By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn November 13, 2011 at 3:39PM
Usually, the prospects of digital colorization make a large contingency of movie buffs instantly livid. The recent color restoration of George Méliès's seminal 1902 "A Trip to the Moon" provides a rare exception. Exhumed from the archives of a private collection in 1993, the ultra-rare nitrate print fell into the hands of committed restoration expert Serge Bromberg at Lobster Films around 10 years ago. It took a long time to get the print back in shape, and some images were unsalvageable, necessitating the aid of a computer on numerous frames to mimic the hand-colored images that remained. Twenty-first century technology became the crutch, not an update, bringing Méliès' playfully surreal sci-fi snapshot to vivid life in the way he always intended it.
A new 35mm print of the colorized "A Trip to the Moon" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where I regrettably missed it. Thankfully, I made it to the U.S. premiere at MOMA on Friday. The 109-year-old short screened alongside a rough cut of "The Extraordinary Voyage," a documentary Bromberg co-directed with his Lobster Films colleague Eric Lange. The documentary ably pays tribute to Méliès' historical value as the originator of cinema special effects, with testimonies from modern directors including Michel Gondry, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Hazanavicius.
Not that you need their insight to understand the appeal of Méliès' film. The joys of "A Trip to the Moon" were already apparent, but they multiply in color. It might be the first bonafide visual feast, from the deep yellows of the titular rock to the reddish hues of its imaginary inhabitants. As Bromberg explains in the documentary, digital tweaking revealed the brilliant textures that Méliès brought to his factory-like production studio. (It also exposed the unapologetic openness of the artifice--lab technicians discovered a studio key hanging in the corner of one frame).
There are two ethically questionable decisions involved with the newly restored print. One revolves around its placement in the Méliès-centered "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's ambitious tribute to the director, which includes "Trip" footage upgraded to 3-D. However, given the spectacular nature of Méliès' filmmaking, this strikes me as a non-issue. The other potential problem is a brand new score by the French band Air that Bromberg commissioned for screenings of "A Trip to the Moon." This one's a bit tougher to defend.
At times atrociously distracting, the sonic music occasionally matches Méliès' otherworldly visuals, but it never feels less than contemporary. Thankfully, Bromberg realizes as much: On Friday night, I had scarcely finished telling a friend how much I'd rather watch the film with a score from its period when Bromberg sat down at the piano and provided exactly that.
During his accompaniment for this second run-through, Abu Dhabi Film Festival head Peter Scarlet grabbed the mic and read Méliès' original script for the film, which the director had insisted on as part of the screening experience. Bromberg claimed this was the first time in the U.S. that such a narration had been provided; whether or not this was true (such statements are difficult to verify), it certainly expanded the movie's entertainment value.
Méliès' script includes small details that broaden the comedic dimension of the scenario, such as the note that a rocket scientist has tumbled into a vat of acid, and the identification of the women bidding farewell to the astronauts as "Lady Marines." The moon residents are referred to as "Selenites," a reminder of the source material: HG Wells' "The First Men in the Moon," released a year earlier.
"A Trip to the Moon" continue to amuse all kinds of people, not only silent film buffs. That makes it the ideal cure for anyone suffering from that horribly superficial ailment limiting their movie interests to anything with color and sound. "Trip" has both, and so it's a terrific gateway drug. Appropriately, Bromberg said he intends to tour with the new print and the documentary as a double-bill, a feat with serious potential (get some celebrities to read that Méliès script, and the prospects of a traveling commercial hit go even further). The value of "A Trip to the Moon" goes beyond its role in film history and involves the impact it had (and still has) on the global public's imagination. NASA, take note: "Everyone knows the French invented cinema," Bromberg said in his introduction. "What they don't realize is that the French were also the first to land on the moon."