The Origin of Movie Genres: Science Fiction

Exploring the beginning of cinema’s most popular genres.

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What are your favorite movie genres? Action, horror, sci-fi, drama, superhero? Have you ever wondered where those genres got their start? With every genre there is an obvious beginning, a pioneer to blaze the trail and inspire future filmmakers.

I’ve had a book for a while that was recommended by a friend; 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Seems like a pushy title but sure. It’s actually a terrific book if you’re interested in film history or just discovering new movies. You can pick up the latest edition here. Flipping through the different era’s of influential film history, I realized I had no idea what these early trend setters were and it would be fun to learn and post about them.

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I have the 2015 edition. If you love film history or just discovering fantastic movies, this is a great book you should consider picking up.

This post we’re going to take a broad overview look at the first entry in the book which showcases the beginning of the science fiction genre; one of my personal favorites. Try thinking back to the oldest sci-fi movie you can remember. For some memory may only go as far back as 1978’s Star Wars, others have seen 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. However, to see the first, we have to go further back still. Much further.

The first known science fiction film was created in 1902 by the French cinema pioneer, Georges Méliès titled Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). This was a time when cinema was in it’s infancy and dominated by short films showcasing people in the daily routines of life.

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George Méliès and his impressive ‘stache.

Méliès made hundreds of movies over his career and revolutionized cinema in ways that we still enjoy today. He was the first to make a movie based on a fictional story, to incorporate special effects into his films including camera tricks such as splicing, multiple exposures and time lapse photography among others. He was also the first to create elaborate, often times hand painted, multi-scene sets. All of these characteristics define A Trip to the Moon and made it one of the most famous films of the era.

Unfortunately, he was not able to keep up with the much larger competing film companies and retired broke in 1912. Many of these rival companies (including Edison’s in the United States) pirated and sold Méliès films without paying royalties back to Méliès company, Star Films. I guess it’s true what they say after all; “piracy is not a victimless crime.”

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A theatrical poster for A Trip to the Moon.
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A rough sketch of a movie poster design Méliès created himself.

A Trip to the Moon is only 14 mins long which was actually far longer than the standard 1-2 min films that were common in his day. Many were even shorter than that. This “extended” run time allowed Méliès to create a surprisingly complex story totaling 30 different scenes in all. His budget for such an elaborate endeavor was unheard of; 10,000 francs which would be roughly the equivalent of $50,000 US today. This film was the summer blockbuster of the time period.

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A Trip to the Moon had un-paralleled set design for it’s time.

A brief summary of the plot: a group of scientists headed by Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès himself) travel to the moon in a bullet shaped rocket, shot from an enormous cannon. While exploring the surface, they encounter and are captured by a race of moon aliens known as Selenites. The group manages to escape and fight their way back to the rocket, successfully traveling back to Earth with a captured Selenite. The group is celebrated as heroes and receive a parade in their honor.

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The cannon that blasts the rocket ship towards the moon.

Méliès drew from multiple sources for his film including the literature of his time such as Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1901).

“The idea of ‘A Trip to the Moon‘ came to me when I was reading a book by Jules Verne called ‘From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon’. So I imagined, using the same means as Jules Verne(shooting a projectile from an enormous canon), landing on the moon, in such a way that I could put together some arresting and amusing fairy tale images, show the outside and the inside of the moon, and some monsters that might live on the moon, add one or two artistic effects.”

Méliès also incorporated his knowledge from past careers as a magician and theater owner with elaborately designed sets and sensational special effects. I watched the film before knowing his professional background and various scenes in particular actually made me think of a magician such as when the Selenites disappear into puffs of smoke after being struck, Professor Barbenfouillis’ umbrella changing into a mushroom, or even the acrobatic showmanship of the Selenites (who were actual acrobats Méliès hired for the part).

Watch the first sci-fi movie:

Being that this movie is in the public domain, it’s easy to find on YouTube. Here is the original black and white version. When it was originally released, the film was silent, and a live orchestra would play various pieces while the scenes were narrated.

There is also a color version that was thought to be lost but has since been found and restored over several years by a group called Lobster Films and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. The French electronica duo known as Air also created an “official” score to accompany the film. If I’m being honest the score is creative and fun to listen to, but I can’t help thinking that it doesn’t fit with the music of the time period. At the very least it’s interesting how much impact music has on the tone of a film.

After watching A Trip to the Moon, much of it will seem completely absurd. In fact, you could probably turn the number of scientific laws broken during the film into a fun drinking game. One of my favorite moments happened when to travel back to earth, all that was required was pulling the rocket over a cliff and then gravity took over. The movie is littered with moments like this.

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The statue erected to commemorate Professor Barbenfouillis’ return. Most historians believe this scene is part of the political satire Méliès weaved into the film.

Film historians believe though that much of the ridiculousness is because the film was intended to be satirical in nature. Méliès was mocking the scientific community of his day as well as injecting the film with strong anti-imperialist themes. So not only is Méliès the first movie maker to bring a fictional story to life, he’s also the first to use that story to convey a larger message to his audience.

It’s also fascinating how the basic themes of sci-fi movies haven’t changed much in last 116 years. Sure things are more elaborate now, but A Trip to the Moon has all the major story beats still seen in movies today: Flying through space in a rocket ship, landing and exploring the moon, encountering an evil alien race, bringing an alien back to Earth. Méliès technically even setup the possibility for a sequel with the aliens coming to earth for revenge! Think of the franchise possibilities! Just kidding.

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The most famous scene of the film; the scientists’ rocket lands on the moon…or more like shoots the moon in the eye, sending blood or some kind of weird moon juice squirting from the point of impact. Gross.

Next time you go to watch your favorite sci-fi movie, think about this first example; how far the genre has come and how much the themes honestly haven’t changed too drastically over the years. Also don’t forget the name George Méliès. He was extremely influential to cinema and will be popping up again in a future genre posts.

Sources:


Schneider, Steven Jay (2015), 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Hauppage, New York. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. p. 20.

Wikipedia – A Trip to the Moon

AMC Filmsite

TCM Biography of George Méliès

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