Popular cinema is currently all about visual splendor and giant, fantastic alternate worlds. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the emblem of this, with top-level special effects, grand-scale universe building, and no small love for the magic of big budget movies. The focus on these aspects of movie making seems inevitable, especially when we’re currently in the midst of it all. Of course we like seeing those big worlds that differ from our own. Of course we want to see movies that utilize stunning special effects. But that sense of inevitability also ignores the fact that we’re here not only due to the labor of collective movements and the natural development of a creative medium, but also due to the brilliance of individuals who saw an opportunity to do something fantastic.
The Extraordinary Voyage separates itself from other documentaries on the beginnings of film by capturing that beauty of creative vision; directors Serge Bromberg & Eric Lange focus on early filmmaker George Melies’s visionary movies, and how he made the current state of popular cinema become inevitable.. While obviously a focus on any one person leaves out numerous others of similar importance, it also allows for a better understanding of the human being behind cinema’s earliest classics, and how his vision shaped the direction movies would take. Bromberg and Lange avoid the dehumanizing distance of textbook excerpts by focusing on Melies’ desires, and showing how they formed the basis of his work.
Melies is best known for making A Trip to the Moon in 1902, an exemplar of his desire to tell fantastic stories with special effects—most famously, he has a rocket crash into the eye of a face on the moon—rather than capture reality, as was popular with early film and directors like the Lumiere brothers. The documentary reveals that many basic movie tricks that we take for granted were not “obvious”; they were “eureka!” moments by a man who was always looking for magic. For instance, the use of jump cuts to make something appear or disappear in a scene came from Melies filming a street, turning off his camera, and turning it back on. He found that a cart had suddenly transformed into something else entirely, and thus was born one of the simplest but most effective camera tricks that is still used by directors.
Reflexively, though, Melies’ genius is contextualized. I’d heard Melies’ basic biography several times in film classes and movies like Scorsese’s love letter to early cinema, Hugo. Yet, I’d never seen someone talk about A Trip to the Moon as a reflection of a hot topic in science fiction at the time: voyages to the moon. Stories by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne focused on journeys to the then-mysterious rock, and these stories captured the West’s love of exploration (and conquest of “uncivilized” peoples, if we’re being honest with ourselves). Just as directors like Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet—who are both interviewed in The Extraordinary Voyage—work with their antecedents, so too did Melies.
Not only does the context add depth to Melies as a person, but it also reveals a new level of brilliance: his understanding of the nature of adaptation. I’ve discussed this in context of recent movies like Perks of Being a Wallflower: many movies confuse adaptation with translation—the former implying a utilization of film’s unique qualities, and the latter implying the opposite. Even in the earliest periods of narrative storytelling, Melies knew that the only way to capture the wonder of a novel is not to depict the same events with actors and a camera, but to understand how to capture that wonder in the ways a book can’t. Considering the fact that all too many adaptations today don’t understand that, the fact that Melies was doing it over a century earlier further reveals his ingenuity.
For all of his successes though, he also experienced hardship, and that rounds out this portrayal of him as not just a genius, but a person. His print of A Trip to the Moon was stolen and pirated, showing to great success in the United States with no money going to the man behind the camera. When his style became so popular as to rob his works of their uniqueness, he had to abandon his creative outlet to work in retail. Stories of people who changed history not being recognized in their lifetime are painful, and that layer adds a lot of depth to this documentary. Imagine pouring your life into a creative medium, and thinking that your efforts were for naught?
Sadly, even though Melies is presently adored, over 300 of his films are lost. The restoration of film made in that time period has its particular challenges that the documentary explores, and this brief tangent works because we see an appraisal of creativity and passion. Many of Melies’ films were lost or damaged, but a modern archivist received an untouched but decomposed copy of A Trip to the Moon. He does what many would think impossible and devises a way to unravel and restore the reel. He briefly becomes the focus of The Extraordinary Voyage, and this captures Melies’ greatest personal attributes and contributions to the world: innovation driven by zeal. The greatest celebration of the biography’s subject is a recognition of the value of his attitude.
The Extraordinary Voyage is not a revolutionary documentary, and has a clear target audience: movie dorks. But it doesn’t waste its time pandering to those who already love Melies and his influence, and it doesn’t just retread the man’s Wikipedia page. It focuses on the humanity of its subject, and thus validates its creation by providing a thoughtful survey of its subject. If you are interested in film history, then The Extraordinary Voyage is delightful, if inessential, movie to add to your queue.