far more fantasy than science, it has a moon with a breathable atmosphere and creatures that explode when you hit them. Read my Blu-ray review.

Since A Trip the Moon runs only 15 minutes, it needs to be shown before a short feature, preferably another silent and something whimsical, like:

Cosmic Voyage (1936)

This late silent from the Soviet Union, clearly intended for young children, feels like something George Pal would have made in the 1950s, except that it’s a silent from the other side of the iron curtain. A brilliant but loveable scientist with a Santa-like beard, a young boy brimming with pluck, and a beautiful young woman convince the authorities that their rocket is safe. Then they go to the moon, have some adventures there, and return home. The science is remarkably accurate for its time, and who can forget the intertitle “You gather the atmosphere. I’ll rescue the cat.” Charming, silly, and entertaining.

The Woman in the Moon (1929)

One more silent. Fritz Lang’s second science fiction epic doesn’t measure up to Metropolis, but it’s fun. A hero, a villain, a heroine, a coward, a crazy scientist, and a young boy travel to the moon in search for gold (yes, gold – and why do all spaceships have a young boy?). I believe this is the first feature film about space flight, and it tries for scientific accuracy. The spaceship has stages, and they use inertia to create gravity. On the other hand, the moon in this movie has a breathable atmosphere (but only on the far side). The movie runs nearly three hours and would have worked better if it was considerably shorter.

Destination Moon (1950)

One of the first science fiction films of the 1950s, and one of the best attempts at scientific accuracy. A group of wealthy industrialists set out to land on the moon before the Communists get there first. Instead of a young boy, Destination Moon has an uneducated common man on board, so other characters can explain things to him and the audience. I saw this one about 40 years ago, and if I remember it, it’s unintentionally funny.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)

This one is intentionally funny. I have seen three feature films about the famous Baron, and all three bring him to the moon. But I’m picking this one not only because of its humor and whimsical mixture of live action and animation, but because the movie begins and ends on the moon. Besides, it’s the only one with an astronaut in a spacesuit. A real treat. You can read my article on Munchausen movies.

First Men in the Moon (1964)

The Ray Harryhausen version of the trip, which means that it’s filled with strange moon monsters. It’s also not only the British version, but the Victorian British version, based (perhaps not too accurately) from a story by H.G. Wells. Another one I haven’t seen in a long time.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s trip to the moon is not like any of the ones above. The moon trip is only one of four sections in the film. It suggests lunar travel as routine, with a Pan Am space liner and a stop of a airport-like space station. What’s more, 2001 was being made while NASA was figuring out how to go to the moon. There were less than 16 months between the film’s premiere and that “one big step for mankind.” And finally, 2001 is an acknowledged masterpiece.

I wish I had thought about this earlier. Actually, I wish a local theater programmer had thought about it.

2 thoughts on “Before Armstrong: Moon Missions from Méliès to Kubrick

  1. But Lincoln, TCM has been having a great series including several that you mentioned. I haven’t been able to get to all the moon movies they broadcast.

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