Le Voyage dans la Lune (or, A Trip To The Moon) is a 1902 French short film directed by a true film pioneer (Georges Méliès, who also starred). It is essentially the debut of fantasy and science fiction on film, telling the tale of a group of astronomers who visit the moon, are captured by moon men, escape, and safely return to earth.
The film contains one of the most recognizable images in motion picture history: the riveted steel rocket ship jutting out from one of the eye sockets of an expressive man in the moon. It is often used as one of the "first" scenes in the type of film retrospectives that you see at film festivals and award shows.
The film's most important contributions to the development of film is the use of stop-motion photography for special effects (the modeling of the face of the man in the moon was done this way, among other things), as well as the adaptation of fantasy and science fiction to the theatrical screen which expanded the perceived range of what could be done on film. Prior to this, virtually all films focused exclusively on realistic scenes that focused strongly on the interests and activities of society at the time, or perceptions of society in other parts of the world.
The story of the film comes from an amalgamation of two novels by early sci-fi writers: From The Earth To The Moon by Jules Verne and First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells. This amalgamation was handled by the film's director and producer, Georges Méliès, who originally gained reknown in the 1890s as a stage magician who specialized in very sophisticated visual tricks, mostly designed to distract the audience from the relative simplicity of his tricks. In other words, he was essentially preparing himself for a career in film.
Méliès was greatly inspired by the early film making of Louis and Auguste Lumière, inventors of the cinematograph and owners of the first public cinema, opened in 1895. Because of this, he gradually moved away from his career as a magician and became a film maker. In 1899, while experimenting, he accidentally stopped the camera for roughly ten seconds while filming a scene. Later, while reviewing it, he noticed the abrupt replacement of a cart on the screen with a hearse; he realized his mistake, but at once saw the symbolism of the scene and the possibility of what stop motion filming could do.
Also of interest is the way the film was funded, mostly out of pocket by Georges Méliès. He was actually the inventor of the commercial, filming very short pieces roughly 30 seconds to 1 minute in length to be shown in early movie theatres before films while the audience was waiting, as well as other promotional films for companies. The income from this allowed him to experiment in filmmaking, and the most interesting result by far is this film.
The story and much of the visual effect of this film was used in the music video for The Smashing Pumpkins' 1996 hit Tonight, Tonight. This video itself represents a high point in the production of videos and is interesting on its own merit, aside from this film.
Watching this on film 100 years later is still breathtaking to me. In my mind, it is on a plateau with several other films that mark true high water points in the history of film, along with The Great Train Robbery, The Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather, in that it alone was so far ahead of its time that it literally influence in some way all film that followed. If you have never seen it, do so: it will take your breath away.