Science fiction as a genre has, through generations, been a classic treat of cinema. Films bearing the label range from the iconic star wars movies at Dunes (both the 2021 iteration and the original 1984 film), dipping its toes in the cosmic horror (Annihilation) and comedy (space balls). But where did this iconic genre come from, and which film went down in history as the first science fiction film?
The most widely accepted answer is that of George Méliès A trip to the moon, a 15-minute French film that graced screens 120 years ago in 1902. Méliès was a pioneer of silent cinema, not only creating the first science fiction film but also creating and laying the foundations for special effects. This was at a time when filmmakers hadn’t started using camera tricks to create special effects, which at the time were aptly dubbed “illusions.” When Méliès enters the scene, an early 20th century Penn and Teller, he combines his love of scenic illusions with his newfound love of cinema.
Although full of excitement, the exact moment Méliès made history was when he reviewed footage from a camera that malfunctioned, accidentally cutting out midway through a scene, then restarting. The result was one person suddenly disappearing and another seemingly magically transforming into another. A simple effect like this would take for granted today, in a world where filmmakers can CGI the faces of deceased actors to bring them to life, but for Méliès, it was a breakthrough. This technique was used several times in his most famous film A trip to the moon, where the lunar aliens would disappear in a puff of smoke as if by magic. The effect is surprisingly effective even for today’s viewers.
A trip to the moon follows a comical group of astronomers who plan and lead a journey into space. They therefore build a huge bullet-shaped spaceship and shoot themselves to the moon. There, they encounter a group of goblin-like moon monsters, fight, then fall off the moon and back into the sea. While the plot involves various sci-fi tropes (lost on an alien planet, kidnapped by the inhabitants of the moon, fighting and narrowly escaping with their lives) and has a fairly simple plot, the story here is not what really matters. The most incredible element, and what audiences take away from the film, is the amount of creativity, detail and innovation that Méliès put into every scene. The film features unrivaled levels of animation and set design, including the scene in which the moon’s face is hit by a space rocket bullet – a scene featured in Ewan Mcgregor’s well-known film Red Mill.
While A trip to the moon was the first film made specifically as a sci-fi film, that’s not to say there weren’t films before its release that didn’t contain sci-fi elements. The dictionary definition of science fiction is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently depicting space or time travel and life on other planets (source: lexico.com). This definition broadens the search a bit.
The other film to note when talking about early science fiction films is the other work of Méliès Gugusse and the Automaton, from 1897. It is strange to say that Méliès is competing with himself for the title of the first science fiction film, but the film does not depict any plot or structure, simply an imaginary moving moment in time. The now-lost footage showed a clown (not the killer clowns audiences are thankfully accustomed to today) marveling at a robot’s movements, hence the first known cinematic appearance of such a mechanical creature.
Mechanical charcuterie (The mechanical butcher) is a written film directed by the Lumière brothers, themselves pioneers of the animated image. The 1886 film is just 43 seconds long and involves a live pig placed in a machine, the titular “mechanical butcher”, and emerging at the other end as various pork products. Be created a whopping 16 years before A trip to the moon, this film calls into question the medal of Méliès as “founder of science fiction” in cinema.
The films above demonstrate that it is difficult to discern exactly what the first science fiction film was. If the existence of previous works of Mechanical charcuterie and Gugusse and the automaton question A trip to the moona widely accepted title, it’s hard to argue how monumental the latter film’s existence was. While the other earlier works are mere excerpts, showing a simple moving image of an imaginary future, A trip to the moon develops an active and engaging storyline, along with key moments and real events. It creates a world adjacent to our own, a fictional future so inherent in the basic concept of science fiction. One could argue that while Mechanical charcuterie and Gugusse and the automaton are technically sci-fi movies, that would be like saying The Wizard of Oz (the original, not the terrifying sequel) is a sci-fi movie because it depicts a “robot” in the form of the moving Tin Man, and the nifty computer the “Wizard” hides behind his curtain. They may have some sci-fi imagery, but A trip to the moon really tells a science fiction story.
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