The Moon in cinema, between fascination, geopolitical stakes and disinterest in distant galaxies

Georges Méliès’ Journey to the Moon in 1902.

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After the explorations of Méliès and Fritz Lang at the beginning of the 20th century, the seventh art forbade itself for a time to frequent lunar areas that had become sensitive because they were classified as “secret defence”.It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Moon became (almost) a cinematic object like any other.

Too busy filming the Earth, the Lumière brothers forgot to point their camera at the Moon.It was their cousin Méliès, the poet, who sent astronomers in pointed hats to visit the Selenites in his famous Voyage to the Moon (1902).The century was barely two years old and the great Georges opened the hostilities with a fourteen-minute burlesque fantasy shot in his Montreuil studio.At the same time, he inaugurated a new genre: science fiction film.More fiction than science: the shells that dazzle the Moon and the cosmic wanderings of Professor Barbenfouillis, in a cave dotted with giant mushrooms, are more reminiscent of the chimerical tales of Cyrano de Bergerac than the erudite speculations of Jules Verne, who is credited in the credits alongside another visionary writer, H.G.Wells.

Visible to the naked eye, the Moon was at first a wonderful reservoir of fiction for the cinema, when the idea of landing there was still only a fantasy.But is it his proximity so familiar? Its phases studied since Antiquity and inscribed in our calendars? The absence of any signs of life that anyone can observe with a simple telescope? Compared to the Red Planet, whose mysterious inhabitants continue to fuel many films and political metaphors, our satellite hasn’t done much to stimulate the imagination of screenwriters.

After Méliès’ inaugural work, it was not until 1929, or almost until 1929, that the Moon appeared on the screens again.Fritz Lang’s last silent work, The Woman in the Moon is the adaptation of a novel by his wife, Thea von Harbou, which was inspired by the research of two scientists, Hermann Oberth and Fritz von Hoppel (technical advisors on the film and future architects of the conquest of space), to make credible a love story of lunar gold diggers.Of the three hours that this superproduction lasts a little long at the ignition, we will retain especially its last part, from the takeoff of the rocket to the moon landing in a desert of sand.

Gustl Stark-Gstettenbaur and Willy Fritsch, The Woman on the Moon, by Fritz Lang in 1929.

After the Second World War and as the Moon quickly became a geopolitical issue, fiction, with propaganda, regained its rights.There’s no question of boxing films that are too concrete and that could betray the progress of the two blocks and the gravity of what’s going on behind the scenes.Except to impress the enemy and educate the crowds.Hollywood thus drew Destination…Moon! by Irving Pichel (1950), directly inspired by the scientific realism of Lang’s film, who almost signed the direction of this American cousin.

To explain the nuclear propulsion that is supposed to take off the rocket and the compensation of the gravitational force, we even have a short educational animated film presented by the Woody Woodpecker and inserted into the fiction.It was also the time of the adaptations of the classics by Jules Verne and H.G.Wells, already mentioned, less dangerous in terms of espionage: From the Earth to the Moon, by Byron Haskin (1958), and The First Men in the Moon, by Nathan Jura (1964), which were an opportunity to show his talent in special effects.

Cat-women of the moon, by Arthur Hilton in 1953.

The splendid selenite monsters with insect heads from the Jura film, designed by the magician of tricks Ray Harryhausen, are well worth the contemplation of a meteorite.To relax the atmosphere in the middle of the Cold War and, incidentally, to broach this giant battle of diplomatic ego and rocket-phallus, some filmmakers surf the space wave with joyfully outrageous comedies and B-series.The wacky expeditions that had the privilege of landing on the Moon before Russians and Americans discovered it populated by nudists (Nude on the Moon, by Raymond Phelan and Doris Wishman, 1961) or by cat-like women in tight suits and big buns (Cat-Women of the Moon, by Arthur Hilton, 1953).As for the British Richard Lester, he imagines a rocket propelled by red wine in a nonsensical farce worthy of Monty Python, The Mouse on the Moon (1963).


When the Apollo programme was launched in 1961, American cinema had not yet entered its phase of rebellion and questioning of institutions, symbolised by the arrival of the directors of New Hollywood.The studio system declines, cultural revolutions foment their blossoming.Partly financed by NASA, a forgotten film by Robert Altman tried in vain to grasp the patriotic stakes of the race to the Moon.Released in 1968, with James Caan and Robert Duvall as astronauts bombarding their torso under their suits, the sinister Countdown quickly disappeared from the radar.Even Altman disavowed this overly Manichean vision of space conquest.

2001, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 Space Odyssey.

The great science fiction film of this year 1968 is obviously signed Stanley Kubrick.The importance of 2001, the Space Odyssey in the collective imagination and in the history of cinema does not make a crease.All the space operas that succeed him owe him something.Even though the Moon does not play a central role here – the crew just stops here before setting off again towards Jupiter – it is on its floor, in the Tycho crater, that Kubrick lays the mysterious black monolith, the philosopher’s stone of the cinephiles.Suddenly, Kubrick made space so palpable that the reality of the first men on the Moon, which comes barely a year after the film’s release, has a hard time moving beyond fiction, the dvd of the movie is available in second-hand , I recommand you to wath it, just amazing.

At the end of the sixties, there’s no more laughter, no more doubt.This is the age of paranoia.Did Neil Armstrong really tread the Sea of Tranquility? Isn’t the Apollo mission a huge sham? Isn’t Kubrick the author of the images provided by NASA? In Operation Moon (2002), documentary filmmaker William Karel was amused by the conspiracy theories that were sure to abound as soon as the exploit was announced.Another documentary, almost invisible for forty years, had nevertheless recorded everything about the madness that took over the planet on 20 July 1969.Directed by Theo Kamecke, Moonwalk One is undoubtedly the most important film on the subject.The only one to contain official, and rare, images of the Apollo 11 mission preparations, from astronaut suit testing to the lunar landing, to the monstrous liftoff and life in the shuttle.The director has drawn from dozens of hours of space agency archives, which he interacts with images of life on Earth, in the United States and elsewhere, to capture the chaos of the world.Mischievously hijacking the Nasa commission, Kamecke makes a documentary that is both poetic and philosophical, anything but institutional, which is probably why he has remained in the closets for so long.

Moonwalk One, documentary by Theo Kamecke from 1970.

With six hundred million television viewers, and as many listeners glued to their transistor, the retransmission of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon is one hell of a rock in the Hollywood garden: unimaginable images, unbeatable audience.With the Moon no longer the stuff of dreams, the filmmakers turn their attention to a distant galaxy, where man and imagination know no bounds.Few films continue to focus on the dead and now conquered star.The Fabric of Heroes, by Philip Kauffman (1983), looks back at the Mercury program epic (1958-1963), which preceded Apollo (1961-1975), when astronauts in Stetson and Belt died one after the other trying to break the sound barrier aboard their rocket planes.For Hollywood, the real heroes are those forgotten pioneers who died for glory and homeland.Or those who almost died, like Tom Hanks and his acolytes from Apollo 13 (1995), whose failure was turned into a suspenseful blockbuster by Ron Howard.

Damien Chazelle’s heartbreaking biopic, First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling in the title role, belongs to the same category of films but manages to shed new light on Neil Armstrong’s mission and private life by telling it from the point of view of his wife, consumed by the fear of becoming a widow.The power of fascination exerted by the Moon and its conquest, even its colonization, has not completely disintegrated.In Duncan Jones’ (2009) little-known Moon, fiction unfolds to the point of vertigo.Exploiting lunar ore for a terrestrial company, with a robot as his only company, the worker played by Sam Rockwell is suddenly plagued by hallucinations, on the eve of his scheduled return to the blue planet among his people.No matter how much man dreams of travelling to the Moon to bring back helium-3 – or cheddar cheese, like Wallace and Gromit (A Great Excursion, Nick Park, 1989) – the most fundamental is always the return to Earth.