The Legacy of ‘A Trip to the Moon’

We look at how the iconic Georges Méliès film inspired ripoffs, spoofs, a music video, and even movie piracy.
A Trip To The Moon
By  · Published on September 20th, 2019

Arguably, cinema peaked immediately with the pure nonfiction works of the Lumière brothers and the fantastical films of Georges Méliès. The latter, a former stage illusionist, gave us hundreds of magical works that remain the obvious forebears of much of today’s genre cinema and special-effects spectacle.

His most famous film is the 1902 short A Trip to the Moon, which was inspired by the fictions of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and depicts — as the title makes perfectly clear — a lunar mission. Its image of a rocket crashing into the eyes of an actor portraying the Man in the Moon is one of the most iconic in movies.

As such a significant work, despite not being the filmmaker’s first foray into Moon-based science fictions or even representing the lunar body anthropomorphically, A Trip to the Moon has been a huge influence on and inspiration to all kinds entertainments and practices over the course of nearly 120 years.

Here are the most notable movies, songs, and historical effects that comprise the legacy  of A Trip to the Moon:

Film Piracy

Despite having made one (or more) of the most famous and iconic movies of all time, Méliès was ultimately not a financially successful filmmaker. Though he would continue producing motion pictures for another 20-plus years, A Trip to the Moon was a major loss for him and his company.

At the time, the film was his most ambitious and therefore most expensive. It was also his most popular, and he hoped to make a ton of money off its esteem. Unfortunately, while it was a huge hit in America, Méliès did not profit much from the export due to rampant film piracy.

Unlike the piracy that we have today, the theft of intellectual property in the early 1900s was done mostly by major businesses. The Edison Manufacturing Company, Vitagraph, Biograph, and others illegally made copies of A Trip to the Moon for distribution in the US through the years.

Méliès quickly set up an office in the States to stop the piracy of his films and secure American patents, but it was too late for many of his titles. And thanks to further bullying practices of Thomas Edison, the visionary French filmmaker was constantly losing money in the industry he helped pioneer.

The Remake

Another way to get around paying for Méliès’ film — and this was something also done often back then — was to make your own. While Edison and others made copies of A Trip to the Moon by producing new negatives of prints they bought, Spanish director Segundo de Chomón copied the film by helming a nearly shot-for-shot remake.

Excursion to the Moon, released in 1908, has enough differences to not mistake it for the original — the face in the Moon, in particular, is a major giveaway, as is the way the rocketship crashes into its mouth rather than its eye — but it’s similar enough that as an unauthorized redo there’s definitely a case to make of its infringement. Watch it below.

It’s not as if Chomón was a hack. This practice was just the early 20th-century version of everyone making Star Wars ripoffs in the early ’80s. It’s just that Pathé wanted something nearly identical to the real thing and got the guy considered the Spanish Méliès to do it. It’s like if they got Douglas Trumbull, Stanley Donen, or Mike Hodges to make Star Wars wannabes. Oh right, that all happened.

The Music Video

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, music videos were the perfect bridge between film school and movie career, not just for the experience but also to show off familiarity with film history. For Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, though they’d been out of school for many years, represent that transition very well with their 1996 video for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.”

Originally, the couple had wanted to pay homage to Busby Berkeley musical numbers with their take on the song, but that had just been done in another video. So, inspired by the art on the album cover for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, on which the song appears, Dayton and Faris decided to pay tribute to Méliès with essentially a remake of A Trip to the Moon.

The video was a huge hit, winning many awards from MTV and earning a Grammy nomination, and through its heavy airplay introduced tons of viewers to such imagery as the iconic face in the moon, faces in stars, bouncing aliens, and bullet-like rocketship (though the humans — yes, those are SpongeBob SquarePants stars Tom Kenny and Jill Talley) arrive by space zeppelin.

The video concludes with a more elaborate underwater sequence than is found in A Trip to the Moon, however, clearly inspired more by Méliès’ The Mermaid and Under the Seas. Surprisingly, after Dayton and Faris became best known for the “Tonight, Tonight” video, the filmmaking duo did not go on to make sci-fi/fantasy films, but rather dramas such as Little Miss Sunshine.

The Reenactment

The same month as the debut of the “Tonight, Tonight” video saw the broadcast of the final part of HBO’s miniseries From Earth to the Moon, which chronicles the history of the Apollo program. Titled “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” (the French name for the film), this 12th installment of the program deals with the final trip to the Moon (Apollo 17) as well as the making of A Trip to the Moon.

Tom Hanks, who is one of the producers and the host of the series, appears in the Jonathan Mostow-helmed episode portraying a fictional assistant to Méliès (Tchéky Karyo) during the making of the famous sci-fi short. From Earth to the Moon painstakingly recreates the sets and costumes for a seamless cut between the real thing and the reenactment, so well that its goofy tone is excused.

Despite the interplay here and the belief that NASA’s original scientists were likely inspired by sci-fi literature, television, and cinema, there’s no direct connection between A Trip to the Moon and the actual trips to the Moon by American astronauts in the ’60s and ’70s. Even a known letter to NASA in the ’80s asking if their “splashdown” method of reentry was inspired by Méliès was shot down.

The Spoofs

When you have a moment as iconic as the rocket in the eye bit of A Trip to the Moon, you’re bound to be paid homage and parodied up the wazoo. Indeed, there have been reworkings of the shot through the years in art and, most memorably, in cartoons. From 1999, Futurama has a funny gag in its second episode in which Bender sticks a beer bottle into the eye of a Moon-faced mascot.

A few years later, The Simpsons spoofed the same scene in the form of a violent Itchy & Scratchy short within the 13th season episode “Blame It on Lisa.” The mouse and cat are playing golf, and Itchy clubs Scratchy’s head clean off, knocking it all the way into the anthropomorphized Moon’s eye, a la A Trip to the Moon. “Now, that’s what I call a Moon shot,” the Man in the Moon says.

Eight years later, the show did it again. In the 21st season episode “Moe Letter Blues,” we see a black and white Itchy & Scratchy toon involving more of the Méliès film. Itchy plays a director making a sci-fi film that looks very similar to A Trip to the Moon. When Scratchy messes up the set, Itchy cuts his head off, inflates it to greater size then fires the rocketship into his eye. The end.

The New Score

If you listened to Air‘s perfect debut album Moon Safari back in the ’90s and thought, “Hey, these guys should score sci-fi movies,” you’d have been 20 years ahead of the curve. First, they had to go and score a drama about five teenage sisters first (nevertheless impressively), and then 12 years later they were tasked with creating a new score for a 109-year-old sci-fi short.

After a rare hand-colored print of A Trip to the Moon was discovered in 1993, plans for a restoration eventually were made by a collaboration between Lobster Films, the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. They recruited Air to compose new music for the reconstructed classic, released in 2011.

As you can see and hear above, it’s a perfect match. It’s not as random as some electronic scores for old silent films out there, with the French duo adding sound effects and offering enough changes in the music to fit the different environments. The score makes A Trip to the Moon anew with the way Air’s layered soundscapes deliver tone to the film that wasn’t there before.

And if the 15-minute score wasn’t enough, AIr put out a whole new album based on the gig (titled Le Voyage Dans la Lune), which is twice as long as the main composition and plays like an extended soundtrack to the short.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.