The Moon’s sequestered beauty has been a continual source of fascination to generations of avid storytellers and moon gazer’s as the Earth’s celestial companion and only natural satellite. Viewed by the naked eye as an enchanting and mysterious symbol of hope, and romance, the ethereal moon has often been seen as a bold canvas for poets, artists and film makers to draw inspiration from.
George Méliès, first introduced the moon through The Astronomers Dream in 1898, which opened up a plethora of sci-fi tales, moon trips and lunar explorations from technicolor comic book adventures of George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950) through to the multiple sci-fi adaptations of HG Wells sci-fi novel, First Man On The Moon (from 1901, 1964 & 2010).
However, since President Kennedy’s 1961 joint address to congress, with the pledge to put a man on the moon by decade’s end, and the subsequent moon landing by Apollo 11 in 1969, Hollywood began to draw upon, and explore, a greater knowledge and deeper meaning of ‘Luna’. They embraced the science involved, and the philosophical ramifications of moon exploration, together with the expertise of the astronauts and 400,000 engineers and designers who helped to put man on the moon at a cost of $25.4 billion. Contemporary tales since the Apollo landing in July 1969 have since diversified into tales of sacrifice, struggle, triumph over adversity and the human endeavour involved.
Here, to mark the 50th anniversary of the lunar landings, the heroic achievements of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin & Michael Collins, and man’s eternal fascination with the moon, we consider 10 iconic lunar films that have captured the World’s imagination over the last century.
A Trip To The Moon (Le Voyage Dans La Lune) (1902)
A team of astronomers led by Professor Barbenfoullis (George Méliès) arrive on the moon after being fired by cannon with the help of female ‘marines’ (in hot pants). Captured by moon-men, the explorers manage to escape, before returning to a splashdown on the earth’s seabed – and a hero’s welcome.
An illusionist, Méliès incorporates jump cuts, stop motion animation, cross-dissolves and rising smoke to create a lavish theatrical production of 14 minutes, which took 3 months to produce. The film’s highlight is the nightlife upon the cravenous lunar surface. A flashing comet whizzes across the midnight sky, whilst Old Saturn peers out from his window, alongside Phoebe (Goddess of The Moon) and ‘human’ stars (from The Théâtre Du Chatelet). Folies-Bergère acrobats play the roles of the exploding moon-men, whilst Méliès himself plays the uncredited roles of Professor Barbenfouillis and the beaming moon, hit squarely in the eye by the men’s rocket capsule.
Considered a lost masterpiece, the film’s original print, coloured by Méliès, was rediscovered in 2002. 13,375 frames were reassembled over a 12-year period for full colour restoration, which was completed at a cost of 500,000 euros.
Frau Im Mond
(a.k.a Woman In The Moon) (1929)
Director: Fritz Lang
Entrepreneur Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) is the explorer on the hunt for gold on the moon’s mountains with five travellers and fellow ‘outsiders’ including Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), his (beloved) assistant, Friede (Gerda Maurus), engineer Haus Windegger (Gustav Von Waggenheim), the Agent Who Calls Himself Walter Turner (Fritz Rasp), and a teenage stowaway, Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur).
Klaus Pohl is effective as the demented Mannfeldt, who becomes ‘moonstruck’ in his relentless search for gold. Shunned and ridiculed by his peers for his thesis on the moon’s gold, he staggers alone for 3 hours across the desolate landscape of jagged mountains, caves and cess pits, to search for water with his divination rod, before he trips and plummets to his death from a deep crevice.
Written by Lang’s wife, Thea Von Hauren, the film was banned by the Nazis for its chilling accuracy, but was restored in 2000 by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung using negatives belonging to the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prasil) (1962)
Director: Karel Zeman
In Karel Zeman’s Czech romantic fantasy, diplomat Baron Von Munchausen (Milos Kopecky) reminisces about his adventures with Tonik (Rudolf Jelinek) the ‘moon-man’ cosmonaut caught between the solitude of the blue moon and the red skies of 18th century Constantinople.
The Baron & Tonik vie for the attention of ‘damsel in distress’ and fellow moon gazer Princess Bianca (Jana Bjenchovka) who believes the pale moon to be full of ‘silver lillies forever sweetly chiming.’
Zeman creates a sumptuous fantasy, combining colour tint on monochrome, live-action with stop-motion, puppetry, and hand drawn animation heavily influenced by the 19th century engravings of Gustav Doré. A bookend narrative device opens and closes on the illuminated moon where poet Cyrano de Bergerac casts his hat out to the stars in celebration of ‘luna’ – a haven for fantasists, dreamers and lovers. Terry Gilliam provided his own interpretation with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1988.
Director: Robert Altman
After a 10-year hiatus from film, Robert Altman directed this haunting sixties sci-fi charting the intense rivalry between America and Russia in their quest to be the first on the moon.
James Caan is a civilian Lee Stegler favoured for the ‘Pilgrim One Project’ mission over Commander Chiz Stewart (Robert Duvall). The tension and rivalry between themselves mirrors the Soviet and U.S ‘race’ to the moon and the leads’ hot chemistry as the two rookies vying for supremacy would be put to good use in their later collaboration in The Godfather.
Altman’s lavish wide-range shots of Gaia rising ominously over the shadows of the huge craters and grey sloping valleys, captures the miniscule figure of Lee exploring the lunar terrain. He stumbles upon three dead cosmonauts and is moved by their sacrifice, which he knows could have been him if certain precautions had not been taken. Lee constructs a makeshift memorial placing their national flags together in solidarity before making it to the moon lander with less than 7 minutes of oxygen in his spacesuit.
A Grand Day Out (1989)
Director: Nick Park
Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) & his trusty canine Gromit, are shocked to learn that they’ve run out of wensleydale slices for their crackers during the Bank holiday weekend. Horrified, they set forth on a journey to sample the moon’s yellow cheese.
Upon their arrival, the duo occurs the wrath of a coin operated robot-cooker who’s angered by their audacity. Multi-tasking as a parking meter attendant, the lone robot issues a heavy fine for their oil spillage, creeps behind Wallace with a black truncheon, and cuts the fuselage to the rocket after missing an opportunity for a skiing break on Earth. Conceived as a graduate project by Nick Park in 1982, the short took nearly 7 years to produce, but produced a humorous tale of man’s ineptitude against the power of artificial intelligence. Park received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film (losing out to Creature Comforts in 1990).
Apollo 13 (1995)
Director: Ron Howard
Based on the true-life events of the ill-fated mission to the moon by Apollo 13 in 1970, Tom Hanks stars as Commander Jim Lovell, who fights to control an explosion on-board the Odyssey jeopardising the crew including Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).
200,000 miles away from the Earth, the trio have half an hour to view the imposing face of the illuminated moon through the darkness of their spacecraft before heading for home. Tom Hanks is fantastic as the cool, unflappable Lovell who must engineer an escape plan by using the LM ‘lifeboat’ Aquarius before the crew die from dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide.
Lovell never set foot on the moon, but remains only one of three to orbit the moon twice, notably during the Christmas of 1968 on Apollo 8. Lovell would later write about his near-death experiences in his memoir, Lost Moon.
In The Shadow of The Moon (2007)
Director: David Sington
For the first time, 10 of the 12 Astronauts who travelled to the moon between 1968-1972, provide first hand testimonies of the physical, emotional and mental impact of their journey to the moon.
Michael Collins discusses the long shadowy craters of the hostile, forbidding moon surface, before reading the hastily prepared speech of President Nixon in the event of his death on-board Apollo 11. Charlie Duke talks of the problems of navigating his vessel through billowing lunar dust, and debris which hindered his descent, whilst Eugene Cernan recalls the power of the rover buggy, which he drove downhill through the gravelly terrain of the valleys at a world speed record of 17 kilometres an hour during NASA’s last expedition in December, 1972.
Receiving its premiere at The Sundance film festival, this outstanding documentary in high definition by David Sington received the Sir Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Film Presentation.
Director: Duncan Jones
Maintenance Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) harvests the sun’s energy, extracting helium-3 back down to Earth, but discovers he’s a clone on the dark side of the moon.
Nearing the end of his 3-year contract with Lunar Industries Ltd, Sam 1 has a near fatal crash on his harvester vehicle outside his lunar base compound and is left for dead. Sam 2 is brought out of hibernation by GERTY 3000 (Kevin Spacey), leading to a trail of duplicity, and the discovery of a hidden vault containing hundreds of clones in a stored incubation unit.
Rockwell is excellent in conveying the isolation and paranoia of Sam Bell who encounters vivid hallucinations and powerful flashbacks to his life with his partner, Tess (Dominique McElligott).
Director Duncan Jones used over 400 vfx shots, a 360-degree set, miniatures for the lunar harvester craft, and a £5 million budget for 33 days shooting at Shepperton Studios. Moon would go on to win the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film.
First Man (2018)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Over a 7-year period, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) navigates his way through the loss of his daughter, Karen, & colleagues on the test launch of Apollo 1 to become the reluctant ‘national hero’ of Apollo 11, 240,000 miles from Earth.
Ryan Gosling captures the stoicism of Armstrong who sacrifices family time over the demands of NASA’s space program. Claire Foy is excellent as Janet Armstrong, who chastises Neil for his inability to comfort their sons on the eve of his departure – leading to a stilted ‘press conference’.
Planting his space boot print upon the powdery surface of the moon’s equator, Neil releases Karen’s small bracelet into the black abyss, interspersed with colour extracts of Armstrong’s home movies with Karen in his arms. Based on the biography by James R. Hansen, Chazelle shot the silvery, pockmarked lunar crust underneath the triangular windows of Apollo 11 through projected footage on LED screens.
Apollo 11 (2019)
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Todd Douglas Miller has collaborated with NASA and The National Archives to create a spellbinding documentary on the 8-day voyage of Apollo 11, drawing from 11,000 hours of audio recordings from NASA against previously unreleased 70 mm colour footage.
Miller charts the precarious landing of Eagle upon the lunar surface, as Commander Neil Armstrong avoids boulders before landing just over 300 metres off intended site with only 25 seconds of fuel left to spare. More than half a billion people (one fifth of the population) watched Armstrong take ‘One step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ upon the sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969.
Miller is brilliant at capturing the historic significance and emotional impact of the mission, from the monitored heartbeats of the crew, to the vibrant technicolour images of the moon’s ‘magnificent desolation’ taken on three Hasselblad 500EL cameras. Aldrin & Armstrong would undertake a succession of tests including The Passive Seismic Experiment – carried out to detect lunar moonquakes and the internal structure of the moon. The pair would also leave mementos in memory of their fallen colleagues on Apollo 1 (Gus Grisson, Ed White and Roger Chaffee).
Composer Matt Morton provides a searing electronic soundtrack using authentic instruments from 1969 including the mellatron and moog synthesiser to lift and carry the audience across two parallel universes. A shortened version of the film (First Steps Edition: 2D) can be currently viewed the IMAX theatre of The Science Museum.