The story of the Moon across a century of cinema
Stories about the Moon are as old as storytelling itself. Virtually every ancient culture demonstrated some form of Moon worship. As scientists and astronomers learned more about this magnificent celestial object, our stories evolved to reflect each new discovery.
Across the 20th century, cinema stepped up as humanity's great new storytelling medium, and unsurprisingly, the Moon was a big focus in many of our stories. The 20th century also proved to be a century of incredible advancements in our understanding of the Moon, and these advancements can be seen in the progression of our cinematic stories.
The history of the Moon in cinema is a compelling parallel to the story of the Moon in popular consciousness. As the world's perception of the Moon changed, so did the cinematic stories we told, and this chronology of the Moon on film tells the story of how we, as a civilization, have entirely changed our view of our lunar neighbor over the past 100 years.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Arguably the first science fiction film ever made, George Méliès launched A Trip To The Moon in 1902, just a few short years after the Lumière brothers revealed their new invention of cinema to the world. This incredibly influential short film was directly inspired by Jules Verne's Moon novels, and indirectly inspired by HG Wells's 1901 novel, The First Men In The Moon.
Méliès of course presents an outlandish fantasy version of the Moon, populated by a wild race called the Selenites, however, the film does offer a beautiful moment showing the Earth rising up over the horizon. The sequence presciently precedes several iconic, similarly framed images, from NASA in the 1960s.
Woman in the Moon (1929)
Two years after Fritz Lang produced Metropolis, one of the most iconic and influential futurist films of the century, he delivered Woman In The Moon, arguably the first serious science fiction film ever made. While the film is filled with propositions we would consider absurd nowadays, Lang and his collaborator Thea von Harbou, did set out to make things as scientifically accurate as possible. In fact, the film was ultimately banned in Germany until 1945 because the rocket design was deemed too similar to a top secret rocket project.
The procedural detail in the film is undeniably remarkable, from an elaborate launch sequence to the primitive, yet admirable, attempts to depict zero gravity. The film did present a portrait of the Moon where a breathable atmosphere exists on the infamous dark side. Although this theory had mostly fallen out of favor at the time, it was at one point a serious scientific belief pushed by astronomer Peter Andreas Hansen in the mid-19th century.
Cosmic Voyage (1936)
This incredible, and nearly forgotten, piece of Soviet-era science fiction presented a truly realistic depiction of space travel, one that was perhaps not matched in authenticity and realism until decades after. Set in the near future of 1946, the film follows the first manned expedition to the Moon with impressive restraint.
The film was reportedly conceived under close consultation from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, often considered one of the most influential early rocket engineers. From its presentation of the G-forces involved in take-off, to its absolutely impressive depiction of a low-gravity Moon environment, Cosmic Voyage is probably the most remarkable pre-1960s lunar movie from a standpoint of scientific accuracy. Ironically, Soviet censors banned the film soon after its release due to what they believed were overly flamboyant and unrealistic scenes of astronauts hopping around the Moon's low-gravity surface.
Destination Moon (1950)
Although perhaps best known for producing a number of classic sci-fi films (When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) George Pal started off his Hollywood feature film career with a serious attempt to portray a journey to the Moon in as realistic a manner as possible.
Enlisting classic sci-fi author Robert Heinlein (who worked on another semi-realistic, albeit completely terrible, Moon movie called Project: Moonbase in 1953), and noted astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell, the film is impressively procedural in its rigorous approach to chronicling a journey to the Moon.
To modern eyes the film certainly seems slow, hammy and quaint, but back in 1950 it garnered some pretty famous fans, including Arthur C. Clarke, who called it "serious and scientifically accurate," and Isaac Asimov, who deemed it, "the first intelligent science-fiction movie made."
The Swinging 60s
The early 1960s were dominated by a series of comical films with no pretense to scientific accuracy. Capitalizing on the burgeoning space race between the US and the Soviet Union, these movies took advantage of the public's last few years of general Moon naivety before the landmark 1969 landing changed the world.
Nude on the Moon (1961) is probably one of the more ridiculous films from the era. Made by legendary exploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman, the film suggests the Moon is not barren, but in fact covered with grass and trees. Oh, and it's also populated by a species of topless alien women …
Other extreme fantasy imaginings of the Moon from the early 1960s include a colorful adaptation of HG Well's First Men in the Moon (1964), a psychedelic depiction of a giant underground lunar city populated by ant-like aliens, and Mouse on the Moon (1963), a farcical English satire of the space race that climaxes in a surreal sequence of UK, US, and Soviet astronauts arguing on the surface of the Moon about who got there first.
One giant leap...
Of course, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) profoundly raised the bar for accurate depictions of the Moon, and space travel in general. Released a year before footage of the real Moon landing was broadcast all over the world, Kubrick's incredible masterpiece was so compellingly realistic that for decades to follow many were convinced he subsequently faked the real Moon landing footage.
Another film directly preceding the real Moon landing was Countdown (1968), fictionalizing the race to the Moon with a decent level of scientific detail. Produced with the assistance of NASA, the film was unfortunately numbingly dull, and oddly presented the US as losers in the space race, suggesting the Soviets got to the lunar surface first.
Immediately following the world-changing scenes of a man on the Moon in July 1969, a couple of mediocre films were rushed into theaters. Marooned and Moon Zero Two both presented portraits of space travel uncomfortably stuck between two eras. The world had just seen what it really was like to walk on the Moon. No more could filmmakers easily get away with fantastic absurd visions of humans casually strolling across a dusty lunar surface.
These two films perfectly encapsulate that awkward transitional phase for cinematic science fiction storytellers. Moon Zero Two, in particular, presented a future society on the Moon that felt like a bizarro mash-up of kitschy 1950s schlock and more modern scientific accuracy. This psychedelic, self-defined "space western,", is neither good enough to be memorable, nor bad enough to be considered fun junk.
Post the 1969 Moon landing, things went a little quiet for Moon movies. Perhaps the cold harsh reality of seeing a man on the Moon destroyed our ability to fantasize about the mysterious nature of our lunar neighbor. In 1989 a B-grade genre pic called Moontrap presented a more modern kind of Moon movie, one that suggested our mission to the Moon awoke an alien life form. Moontrap turns the Moon into a giant haunted house, with an underground alien city housing evil robots.
Duncan Jones' debut film Moon in 2009 immediately became an iconic science fiction movie bringing us a true 21st century Moon film. Melding a kind of sparse cerebral vibe from 1970s films such as Outland and Silent Running, with thoroughly modern ideas like mining resources from the Moon, the film quickly became a favorite amongst scientists.
Moon cleverly capitalizes on the isolating and desolate nature of the Moon as we currently know it, creating a story that uses hard science fiction concepts to investigate very modern ideas about AI and human identity. Soon after its premiere, the film screened at NASA with the director in attendance admirably defending many of his aesthetic decisions, such as why his mining base was on the dark side of the Moon, when there is more helium-3 on the near side.
Apollo 18 (2011)
Many post-Moon landing films present conspiratorial stories that are framed in the wake of the real Apollo missions. Apollo 18 is one of the best examples of this trend, utilizing the modern found-footage aesthetic to tell the story of a top secret Moon mission never before revealed to the public.
The film suggests the canceled Apollo 18 mission in 1973 actually went ahead but was hidden from the public. Apollo 18 is not a good film, it is dull, derivative and predictable, but it does offer up an interesting take on modern Moon depictions. It's basically The Blair Witch Project on the Moon.
The dark side of the moon ...
Landing on the Moon in 1969 did not destroy all the mystery of our celestial neighbor. Many writers simply moved their fantastic propositions to the dark side of the Moon, that rugged unseen hemisphere always facing away from the Earth. The third Transformers film, Dark of the Moon in 2011 amusingly suggested NASA's Apollo missions were actually a cover for investigating alien spacecraft that crashed on the dark side of the Moon in the early 1960s.
Perhaps the most absurdly self-aware dark side of the Moon story came in 2012's insane Iron Sky. Here we find out that Nazi's are living on the dark side of the Moon, after escaping there in the dying days of World War 2. These Moon Nazis of course attempt to attack the Earth after obtaining a smartphone from an astronaut landing on the far side in 2018.
First Man (2018)
Damien Chazelle's impressive telling of Neil Armstrong's story concludes with an expansive, visceral and thrilling recreation of the Moon landing. The film makes the compelling decision to try to evoke Armstrong's experience from a first-person perspective, alternating between subtle visual effects, real Apollo mission video footage, and POV shots literally looking out across the lunar surface through Armstrong's eyes.
The story of the Moon in cinema is a fascinating mirror of humanity's relationship with the Moon over the past century. The way we depict the Moon on film offers a variety of snapshots of moments in time, reflecting the many cultural shifts of different eras. From Méliès' story of the Moon as a colonial conquest in 1902, to the politics of the US-Soviet space race in the 1960s, to Duncan Jones' more existential 21st century depiction of a desolate and lonely Moon that metaphorically represents our tiny vantage on the universe, these Moon stories are constantly informed by our wider scientific knowledge, and as thus, continue to evolve.