11 big screen hits to transport you to the Moon

Dr Iain Robert Smith is Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London.

To celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Dr. Iain Robert Smith (King’s College London) has compiled a list of 11 Moon-landing films ranging from relatively realistic depictions of the US and Soviet space programmes through to more fantastical tales that feature nudist camps on the Moon, Bollywood musical numbers, and lunar landscapes made of cheese.

Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès 1902) (France)

Widely regarded as the very first example of science fiction cinema, Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune depicts a team of astronomers who fly to the moon in a capsule fired by a giant cannon. The moment when the lunar capsule lands in the eye of the ‘Man in the Moon’ is one of the most iconic images in film history and has been referenced in everything from the TV series The Mighty Boosh through to the Smashing Pumpkins music video ‘Tonight, Tonight’. Shaped by the ideas of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Méliès’s fantastical vision of space travel was itself to have a profound influence on many subsequent filmmakers who were inspired to focus less on the scientific logistics of space travel than on the dream-like notion of taking a voyage to the Moon.

Frau im Mond / Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang 1929) (Germany)

Two years after Fritz Lang directed the expressionist science fiction classic Metropolis (1927), he returned to the genre with Frau im Mond, adapting a novel written by his then-wife Thea von Harbou. While the film contains some elements that are less believable from a present-day perspective – such as the far side of the Moon having a breathable atmosphere – the film includes many ideas that would later be adopted in real spaceflight, such as the use of multi-stage rockets and the reverse ‘countdown to zero’ before a launch. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Lang enlisted one of the founding fathers of rocketry, Hermann Oberth, as an advisor on the film. In fact, the film was perhaps a little too realistic for its own good, as it was banned by the Nazis in 1937 after they feared it was too similar to their own clandestine V-2 rocket programme.

Kosmicheskiy reys / Cosmic Voyage (Vasili Zhuravlov, 1936) (Soviet Union)

The Eastern-Bloc produced a number of science fiction masterpieces including Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), Jindřich Polák’s Ikarie XB-1 (1963) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). Despite the various successes of the Soviet space programme from the 1930s onwards, however, it is notable that relatively few of these films depict journeys to the Moon. One exception is Vasili Zhuravlov’s Kosmicheskiy reys which imagines the Soviet Union preparing the first manned spaceflight to the Moon in the year 1946, a decade after the film was made. Partly inspired by the realism of Frau im Mond, director Zhuravlov hired the world-renowned scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to be a technical advisor on the film, and the film attempts to depict a credible vision of spaceflight including remarkably innovative scenes of weightlessness. Unfortunately, despite a brief cinematic release in 1936, the film was removed from circulation by Soviet censors who felt it did not adhere to the principles of socialist realism and it wasn’t until 1983 that the film was rediscovered.

Nude on the Moon (Doris Wishman & Raymond Phelan, 1961) (US)

One of the more bizarre sub-genres of space travel films was a 1950s-60s cycle of US exploitation movies in which astronauts discover all-female matriarchal civilisations living on other planets. With titles like Cat Women of the Moon (1953), Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), these films would often depict the astronauts as being the only men on a planet populated entirely by women. Perhaps the most notorious was Nude on the Moon, co-directed by the prolific sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman, which was a fairly typical variation on the popular ‘nudist camp’ films of the era – except that this one takes place in a nudist camp on the Moon. Much of the plot is a thinly-veiled excuse to allow the two protagonists to take photos of the topless ‘extra-terrestrials’ playing volleyball or lying in the sunshine on a surprisingly tropical lunar landscape (actually Coral Castle in Florida).

Chand Par Chadayee / Trip to Moon (T. P. Sundaram, 1967) (India)

While the 2003 blockbuster Koi.. Mil Gaya (I Found Someone) was promoted as the first ever Hindi science fiction film, there were actually a significant number of Hindi science fiction films produced in the 1960s – ranging from the superhero film Return of Mr. Superman (1960) through to the Martian invasion narrative Wahan Ke Log (1967). These Bombay B-movies would often borrow and adapt established science-fiction tropes such as flying saucers or giant monsters, and it is Chand Par Chadayee that was to be the film that introduced the ‘trip to the Moon’ genre to Indian cinema. Starring Dara Singh, who was both a B-movie action star and a professional wrestler, the film follows his character Anand as he journeys to the Moon and does battle with the various monsters he encounters. While the film features many of the expected sci-fi elements such as robots, jetpacks and rocketships, Chand Par Chadayee also integrates numerous local elements such as the elaborate musical sequences that are characteristic of the popular Indian cinema of the period.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) (UK/US)

Designed to shift science fiction away from the B-movie space-opera aesthetic characterised in the US by TV series like Buck Rogers (1950-51) and Flash Gordon (1954-55), 2001: A Space Odyssey was a slow-paced and deliberately enigmatic collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke. Despite Kubrick’s notoriety within various moon landing conspiracy theories, 2001 actually contains relatively little material related to the Moon. Instead, the film focuses on the increasingly strained relationship between the human crew and the artificial-intelligence HAL during a lengthy mission to Jupiter. Nevertheless, one of the key sequences in 2001 is when the astronauts visit the Moon and discover a mysterious black monolith that had been buried there four million years earlier. These sequences were sufficiently convincing that they inspired the conspiracy theory that the television footage from the Apollo 11 Moon landing was actually faked by the CIA with the help of Kubrick. Indeed, these conspiracy theories have become so pervasive that they have reappeared in various subsequent films including the mockumentary Dark Side of the Moon (2002), the action-comedy Moonwalkers (2015) and the found-footage horror film Operation Avalanche (2016).

The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983) (US)

Adapted from a novel by journalist Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff focuses on the true story of the ‘Mercury Seven’ – the seven pilots who were chosen to be astronauts in the first US manned spaceflight programme that ran from 1958 to 1963. Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest films about the space race, and indeed one of the best films of the 1980s, The Right Stuff is renowned for the accuracy and authenticity of its scenes at Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The emphasis upon the personal ambitions that drove these astronauts, and the tensions this caused with their family relationships, would influence subsequent historically-grounded depictions of the space race in films like Apollo 13 (1995) and First Man (2018).

A Grand Day Out (Nick Park, 1989) (UK)

In addition to the various live-action films featuring trips to the Moon, there have also been numerous animated shorts such as the Tom and Jerry cartoon O-Solar Meow (1967) in which Tom uses a cannon to shoot Jerry to the Moon only to discover that his rodent-rival is perfectly happy as the moon is made of delicious cheese. A similar cheese-related journey takes place in Nick Park’s stop-motion animation A Grand Day Out in which the eccentric inventor Wallace and his dog Gromit spend their Bank Holiday building a rocket to visit the moon in order to sample its cheese. On tasting a chunk of the Moon, Wallace declares that despite some similarities with Wensleydale and Stilton, it is ultimately “like no cheese I’ve ever tasted.” The first of the Wallace and Gromit series, A Grand Day Out took animator Nick Park six years to make and returned the genre to its fantastical Méliès-inspired beginnings, albeit with a distinctly British sense of humour.

Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995) (US)

Apollo 13 is one of the most popular ‘Moon-landing’ films despite the fact that, or perhaps because, it tells the story of a failed attempt to land on the Moon. Based on the account of the Apollo 13 mission written by NASA astronaut James A. Lovell, the film focuses on how the team of Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise managed to navigate back to Earth after an oxygen tank explosion caused them to abort their planned lunar landing. Lovell is played in the film by Tom Hanks, an actor famously meticulous about technical accuracy – co-star Kevin Bacon wryly observed that “Tom Hanks wouldn’t push a button unless it was the right one to push” – and the film follows the precedent set by The Right Stuff in attempting to recreate the space race with a certain level of realism and authenticity. Director Ron Howard even managed to obtain permission to film the zero-gravity sequences using NASA’s KC-135 training aircraft, best known by its nickname the ‘vomit comet’, and the sequences are still hailed today as amongst the most convincing depictions of space flight ever filmed.

Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) (UK)

Harking back to the grounded naturalism of 1970s science fiction films like Silent Running (1972) and Alien (1979), Moon inverts much of the romanticism of ‘voyage to the Moon’ narratives by instead highlighting the bleak emptiness of the lunar surface. This sense of desolation is then reflected in the central character of Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) who is all alone on a mining facility on the far side of the Moon, with only the artificial-intelligence GERTY for company. The aesthetic of the film is inspired by NASA’s photos from the Apollo missions, which were themselves notorious for requiring a new type of black ink named ‘Luna Nero’ to be developed in order to capture the density of the blackness of space. Moon was the feature film debut of Duncan Jones; whose father David Bowie had his own close associations with Moon-landings – famously releasing the song ‘Space Oddity’ the very same week as the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018) (US)

Moon-landing films can be roughly divided into two filmic traditions. There are the fantastical, magical films exemplified by Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune that depict the journey to the Moon as something akin to a surreal dream. On the other hand, there are films like Damien Chazelle’s First Man that instead attempt to capture the stark reality of the Apollo missions and the very human fragilities of the people involved. Anchored by remarkably restrained and understated performances from Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife Janet, the film emphasises the dedication of the NASA astronauts and the strains that this can place on their family lives. Lacking the sentimentality of Apollo 13, or the epic scale of The Right Stuff, First Man is instead a remarkably unshowy film that functions to de-mythologise the very idea of the ‘first man on the Moon.’

Dr Iain Robert Smith

Dr Iain Robert Smith

Dr Iain Robert Smith is Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London. He is author of The Hollywood Meme: Transnational Adaptations in World Cinema (EUP, 2016) and co-editor of the collections Transnational Film Remakes (with Constantine Verevis, EUP, 2017) and Media Across Borders (with Andrea Esser and Miguel Bernal-Merino, Routledge, 2016). He is an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker.