From 1902’s Trip to the Moon to 2018’s First Man

For whatever reason, the first few months of 2022 have seen a surprising amount of moon-related releases. Whether it’s the Roland Emmerich disaster movie MoonfallMarvel’s new Disney + series Moon Knightthe HBO Max sci-fi romance Moonshot (which actually takes place on Mars), or Richard Linklater‘s new film that was quietly released on Netflix, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Adventure. Since practically the birth of cinema, we’ve been going to the moon onscreen, though the nostalgic glow of Apollo 10 1/2 speaks to how we’re now often looking back instead of forward when going to the moon in movies. It’s a fantasy that was able to capture audiences’ imaginations in the decades preceding the 1969 moon landing, while most of the films made since then about going to the moon are either period pieces or documentaries chronicling the space race of the 1960s. Still, whether we’re talking about science fiction or true stories of past trips to the moon, it always has the potential to evoke a certain awe and wonder any time a movie whisks us away to that big ball of cheese in the sky.

A Trip To The Moon (1902)

It speaks to how moon travel was a distinctly 20th-century obsession that the first truly great sci-fi movie (and one of the first great movies period) was about going to the moon. Inspired by the work of Jules Vernedirector George Méliès brings to life the then-outlandish idea of ​​space travel with fantastical sets, charmingly primitive special effects, and a general sense that he’s creating a magic trick onscreen. Though A Trip To The Moon is not without its limitations, due to the overly theatrical nature of the acting and the fact that modern editing hadn’t even been established yet, it is still a wonderful example of what happens when a director with boundless creativity shoots for the stars. Of course, you can’t talk about this short without mentioning its iconic image of an annoyed moon having a rocket-ship shot right into its eye, which sums up both the film’s playfulness as well its status as one of the very first (and most influential) special effects films.

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Woman In The Moon (1929)

If we’re talking about early innovators in sci-fi movie, it’s hard not to bring up Fritz Lang‘s 1927 vision of the future, Metropolis. 1929’s Woman In The Moon is in many ways a companion piece to Metropolissince it is another collaboration between Lang and his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, and sees a similar interest in bringing the kinds of worlds that were only written about in science fiction novels and comics to the screen. Taking into account that humanity was still a few decades away from sending astronauts to the moon, the film is surprisingly accurate in its depiction of a multi-stage rocket and how one would deal with the realities of G-force and weightlessness. Still, the movie botches some pretty big scientific predictions in that it sees our moon-venturing astronauts discover that there is in fact breathable oxygen on the moon, so instead of space suits we see them wearing ties and cardigans on their moonwalk. However, it’s hard not to admire Woman In The Moon‘s a mix of both light-hearted inventiveness and an early attempt to make “serious sci-fi,” while the film’s ending is surprisingly sweet considering the rest of it is filled with characters making decisions based in scientific calculations rather than their hearts.

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Destination Moon (1950)

Destination Moon – the brainchild of producer George Palmost famous for bringing HG WellsThe War of the Worlds to the screen a few years later – is by no means a great movie. With its stiff acting and sometimes laughable special effects, it’s very much reflective of the kind of cheesy sci-fi B-movies we associate with the Cold War era. Though at the same time, it is surprisingly prophetic in its depiction of space-age aeronautics and the fact that the journey to the moon at the center of it is less instigated by exploration and more by the US’s desire for military dominance. Also, the suits worn by our space travelers are much more in-line with what NASA would wear over the next two decades of space travel breakthroughs, even if their pastel designs are more there just to take advantage of the film’s Technicolor cinematography. Destination Moon‘s surprising amount of scientific accuracy and striking visuals are surely due to the screenplay being co-written by influential sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein adapting one of his own books, as well as the matte paintings provided by Chesley Bonestellone of the pioneers of what is known as “space art”.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Considering it’s competing with that prehistoric ape’s fateful bone throw, HAL the supercomputer’s dastardly schemes, and some of the trippiest imagery ever committed to film, the moonbase sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey probably isn’t the first one that comes to mind when thinking about Stanley Kubrick‘s monumentally groundbreaking film. However, because nearly every moment of 2001 is essential in some way, the low-key journey that Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) takes from the Earth to a troubled lunar outpost still has plenty of the film’s more subtle iconic moments. These include a pen floating out of Heywood’s pocket as he snoozes on a space shuttle, a flight attendant walking in a circular pattern until she’s completely upside down, or the different array of space food we see Heywood and his colleagues consume while journeying to the moonbase . It’s a very much movie influenced by the era’s enthusiasm for space travel and its boundless possibilities, all while the US was just on the verge of sending a man to the moon a year later and finally dispelling the notion that lunar travel was just the stuff of science fiction.


For All Mankind (1989)

After Apollo 11’s successful moon landing in 1969, there was understandably a lack of need for movies about humans traveling to the moon as Americans’ enthusiasm towards the space race began to wane. But even after NASA’s last coordinated trip to the moon in 1972, the wonder and innovation of the Apollo missions continued to be a considerable source of fascination, as evidenced by all the various documentaries that have been made about moon travel. Perhaps the most arresting of these documentaries is 1989’s For All Mankindwhich director Al Reinert compiled from hours of footage sitting in the vaults at NASA that various astronauts filmed over the course of their time traveling to the moon. Reinert’s approach is both minimalist and immersive at the same time, as the film consists solely of footage of these missions with offscreen interviews and Brian Eno‘s dazzlingly atmospheric score layered over it. Reinert’s goal in making the documentary was to focus less on the scientific aspects of moon travel and more on evoking the sensation of what it felt like to go to the moon. By relying simply on the awe-inspiring imagery of the moon and the Earth from above, he captures something sublime, even if only a select few people could truly say from experience if For All Mankind recreates the feeling of manned space flight.


Apollo 13 (1995)

There haven’t been a ton of Hollywood movies made about the Apollo missions, and it’s possible that that’s because Apollo 13 embodies the optimism of the late ’60s / early’ 70s American space travel so effortlessly that it casts a large shadow over adapting this subject. Because when you think of what a typical period piece about space travel looks and feels like, even though there have been some other great ones, Apollo 13 is probably the first movie that comes to mind. This is the only one of the movies mentioned on this list about an unsuccessful trip to the moon, and yet director Ron Howard‘s polished approach taps into depicting this mission as something life-affirming, since it could have gone a whole lot worse. So instead of a movie about one of NASA’s greatest blunders, it becomes the story of Americans’ abilities to improvise and think on their feet in the worst of situations. It’s also the perfect match of star and subject matter, as it sees Tom Hanks anchoring the film when he was in the midst of becoming America’s dad, and perhaps in the process of laying the groundwork for the vast amount of space movies about dads (Contact, Ad Astra, Interstellaretc.) that have come out since then.


Moon (2009)

Easily the longest trip to the moon covered in any of these movies, Moon follows the lone person, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), working at a soil mining outpost on the moon in the not-so-distant future. Sam is on the verge of reaching the end of his three-year contract working at the outpost, but then realizes he’s been there much longer than he thought when he discovers many other Sams have been cloned to carry on the same work he’s been doing. This debut directorial feature from Duncan Jones is in many ways a throwback to classic sci-fi, with its bulky, unsophisticated set design and its deliberate but rewarding pacing. Yet it also has a frigidness to it that is distinctly a product of the 21st century, not to mention that it’s very much about harvesting new kinds of energy and the ways in which big corporations sink to new lows in exploiting human labor conditions. Also, because it is a story about clones that asks its lead actor to play against himself, it proves that there is no such thing as too many Sam Rockwells.


First Man (2018)

A movie that asks what kind of person would willingly travel to the moon, especially when there’s no guarantee that they’d safely come back. Though this biopic about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his journey through the ranks of NASA to become the first man to walk on the moon depicts him as too enigmatic to fully answer this question, it does paint a visceral portrait of the typical astronaut’s mindset. If For All Mankind aims to put the viewer in the shoes of an astronaut by embracing the beauty and breathtaking imagery of space travel, First Man does it by showing the intensity and physical limitations of it. We see that Armstrong is a man marked by grief, not only in his home life but also in seeing many of his fellow pilots die in the name of space travel, which just seems to further harden his dedication to the cause. It’s a movie that skirts the typical romanticism of the space race by focusing on the fact that the men who accomplished these feats were, at the end of the day, complicated human beings like the rest of us. However, that makes it just as satisfying as any other movie about traveling to the moon when Armstrong finally does take that one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.


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