Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Visions of the Moon

Out of all the various strange bodies in our Solar System, the moon might just be the one to have captivated our imagination the most. For centuries there were myths and stories about the moon, and even now, when we know it is little more than a giant ball of rock, it still continues to inspire us. The moon has been the subject of countless stories and films, with efforts ranging from conscious attempts at scientific accuracy to outlandish fantasies.

One of the first cinematic auteurs, Georges Méliès, was fascinated with the moon and the idea of exploring it. Méliès was of course a magician first and foremost, and his main interest was to create a spectacle of illusions, but he clearly enjoyed the fantastical situations he could create to present those illusions. One of his most famous was of course 1902's A Trip to the Moon, which was itself loosely based on the novels From Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.

Méliès' visions is far from an accurate one even for his time. His primary concern was to create a spectacle and he certainly did that. The moon here apparently has an atmosphere, seeing as the protagonists are able to climb out of their spaceship dressed in Victorian suits with no trouble at all. It is also capable of supporting life, unlike the real moon. The "astronauts" encounter giant mushrooms growing in a cavern with what appear to be streams. There some weird properties about the soil, too, seeing as planting an umbrella in the ground will cause it to transform into a mushroom.

Of course, the part everyone remembers is the strange alien creatures. They easily outnumber the unfortunate protagonists, but are easy to fend off because they explode if you whack them with an umbrella. Finally, in a complete violation of any scientific logic, the "astronauts" manage to flee from the "Selenites" and escape from the moon by having one of them pull their capsule over the edge. It's a classic no doubt, but it is still a very strange vision of the experience of travelling to the moon.

The famous image of the capsule crashing into the moon's eye is also another element that becomes weird when examined from a scientific perspective. Obviously, the moon doesn't really have a face, but it is something that has perpetuated a lot in the media, especially material aimed at children. Anyone who grew up on Bear in the Big Blue House should remember how every episode would usually conclude with Bear climbing up to his balcony and, disregarding its distance from Earth and the fact that sound waves cannot travel through space, literally have a conversation with the moon about everything that happened during the day.

A similarly imaginative vision of the moon is one that should be familiar to anyone who grew up watching Wallace and Gromit. Nick Park's first film to feature the duo was A Grand Day Out, released in 1989. This particular film saw the characters of Wallace and Gromit trying to decide where to have their holiday only to realize they are out of cheese. The natural solution is obviously to build a rocket in their basement and go for a holiday on the moon which everyone knows is made of cheese.

In this film, it certainly is. You can literally set up a picnic on the moon, just by cutting little pieces of rock off the ground and placing them on crackers. It's apparently a very unique flavor of cheese but nonetheless edible. Like A Trip to the Moon, there appears to be an atmosphere, seeing as Wallace and Gromit have no trouble breathing, although there is a somewhat lighter gravity. While Wallace and Gromit walk around more or less the same on Earth, there is one humorous scene where the former kicks a ball upwards and waits a moment only to find it doesn't come down.

The other thing about this incarnation of the moon is that it does have one inhabitant, a strange robot character that requires change to remain operational. To this day nobody knows just what this thing is, but it seems to be in some way responsible for maintaining the moon. Going to the moon for cheese might therefore not be the best idea, because this robot doesn't seem to like people doing that and will try to stop you (even if it has a tendency to fail just before it can do so). Amusingly, Nick Park's original vision was for there to be a wide variety of characters on the moon, and supposedly a sequence involving fast food restaurant, but those ideas had to be dropped due for various reasons.

Then of course there is the really bizarre rendition of the moon depicted in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. A major theme in this strange dramedy is the fact that just about everything the title character does is impossible, and this whole sequence is no exception.  It should be enough just to say his method of arrival is completely insane. The Baron and his companion (played by a very young Sarah Polley) travel to the moon by creating a balloon out of dirty women's underwear and a stage prop. In actuality this would make no sense as the lack of atmospheric between the Earth and the moon would cause the balloon to burst, but of course where's the fun in that?

The moon he arrives on has a breathable atmosphere, but that is probably the least of its strangeness. It also happens to be ruled by an enormous king and queen (who also seem to be its only real inhabitants) with detachable heads that can float freely from their body. This rendition of the moon is quite possibly the strangest one you'll ever come across.

One of earliest serious attempts to realistically depict the lunar surface was the aptly-named Destination Moon. Here the moon was depicted through matte paintings using the best science that was available at the time. Unlike the real moon, however, we see something a bit different. The ground is largely flat and cracked, with various jagged rocks jutting up into the sky as opposed to the rolling hills that actually exist. We never see a single crater at any point in the film either, even though the real moon is covered in them.

What Destination Moon did get right was the moon's lighter gravity. The film exaggerates it slightly but if you have ever seen footage of the Apollo 11 landing you will know that the moon's gravitational pull is not as strong as that of Earth. Therefore, a human astronaut will actually weigh less on the moon than they would on Earth, which is why Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked in that bouncy fashion you see in all the old footage. It was also correct in assuming that the moon would have no atmosphere, requiring the characters to wear spacesuits outside to breathe and maintain their bodily pressure.

However, at one point the moon is mistakenly referred to as a "planet" when it is... well... a moon. Destination Moon was made long before the decision to formally set a specific list of requirements for what constitutes a planet vs. a moon or star. That was a more recent development, probably done because they got fed up with people constantly throwing the word around in anything even tangentially connected to outer space. The three rules they came up with were that a planet must orbit a star, it must be spherical and shape, and it must have a clear orbit (Pluto was demoted because its orbit goes right through the Kuiper Belt). Any naturally-formed object that orbits a planet (regardless of shape) is automatically considered a moon.

2001: A Space Odyssey was arguably a bit closer to the reality of what the moon looks like. We still see some of the jagged mountains, but it is a much smoother surface. Seeing as this movie was made a year before the first moon landing, Kubrick's resources were extremely limited (though probably less so than those available for Destination Moon). We don't see very many craters, but they are referred to by the characters (in reality, lunar craters come in a variety of sizes and depths, and they are relatively spaced out along its surface).

The monolith found by the astronauts on the moon was reported to have been found in Tycho, a real and very large crater on the moon. We only see the part of the crater that has been excavated (the whole thing has a diameter of 86 km), so it is hard to judge how accurately they captured that particular detail. At the moment we have no hard evidence of any extra-terrestrial objects being buried under the surface of the moon, at least not any that produce the magnetic field described in the movie, but we can't really be sure of anything.

The one detail of note is that there is a mistake regarding the moon's gravitational pull. The astronauts we see on the moon still walk as they would on Earth, when in actuality they would be significantly lighter and move more like the men in the old Apollo footage. This probably has to do with the simple fact that the scenes on the moon were shot on Earth. Until such a time as space travel becomes commercialized and becomes possible to shoot in location using places that are not on our planet, that's going to be an inconvenience for Hollywood productions.

Duncan Jones' Moon is probably the closest anyone has come to showing the moon as it really is. With this one you get a barren, smooth landscape with rolling hills, more like the real moon. You can even see craters in some birds-eye view shots. You can't always see them from the ground, but to be fair there usually is some distance between the moon's craters. The one aspect that does seem slightly off is the gravity. Sam Bell is only shown hopping in moon-level gravity while outside the vehicle. Meanwhile, in the base, he walks around as though on Earth. This is itself probably just a technical limitation, but one worth noting nonetheless.

As you can see, the moon is a very popular environment for movies of all sorts. The material I have covered here is only the tip of the iceberg. I haven't even gotten into all the crazy b-movie visions (Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953), the literature, or Futurama's lunar theme park (which includes an obvious reference to the famous image from A Trip to the Moon and a ride claiming the first moon landing was accomplished by stereotypical 19th century whalers).

There is something about our nearest celestial body that continues to capture the imagination of writers and artists. It may be nothing more than a big hunk of rock launched into orbit by an impact with the Earth early in its formation (though there is evidence of frozen water) but somehow it remains fascinating. Even I've written a short story that uses the lunar landscape as a backdrop.


  1. I love Melies-I thought he was a genius for his time and he would love all the special effects that can be done now. I remember Cat-women of the Moon and there are so many other films I saw from the 1950's and '60's that were Grade Z movies that took place on the moon and elsewhere. Great to still think that hunk of rock is made out of swiss cheese

    1. Indeed he was. If he wasn't a genius he might not have been such a crucial pioneer as he was. He may have just been interested in creating spectacles but film as we know it today might never have happened if not for him.