All Sides of the Moon: A Look at Luminary Lunar Films of Cinema History

The Moon: bringer of the tides, stealer of light, trickster of the night sky.

The Moon in human culture has served as an object of adoration, mystery and exultation, its nightly streak having etched question marks into the darkness since the dawn of humanity. The Moon is enshrined in folk tales, in poetry, in the stories we have told ourselves since the invention of language.

The man in the Moon winks cheekily at us from above, from somewhere that for most of human history has lain beyond our reach. Lupine moonbeams, too, have incited Moon madness for centuries, and while moonlight might stir romance, the hidden Moon, the dark side, speaks of the endless cold of the cosmos cuddling up to our planet.

The Moon, Shakespeare’s Juliet tells us, “monthly changes,” but the one thing that culture didn’t dare do before cinema arrived was to take us there, to show us the Moon’s contours and peaks. Certainly, cinema’s treatment of our nearest celestial neighbour has been a perennial feature, a shaft of moonlight, you might say, that has pierced film history from the outset. From Georges Melies’ 1902 Voyage dans la Lune to Duncan Jones’ 2009 masterpiece Moon, filmmakers have been exploiting the beautiful cold grey of our nearest solar neighbor for some 115 years.

Cinema has plugged the gap that separates Earth and Moon, has rubbed our eyes in a dirty great snowball of moon cinematography, and even though just 12 humans have set foot on the lunar surface, it feels like we’ve been holidaying there since childhood. We know the Moon—or at least how it ought to look—and cinema is responsible in part for that intuition.

The interest that cinema has taken in the moon stems, perhaps, from the notion that both Moon and film are hewn of the same stuff. They are twinned bedfellows in that they are manifest through light alone—like a full Moon in the night sky, the movie theater projects its images in the darkness, while the literal Moon steals its silvery romance from the sun. Both Moon and film are chimera rather than essence—reflection rather than reality.

We might also argue that the modern Moon, the Moon of our time, has been culturally transformed by cinema. The Moon has been consumed by film, has been eaten whole and spat out in bite sized globs of Apollo footage. Movies made by spacemen. Silent movies. Movies that replaced the unknowable awe of the pre-20th century moon with something more intimate.

Who hasn’t seen Earthrise? Who hasn’t poured over the the grainy footage of Neil Armstrong pressing his hind paw into the carpet of the moon. That well-timed footprint in a splodge of moon turd has to be one of the most iconic cinematic sequences of the 20th century. Indeed, some 33 rolls of film were consumed on the Apollo 11 mission alone. The Moon, our Moon, has been made real through those images, has been rendered tangible by that collection of badly filmed home movies assembled by the Apollo space crews.

Earthrise. Image courtesy of NASA

A long time before that, Voyage dans la Lune first gave us our first cinematic version of the moon. Melies’ intention, he once stated, was to “show the outside and inside of the Moon, and some monsters who might live there.” In many ways, Melies’ 12-minute short lays down a space conquest narrative that has been replicated countless times across the science-fiction genre. What perhaps is more interesting is Melies’ depiction of the Moon’s spear-hurling natives, and their conquest and chained return to planet Earth. The post-colonial subtext is deeply problematic, but is also indicative of many Moon films that followed—a narrative dynamic in which derring-do adventurers are hurdled Moonward to find that the lunar landscape is inhabited by creatures who are tangentially linked to the cultural anxieties of their time.

Arthur Hilton’s 1953 black-and-white 3D outing, Cat Women of the Moon, is a classic example of this process, in which the film’s luckless crew find themselves stranded on a Moon populated by a matriarch of femme fatales who seduce the mostly male crew in a bid to steal their rocket for a long overdue return to Earth. Their feline intentions, had they succeeded, would no doubt have been to sow the seeds of feminist disorder and wreak havoc on good ol’ U.S. patriarchy.

Poster for Arthur Hilton’s Cat-Women of the Moon. Image courtesy of Astor Pictures

The 1960 B-movie 12 to the Moon treads a similar path, landing a dozen hapless scientists on the Moon only for them to encounter a Soviet inspired Moon race in an ice city constructed beneath the lunar surface. Of course, their destruction is naturally and morally assured when said ice citizens launch a first strike against the Earth, all but destroying the U.S.A. (Replace the ice cold aliens of 12 to the Moon with an army of racially pure neo-Nazis and, hey presto, we arrive at the plot of the 2008 film Iron Sky.) Even 007 muscles in on the “enemy on the Moon” gig when he is sent to destroy Hugo Drax’s dastardly plan to replace the population of Earth with his Moon reared army of super humans.

Whether it be global terrorism, neo-Nazis or Soviet communism, the Moon has served as a cinematic talisman that articulates our social fears, but the “enemy without” formula was rudely popped when JFK declared an actual intention for humankind to visit the Moon in 1962. Cinema in the ’60s couldn’t compete with the media frenzy that surrounded those early Apollo space missions, and the subject of Moon travel disappears almost entirely from cinema screens during the period. Of course, the one notable exception of the period is Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that captures perfectly the technological optimism of the late ’60s, whereby the discovery of the Moon monolith in Kubrick’s masterpiece propels humankind toward a technological revolution that rivals the discovery of the tool by our ape ancestors. In opposition to much of the Moon’s filmic history, Kubrick’s Moon posits a vague humanist optimism—an optimism almost certainly inspired by the Apollo space program.

Of course, by the mid ’70s, Moon fever had been replaced with TV fatigue and a sense that the Moon wasn’t really that interesting after all. Peter Hyams’ 1977 blockbuster Capricorn One captures perfectly the cynicism of the period. Capricorn One follows the investigation of rogue reporter Robert Caulfield, played by Elliott Gould, who discovers that a live Mars landing is a fake perpetrated by the government at the highest level. Cue, cinematic paranoia infused with more than a hint of the Nixon Watergate scandal.

A scene from Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Hyams also went on to direct the 1981 cult classic, Outland, set on the moon based mining post of Lo. Hyams was undoubtedly inspired by the success of Alien—serving up a dog eat dog High Noon-inspired climax that swaps the desert of the Wild West for the infinitely less hospitable environs of outer space. Outland, like many films of its time, is a partial response to the Apollo 11 photograph Earthrise:  a photo that famously depicts the fragility of planet Earth from a Moon vantage—a pictorial representation of our oasis homeland that is surrounded by one hell of a lot of nothing.

Outland, encodes, to some degree, an ecological message, a message that reverses much of the conquest narrative seen in earlier Moon based film. Outland reverses the pull of the Moon and replaces it with a cinematic about turn that positions planet Earth center frame.

Jones’ Moon delivers a full-torque version of Outland’s ecological message. As the son of David Bowie, Jones’ childhood must have been embroidered with a continual influx of space motifs. Indeed, Moon can be read as a fully fledged homage to Nic Roeg’s, The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie senior took a leading role. Like Roeg’s Earth-trapped space visitor, Jones’ Moon-based protagonist, Sam, struggles to comprehend his ontological place in the universe. Sam’s only Moon company, Gertie—a lo-if version of Kubrick’s Hal—tries to maintain the protagonist’s sense of purpose, but ultimately humans need humans to really survive.

The Moon, Jones concludes, is a place of isolation and the Earth one of exploitation—a home world where human life is subservient and expedient, where technology isolates and controls. Jones’ Moon yearns not for adventure—his unnerving critique suggesting that we oughtn’t attend to the Moon—, but to the moral universe that resides on our own planet.

A scene from Duncan Jones’ Moon. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Contemporary cinema has conquered the Moon and found that the real enemy lies within. Where next for Moon movies when its symbolism, its mystique, have been all but destroyed? Perhaps, Joseph Kosinski’s post-apocalyptic Oblivion is truly the Moon movie of the moment—the movie that destroyed the Moon, leaving it as a ghosted abstract, a haunted twin without whom planet Earth cannot endure. Both cinema and the Moon might be rendered through light alone, but their twinned relationship might finally have darkened forever. MM

Mark Dixon is a freelance journalist with work published in The Guardian, TES and Media Magazine. He also works as the head of Film at Durham Sixth Form Centre. Follow him on Twitter @markdixonwriter. 

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