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Moon Special: The Descent of Wonder

  • Two movies, one from 1902 and the other from 2009, charts how the moon has gone from being a source of wonder to something very banal
  • A Trip to the Moon and Moon are both considered classic films of their eras

Stills from Duncan Jones’ 2009 film ‘Moon’ (above), and ‘A Trip To The Moon’, Frenchman Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasy film.
Stills from Duncan Jones’ 2009 film ‘Moon’ (above), and ‘A Trip To The Moon’, Frenchman Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasy film.

There has surely never been a time in human history when we haven’t been fascinated by the moon in the nightsky. When it comes to the movies, it’s no different. Right from the dawn of celluloid, the desire to reach out into space has been a strong urge. Inspired by the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, film-makers turned to outer space—and, at the time, by definition the moon—to try out the storytelling techniques that film made possible. From here, the line of movies on the moon led through the worlds of pulp fiction and rudimentary sci-fi all the way to 1969, when news footage of the first lunar landing ushered in the era of realistic cinematic depictions. But the best of such movies have helped capture a more subtle narrative shift—our motives for going to the moon.

In 1902, barely seven years after the short films of the Lumière brothers stunned the world, another path-breaking French film-maker, Georges Méliès, released his masterpiece, Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon). It’s a shade over 12 minutes long. Even if you have not seen the film, you must have seen the famous image of the Man in the Moon, with a bullet-shaped spaceship stuck into his eye.

Méliès, a shoemaker turned stage illusionist and political cartoonist, and the owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris, was an immediate convert to cinema. As soon as he saw the Lumière brothers’ productions, he tried to buy one of their projectors. When rebuffed, he purchased an Animatograph film projector from the English inventor Robert W. Paul, and, by 1896, had modified it into a film camera, co-patenting the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin. Méliès immediately started putting this to use, producing films for the Robert-Houdin audience; these were, in keeping with his twin interests in popular entertainment and stage illusions, heavily focused on science fiction and fantasy tropes.

A Trip To The Moon was a hit, and, these days, it is revered for the many innovative film-making techniques it introduced. The film’s plot, however, seeks to ridicule pompous men of science and the colonialist legacy of subjugation and domination of cultures, while simultaneously encouraging viewers to develop a sense of wonder about the universe. It’s a fascinating movie that is basically science fiction in its premise, but a fantasy in look and feel.

When moon-travelling astronomers are sent on their way by shooting them out of a really humongous cannon, well, it’s highly implausible, but visually stunning. Later, when they are on the moon, which looks like a fantastic phantasmagoria of sinuous rocks, they wander about in ostentatious Earth clothes; their most advanced tech being umbrellas. More wonders follow, like when they watch the Earth rise in the sky, or when a comet flies past and star people, the old man of Saturn, and the goddess of the moon appear in the sky. Then there is the pointed satire of the astronomers meeting the inhabitants of the moon, the Selenites. They first appear in a lunar cavern, and the mere sight of them provokes the scientists to hit them with their umbrellas, making them explode. After further adventures, including the random killing of the Selenites’ king, the scientists escape the moon quite spectacularly, by tipping their travel pod into space and down to Earth.

Despite the lampooning tone and slapstick nature of the set-pieces, the overall theme of the movie is that of wonder. Forget about the specifics, the movie seems to say, wouldn’t a trip to the moon be a lot of fun? Isn’t space a wonderful place?

Stills from Duncan Jones’ 2009 film ‘Moon’ (above), and ‘A Trip To The Moon’, Frenchman Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasy film.
Stills from Duncan Jones’ 2009 film ‘Moon’ (above), and ‘A Trip To The Moon’, Frenchman Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasy film.

Over a hundred years later, a trip to the moon certainly isn’t about fun. From the 1950s through the 1970s, moon landings, probes and rovers were the stage for some good old Cold War posturing between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union till both lost interest. These days, though, the race is back on, with the US, China, India and Japan, as well as a host of private players, looking to return to our satellite.

A year after India’s Chandrayaan-1 made history by confirming the presence of water on the lunar surface, in 2008 came the dark and dystopic Moon, the debut feature of English film-maker Duncan Jones. Made on a shoestring budget, and eschewing computer-generated imagery for miniature models, Moon first became a sleeper hit, and is now considered one of the seminal science-fiction movies of our times.

Moon has just one character, a man called Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), who operates an automated fuel mining rig on the far side of the moon. The mining operation is run by an Earth-based energy company called Lunar Industries (LI). Bell is almost at the end of his three-year mission and is looking forward to heading back to Earth to his wife and daughter, when a freakish accident reveals something horrible: He’s a clone, and at the end of his tenure, he will be replaced by another Sam Bell. Bell and his double, who has been activated, then hatch a plan for one of them to travel back to Earth and reveal the unethical practices of LI.

Moon, though, is not about heroic derring-do. It’s about loneliness, boredom, a yearning for human company; it’s about personhood and humanity, set against the vast emptiness and dust of the moon and the impersonal mining facility. The moon of Moon couldn’t be more different from the wondrous Luna of A Trip To The Moon. It’s a harsh, lonely place which is utterly inimical to life. The only beautiful thing about it is the view of Earth, like when Bell stops his trundling lunar rover to gaze longingly at the blue planet. The Earth is beautiful because it is home. To the oligarchs of LI, the moon is a resource, as is Sam Bell. His clone helps him realize that Bell is programmed to fall ill and die at the end of his time on the satellite. Though there never was a wife or daughter as his clone memories are fabricated, the sadness of bereavement that Bell feels when he’s dying is heartbreakingly real. If, on A Trip to the Moon, the rocket gets stuck in the eye of the Man in the Moon, in Jones’ movie, Bell is the man in the moon, subjected to the cruellest joke: The rock he wants to leave is actually his only true home.

As we enter the second phase of lunar exploration, spearheaded by missions such as India’s Chandrayaan-2, this time to tap into useful lunar resources, watching Moon is a moving and melancholic experience. If nothing else, it slams home the point that relentless capitalist “progress" and “development" can render anything, even something as fascinating as the moon in the night sky, utterly banal.

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