Mars rover Curiosity captures its own shadow on the surface of Mars. (NASA)

Journeys of the mind

Notes on a UChicago film class, Curiosity’s landing, and George Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon.

The moment the first grainy, black-and-white photo appeared on-screen, cheers and tears erupted from the crowd anticipating its arrival. Specks of dust, flung into the atmosphere by the rover’s impact, obscured the surface of the fish-eye lens. But it was triumphant nonetheless: Curiosity had landed successfully, and its first shot of Mars was a testament to years of hard work—and to the promise of human engineering.

Sunday night, I was watching too. I caught NASA’s live feed just in time to witness the newest Mars rover touchdown and to share in the outpouring of joy and relief from mission control, all from the comfort of my bedroom. There’s a word that kept coming to mind throughout the whole experience, and it wasn’t “progress,” “technology,” or “aliens”—it was “magic.”

The experience reminded me of another scene from two Saturdays ago, when I sat in a darkened theater looking up at flickering and fading images. The Music Box Theatre was screening a documentary on George Méliès, a turn-of-the-century French filmmaker who pioneered the use of special effects.

As a first-year at the University, I took an Introduction to Film course. Each Tuesday, we would have screenings, which would run anywhere from a standard hour and a half to a mind-numbing three hours. Weeks were thematically organized; on week seven, we watched several short avant-garde films, including two by Méliès: Four Troublesome Heads (1898) and The Man with the Rubber Head (1901).

I was enchanted. In each short, Méliès plays with the possibilities of a medium in its infancy, delighting audiences with his recently discovered technical innovations like jump cuts and trompe l’oeil effects created by superimposing moving elements over static backgrounds. At a minute and three minutes long, respectively, they weren’t narrative masterpieces in any conventional sense, but they were magical all the same. I was charmed most of all by the sense that Méliès was simply having fun with the new medium. The technical and imaginative adventurousness on display in these slices of cinematic history is nothing short of astonishing.

The documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage (2011), focused on the restoration of a rare color print of one of Méliès’s most famous films, A Trip to the Moon (1902). In those earliest years, color prints were hand-painted frame by frame; the resulting films look like moving surrealist landscapes, steeped in colors more aspirational than realistic. Unfortunately, films from this era were recorded on a cellulose nitrate film base, a highly flammable material that required incredibly careful preservation to slow its inevitable decomposition over time. In spite of the odds, however, a dedicated team of restorationists recovered the rare print’s original glory in a 12-year effort that culminated in its unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Following the documentary, the Music Box audience was treated to a showing of the restored version.

As its title suggests, the film recounts the tale of a society of astronomers that decide to take le voyage dans la lune. After building a rocket resembling a giant bullet, six astronomers get on board for the first ever space expedition in cinema’s history. In the film’s most iconic shot, a cannon launches the rocket straight into the eye of the Man in the Moon, whose face scrunches up from the collision. Upon descending, the explorers encounter an abundant landscape populated by fungi and moon creatures that appear to be a hybrid of humans and lobsters.

Most likely influenced by imaginative accounts of the moon from novels by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, Méliès’s gaudy, fantastical vision struck me, 43 years after the first man walked on the moon, as absurd. Yet something tells me that these two viewing experiences—Curiosity’s landing and Méliès’s film—are not so different. The imaginative curiosity that inspired Méliès is the same that drives humans throughout history to seek answers to faraway mysteries. Then, and now, we just can’t look away.


This version of A Trip to the Moon is in black and white, but it’s a fantastic voyage nonetheless into Méliès’s imagination.