2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle rather than making his own hell. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, particularly Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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1900s, French cinema, Scifi, Silent

A Trip to the Moon (Voyage dans la lune, 1902)

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Georges Méliès

By Roderick Heath

On the 27th of December, 1895, Georges Méliès attended a special event arranged by the inventor brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The brothers had recently perfected the machine they called the cinematograph—a creation that combined functions of moving picture camera, processor, and projector—and had been showing off the results around Paris throughout the later weeks of the year. On this night, they invited various showmen and theatrical impresarios to see the results of their labours. The invitees were to be one of the very first movie audiences, and at least one of them would soon become a pioneer of a new art. The Lumières had conflicting aims in the exhibition. They were exposing their creation and hoping to stir interest and publicity, which would help protect it from their many rivals, including Thomas Edison. But they also had avowed high-minded, scientific purpose for their invention on the cusp of dispatching a corps of photographers around the world to shoot documentary footage and exhibit the results. Méliès was an experienced stage illusionist who owned and managed the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, built by that famous magician. Méliès had become a success thanks to his meticulous attention to his theatre’s running and ingenuity in providing its attractions. Like all of the impresarios, he was transfixed by the new mode of communication the Lumières presented, and he jostled with the owner of the Folies Bergère in trying to buy their camera. But the brothers refused all offers.
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Méliès got around this by travelling to London and purchasing another manufacturer’s projecting device, which he adapted into a noisy but working camera, at first directly copying the short films the Lumières had made and showing them in his theatre as a side attraction. Méliès discovered peculiarities in this new tool as he went along, as when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. When filming was restarted, a moment of time had elapsed. When projected, Méliès saw the resulting jump and realised this basic quirk of the invention could be utilised to realise tricks similar to what he worked on stage. What was could suddenly become something else, only in the reality of film. Edison had already pulled a trick like this in one of his movies, but Méliès would make it the basis of a new expressive form. Méliès quickly found popularity with his new obsession far greater than what even his theatrical success could aspire to. He built a film studio in Montreuil, brought over his stock company of players, and began making movies with the verve and industry of someone who knew how to make and stage a show, as well as the quicksilver acumen required to adapt to a new medium. Most of his early works were only a few minutes long, but he tackled every subject he could, from ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine (1898) and The Dreyfus Affair (1899), to titillating stag-circuit shorts like After the Ball (1897), and the proto-horror films Le Maison du Diable (1897) and Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899).
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Méliès’ work provides the bridge between the show business of one age, the theatre of belle époque Paris and the Victorian era stage fantasia, and the oncoming time of cinema. Illusionism was Méliès’ stock in trade, but it wasn’t just his love of theatrical stunts and sleight-of-hand that would influence his drift towards spectacle and the realm of the fantastic. His was a genuine love for and affinity with such fare, particularly what was called the “féerie” on the French stage—pageants and spectacles based in mythic and supernatural tales, imbued with a light and evanescent quality of transformative wonder, safe for young audiences in their colour, but also dusted with delicate, good-natured eroticism. Méliès captured the essence of this style as he began to specialise in stories exploiting his gift for realising fantastic imagery. In 1899 he made the six-minute Cinderella, an extremely straightforward telling of Perrault’s story. This proved so popular it gained him international clout and international legal problems, as the popularity of his works with pirates became increasingly galling. Under the banner of his production company, christened Star Films, Méliès began work on his most ambitious film to date, spending 10,000 francs and taking four months to create a film over fifteen minutes long. This odyssey was Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip to the Moon, inspired by ideas from Jules Verne’s novella of that title and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon, via, perhaps, Jacques Offenbach’s light-hearted operatic spin on Verne.
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Méliès’ work dated quickly in its day, as the fast-moving tides of technology and taste almost resulted in its total loss, swept away just as CD-ROM and VHS have been in the very recent past. After Méliès fell into ruin and obscurity, his rediscovery came when cinema first started looking back over its shoulder at the past. A Trip to the Moon is so familiar as a totem of pop culture inception today that it can seem near to cliché. And yet it’s as tantalisingly strange, witty, and original now as it was a century ago, a broadcast from the very edges of technological memory and modern reference. Of all the things cinema has been and is now, a seed for so much lies within A Trip to the Moon. It’s an experimental work, feeling out the peculiar textures and tricks of this new expressive form recognising no limits, only a basic set of proposed rules and a governing urge. It’s a protosurrealist’s fantasia mapping out the universe as annex of the interior imagination. It’s a pure auteurist relic created by a man who tackled and manipulated every aspect of his burgeoning craft. It’s a work of spectacle driven by special effects and a desire to wow an audience with visual impact. It’s a spry and funny burlesque on the themes of genre fiction and the stuff of official mythology, as well as the new, exciting, more than slightly terrifying concepts of the age of mechanisation and expanding consciousness marking the end of the Victorian era and the onrush of the new century. Sixty-seven years later, humankind would actually pull off the adventure Méliès conjured.
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A Trip to the Moon commences with a gathering of astronomers. The presiding Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself) proposes firing a manned projectile to the moon with a giant gun, much to the excitement and consternation of his fellow scientists. A rival argues with him, plainly decrying his plan as preposterous, an exchange that devolves as Barbenfouillis tosses papers and paraphernalia at his adversary. Others agree to the proposed expedition and the mad-bearded professor shakes hands with them. Like much of the film, this scene seems very simple, with the unmoving camera, the stage-pageant sprawl and mime-show action. And yet it’s stuffed full of allusions, sign-play, and waggish jokes. Méliès depicts not contemporary scientists in the strict, professionalised garb of Victorian science but as medieval alchemists sporting cloaks decorated with celestial objects. Immediately apparent in this vignette is the way sexuality becomes a refrain, and above all show business itself; A Trip to the Moon is a paean to its own evocation of showmanship as a triumphant value. Cute stenographers write down the scientists’ every word, and a line of trim-waisted chorus girls enter to give the senior scientists the gifts of telescopes, which then transform into stools for them to sit on.
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This fillip of visual humour has resonance, suggesting the way wonder is often transmuted into stolid function: these men are used to romanticising whilst sitting on their equipment, and their journey is glimpsed as something of a Quixotic tilt not merely at exploration but at regaining lost youthful pluck. Méliès surely hadn’t read any Freud and yet the phallic note in those telescopes is insistent, and recurs later when the chorus girls are needed to help fire off the gigantic cannon. The opening tableau pictures the scientific realm as a cabalistic enclave with roots in weird esoterica and antisocial elitism, but pointing the way forward with industry and inspiration. Perhaps there’s some hint here of the filmmaker’s cunning in regards to his audience’s understanding of forces rapidly changing their lives, an aspect that complicates the film’s usual characterisation as an epitome of an early twentieth century statement of bold forward-looking. Of course, Méliès is also aware that his very film itself is part of those transformative forces, and the very last shot conflates Méliès’ mastery of his new art and the act of heroic discovery. Barbenfouillis’ sketch on a chalkboard becomes great undertaking, as witnessed in the second and third tableaux, as they have their projectile built and great gun forged. The scientists immediately set about modernising themselves, changing out of antique gear into the clothes of Montgolfier-era gentlemen adventurers. Barbenfouillis and his cabal inspect their brainchild’s realisation in the second tableau, but the savants are out of place in this workaday environment, as one man trips over a tub to the great amusement of the workers.
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If A Trip to the Moon repeatedly envisions scientific endeavour and venture into branch of show business, these scenes carry a hint of Méliès’ respect for the process required to produce anything wonderful, as the painted backdrop behind the projectile recognisably reproduces Méliès’ own studio. But the arts of Victorian metallurgy and industry become mere cardboard and paintwork. A Trip to the Moon revisited ideas Méliès had first explored in his whimsical 1899 work An Astronomer’s Dream, which had similarly envisioned an arcane concept of a skygazer dreaming of star-riding nymphs and a frightening moon with a man’s face that at one point eats the dreamer hero. A Trip to the Moon reordered these touches into a more elaborate edition, with the film’s famous central image quoting but also inverting the vision Méliès had offered three years earlier, as a product of human labour careens into the eye of the man in the moon. A simple inversion of a personal joke, certainly, but also an idea that reflects a changed attitude. Suddenly, humankind is no longer so at the mercy of the universe’s caprices. An Astronomer’s Dream betrays a certain level of anxiety filtered through comedy, a sense of the world just beyond our ken as both enticing and threatening. The promise of A Trip to the Moon has been the key promise of cinematic scifi ever since, that wisdom and applied intelligence might turn threat into triumph. The dreamer has become warrior with the way of things. And yet, of course, the aura of dreamlike plunge and the image of the cosmic feminine remain powerful in A Trip to the Moon.
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Seven years had passed since the first time Méliès saw a motion picture. Cinema was coming together with Promethean fire, and still only a fraction of the distance of the path it would travel. To watch the earliest fragments of moviemaking, the work of Edison, the Lumieres, and the handful of other pioneers in the field, is to stare at the very liminal edge of any sense of the past in motion, and the fleeting illusion of human subjects caught in a moment of life, like some form of spiritualism. How much it would evolve again in the following decade and a half, in terms of the techniques of visual storytelling, shifting from Méliès’ mostly fixed camera to the aggressively mobile and expressive camera of the likes of D.W. Griffith and his generation. Méliès brought a school of illusion from the stage to the screen with the essential presumption that one could be used like the other. To him, the camera was conjuring device and an imaginary audience member in his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin beholding the wonders he and his creative team could parade before it. Lack of worry about where the camera was and what it was doing at least freed him to labour on his other effects, as the hand-painted settings and props sprawl across the screen, creating an alternate reality, mysterious, beautiful, protean.
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Whilst the film presents only 17 apparent shots with a resolutely rectilinear perspective, it consists in fact of many more: Méliès’ camera passivity is another, carefully controlled illusion. One irony of passing time is that today with many filmmakers competing to outdo each other in masking their technique in elaborate tracking shots and the like, Méliès’ efforts in creating an illusion of sustained reality from a rigorously direct perspective feels less antiquated on at least this level. We can also see the jumps in Méliès’ sense of the camera by looking back to Cinderella with its cluttered but also simpler mise-en-scène and basic camera tricks just three years before—here the shots tend to stand back further, but are also more cleanly composed and energetically arranged. The vibrancy of the sets also betrays a more confident sense of what the frame could contain, what the eye could handle zapping down at it from the screen. The film’s third tableau, a shot of the astronomers overlooking the enormous undertaking of forging the cannon, is relatively brief but one of the most fascinatingly realised and visually dramatic moments, with Méliès using forced perspective, plumes of steam and smoke, and streams of liquid metal. This is a direct transposition of a vivid passage in Verne’s novel, revealing Méliès as adaptor as well as free improviser. The basic visual presumption here is still theatrical, but the shot betrays an interest in conveying process, the art of construction and the spectacle of industry in itself, that has moved beyond the tableaux style into something more definably cinematic, a seed for the epic style in filmmaking. Méliès’ shifts from shot to shot come with dissolves, embryonic film grammar giving the film the mobility the camera lacks.
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The next three tableaux are the most familiar moments of A Trip to the Moon, indeed some of the most instantly recognisable in cinema history, endlessly excerpted and anthologised as they’ve been. The moon shot project reaches its moment of truth in the midst of public excitement and publicity coup. The scientists climb into their shell and a cohort of chorus girls load it into the great cannon, before a uniformed military officer (François Lallement, one of the Star Films cameramen) signals the gun to be fired. The shell flies through the ether, and the moon, envisioned like an illustration out of a children’s book with man’s face upon its dial beaming beatifically down upon the Earth, receives the interstellar slug right in the eye. These scenes again take Verne’s novel as blueprint, but subject it to a highly satiric attitude. The great business of conquering space is presented not as pure, stoic, Apollonian venture growing out of diverted military force but a carnival of enterprise that mocks martial swagger—the rifle-toting, trumpet-blowing, flag-waving marine entourage are girls who look like a rough draft for Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties (including Méliès’ lover and later wife Jeanne d’Alcy), sending a bunch of old farts to the moon with a gun blast that needs more than a little womanly priming. Méliès’ mischievous take on great nationalist adventures here betrays his background in drawing political cartoons, as well his impresario’s understanding that there is no event so great that can’t be sexed up a bit.
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And, of course, the man in the moon receiving the shell in his eye still blazes with comical and technical genius, one of the greatest sight gags ever to grace celluloid. This sequence utilised Méliès’ technique, pioneered on The Man with the Rubber Head (1902), of approximating what would become the rack or zoom shot (except that the subject was moved closer to the camera rather than the more familiar practice, because the camera was too heavy), to provide a sense of motion. That motion is to give a sense of zeroing in on the moon, which starts off as a vague, mysterious object, charged with enigmatic meaning, then revealed as an animate being who splutters with pain and offence once he gets the iron slug lodged in his brow. Méliès knew well it was a killer image, utilising it as iconography in the film’s last shot and as core advertising motif. Here we seen encapsulated in image and action not just a great piece of humour and a technical innovation, but a pivot of ways of seeing the universe, an idea that legitimises A Trip to the Moon as science fiction and not just playful fantasy. Méliès signals his conversance with a panoply of mythical figures as common motifs in theatrical fancies throughout, and knows his audience is too; the projectile is the hard smack of new scientific possibility right in the eye of a poetic worldview. The idea of landing on the moon is an act of blasphemy according to one unit of values and a simple jaunt to a strange place in another. One irony here is that the filmmaking Méliès was now espousing would soon mostly sweep away the theatrical world he was rooted in, and invent new pantheons of myth to fill in for what he counts as cultural lingua franca. Of course, the tendency of humankind to write its own image on the universe has never really left us. It’s core to understanding some of the most ambitious science fiction films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) depiction of interstellar destiny to Solaris’s (1971) sarcasm towards the notion in encountering the truly alien that can only mimic the onlooker, eternally retarding and frustrating understanding with the collaboration of our most parochial reflexes.
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Méliès offers this vignette as a kind of abstract, symbolic commentary on the idea of landing on the moon, only to follow it up with a different, more literal version of the same thing. The shell actually skids to a halt on the moon surface, depicted realistically as a craggy, brutal landscape, if also, not so realistically, as a place with a breathable atmosphere. The scientists climb out of the shell only for it to slide into an abyss, and, amazed by the sight of the Earth rising on the horizon, they settle down to try and sleep. Méliès revisits the core joke of The Astronomer’s Dream here as the snoozing savants either conjure up the spirits of the ether in their dreams or miss seeing them because they’re asleep, and again Méliès evokes the mystical way of looking at the universe with erotic overtones. The Pleiades look down in bewildered amusement, depicted as a flock of disembodied girls’ heads framed by stylised model stars, the snoozing old men still cheated of their true promised land. The moon goddess Phoebe (played by regular Méliès player and stage star Bleuette Bernon) and irate old Saturn argue over what to do about these interlopers, a fight Phoebe wins: she causes a gentle snowstorm that wakens them and drives them follow their shell into the abyss. The concept of the beneficent cosmic force overlooking sailors on the celestial ocean is, in spite of science fiction’s nominal agnosticism, a constant refrain in a lot of the genre’s screen existence, but Méliès’ sense of humour about the notion is rarer, the contrast of beatific Phoebe and ranting Saturn, who leans out of a portal in the side of the planet bearing his name, pictures the gods as comedy neighbours.
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Descending into the valleys of the moon, the explorers find an exotic and fertile world where strange transformations can occur—Barbenfouillis finds his umbrella takes root and grows into a colossal mushroom. Here Méliès turned to Wells for inspiration, borrowing his moon inhabitants called Selenites to provide plot complication lacking from Verne, whose space projectile had simply rounded the moon and glimpsed the possibility of strange things existing on the dark side. One of the Selenites, weird, crustacean-like hominids fond of leaping bout like acrobats, erupts from the underbrush and intimidates the scientists sufficiently to make Barbenfouillis strike out with another umbrella, causing the alien to explode in a puff of smoke. He does the same thing to a second Selenite, only for a small army of the aliens to give chase and capture the hapless Earthlings. The captives are bound and paraded before the king of the Selenites, who sits on a throne in an alien city, surrounded by his harem of moon maids. Infuriated, Barbenfouillis wrenches at his bonds and snaps them, grabs the king and hurls him to the ground, exploding him, before the humans run for their lives. Méliès provides a sense of propulsion and quickening rhythm here, spurning the languid, dreamy mood of the scientists’ arrival on the mood as the action becomes urgent. Here we have a resolutely linear, comic book-like sense of action as the heroes flee across the frame into different shots, chased by furious Selenites, but not yet offering simple cuts between the scenes, still delineating the change of scene with the dissolve. The result offers a kind of embryonic montage.
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Some have theorised Méliès intended A Trip to the Moon as a purposeful lampoon of imperialist practices and values, apparent in the bumbling but real aggression of the scientists crashing in upon a foreign culture and wreaking havoc. Méliès was probably aware of Cyrano de Bergerac’s own supposed adventures to the moon, part of his subversive method of mirroring absurdity on Earth. Méliès himself had spent time working as a leftist political cartoonist, taking aim official pieties and pomposities, and he had stirred fights in cinemas by explicitly taking a pro-Dreyfus stance with his film about the case. Later, with one of his last epics, Conquest of the Pole (1910), Méliès would be less abashed in poking fun at suffragettes and their opponents. A Trip to the Moon is filled with images smirking at the hoopla of nationalist intrepidity and the idea of timid humans faced with frighteningly wilful organisms. Whilst such readings might easily be taken to unlikely lengths, it is plain Méliès has a lot of fun transposing the template of imperialist-era adventure stories onto the moon, following the same basic pattern as any Tarzan story, but keeping tongue deep in cheek: the explorers tramp into the unknown, are captured by hostile natives and paraded before their overlord who embodies an archaic ideal of lordly domain, before the heroes make their escape. It’s certainly a long way from Wells’ portrait of the Selenites as a sentient race governed by resolutely different social and biological constructs. Blood-and-thunder plotting is, however, viewed through Méliès’ sensibility, the playful, naïve state of early cinema, and the traditions of the féerie, finding comic diminuendo in the fact that the Selenites explode rather than die realistically, and the easy manner in which Barbenfouillis breaks the ropes that bind him. Méliès’ moon bleeds but his Selenites disappear in puffs of theatrical smoke. The universe is alive but life is no more than a moment’s dream.
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Méliès nonetheless dashes with breathless art towards his climax as the scientists locate their craft and climb in, whilst Barbenfouilles labours to pull the shell off a cliff, finally succeeding just as a lone Selenite grabs hold of the shell and is dragged over the edge along with it, plunging back towards Earth. This moment suggests Jack and the Beanstalk as another fairy tale influence on Méliès, another story of a naïve man ascending to a strange land, whilst Méliès abandons any pretence to scientific realism in favour of straight fantasy logic. Méliès has the shell splash-land in the ocean, the only use of any real, outdoor location in the film with the shell and splash superimposed over real waves. The shell sinks into the ocean depths, actually a fish tank, and then is pulled back to shore by a ship—a sliding cardboard cut-out pulling a similar mock-up of the shell, from which a handheld puppet waves a flag of triumph. These effects are obviously incredibly primitive on one level, and yet ebullient in their zest and stirring in Méliès’ willingness to use any and every trick to tell his story in as visually inventive and dynamic a manner possible. Here is the essence of a delight in artifice as its own aesthetic value that many a much later filmmaker, from Terry Gilliam to Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, has embraced. Questions of realism or artifice were probably entirely incidental to Méliès considering the nature of early filmmaking, and yet one can’t help but feel he was the kind to choose artifice every time.
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The scientists make their triumphant return to their homeland with their Selenite captive, who is paraded before crowds and forced to dance, whilst Barbenfouilles is immortalised in statue as the conqueror of the moon, with the slogan “Labor omnia vincit” on the pedestal. Méliès retains hints of his acerbic side here, with an undertone of violence in the scientists’ success—the statue of Barbenfouillis depicts him with boot planted on the moon with the shell lodged in its eye, whilst the Selenite has been reduced to dancing bear. But the overall tone is one of pure elation, an envisioned moment of triumph that codifies all the confidence and joie de vivre not just of Méliès and his filmmaking team but of the young twentieth century itself, just starting to look up not just in fantasy but true ambition. Méliès evokes the masque dance used to end some theatrical performances in celebratory mood, and underlines his work here above all as an expression of carnivalesque joie de vivre, a work that stands above all as a tribute to the very idea of dreaming big. It was an apex of ambition and accomplishment for Star Films. Méliès had drawn on the theatre world he loved to help augment his vision, utilising friends who were singers in Paris’s music halls as his crew of scientists, beauties from the Théâtre du Châtelet as the cannon girls and star maids, and acrobats and dancers from the Folies Bergère as Selenites.
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A Trip to the Moon’s influence is incalculable—every special-effects spectacle, every alien that stalks the screen in every scifi film owes it a debt of gratitude. The influence hardly stops at genre borders either. Edwin S. Porter’s seedling western The Great Train Robbery (1903) would take licence from the film’s shunting film grammar, controlled theatrical viewpoint, and dashing action style, echoing on through a vast array of horse operas and action films. D.W. Griffith would state he owed Méliès everything. The director’s own masterpiece is perhaps a purer fantasy, made four years later, The Kingdom of the Fairies, still just as stagy in some ways but now overwhelming the cinematic frame with shifting planes of vision and effect, and conveying the essence of the féerie Méliès loved so much for cinema’s posterity.
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But it was A Trip to the Moon that made Méliès the most famous of early filmmakers and which will probably always define his contribution. The only problem with Méliès’ success was that it was so inescapable. He had changed the way a very young art form conversed with its audience and expanded its scope to become a zone of pure creative vision, diverting the form away from the Lumieres’ vision of a tool of veracity. He had set in motion processes that would make him the first real movie king and the first to be dethroned by shifting tastes, evolving styles, and the brusque way of business that would soon dominate what turned quickly from enthusiast’s pursuit to heavy industry. Méliès had employed all that his studio and the theatrical world of Paris could offer, but all that was doomed to be swept away or radically transformed by an age of movable entertainment feasts. The century for which he had provided a fanfare would indeed eventually see men land on the moon after times of grotesque tragedy and grand calamity. The flame of grace that still gutters within A Trip to the Moon, in its charming and naïve proposition of the future by way of the past, is that it remembers that moment when anything seemed possible for us. Labor omnia vincit.

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