There’s nothing like the Moon for cinema. It’s been a fascination for fiction from way before motion pictures were invented, but it’s had a very special place in the history of film. From the beginning, at least as early as 1896 when Georges Melies created a lunar-based dream for A Nightmare (watch it here), filmmakers have been portraying our planet’s natural satellite in all kinds of ways. One of the most famous movie images of all time is a silhouetted bicycle in front of a giant full moon, in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Even one of the Hollywood studios incorporates a crescent moon in its logo.
One of the reasons the Moon is so interesting for cinema is that for the majority of the art form it was still a relatively unknown thing. Then, 45 years ago today (or yesterday, depending on where you are in the world), man touched ground on its surface and the idea of a journey to the Moon was no longer science fiction. Well, that’s actually dependent on who you ask, as well. Immediately we had hints about the Moon landing being a hoax, or if not totally manufactured then involving some other secret situation — like Apollo 11 really being a mission to investigate crashed Transformers (watch that here). Even after we officially knew there were no Cat-Women on the Moon and that it wasn’t in fact made of cheese, films have still had fun imagining the lunar body for sci-fi and fantasy stories set in the past, present and future.
In honor of the real Moon landing, I’ve selected my seven favorite fictional landings. A few of the following movies were made prior to the summer of 1969, and a few were made since.
1. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
After Melies played with an anthropomorphic moon in 1896, he made a very similar film called The Astronomer’s Nightmare (aka The Man in the Moon) two years later. In some places that one is incorrectly titled A Trip to the Moon, but it’s the 1902 short that is the famous work. This is where we get one of the most iconic shots in all of cinema — and at least the most iconic one involving the moon, despite Steven Spielberg’s apparent attempt to trump it. Inspired by Jules Verne and maybe also H.G. Wells, the 13-minute film (running time may vary by speed of play) simply follows a group of astronomers who travel to the Moon, encounter aliens there and then drop back to Earth. Their landing on the lunar surface consists of them being being shot smack into the Man in the Moon’s eye.
2. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)
Melies also made the first film adaptation of the tall tales of Baron Munchausen (watch it here), who has been portrayed on screen in many other international features and shorts over the past century. Most of them wonderful. Most of them featuring landings on the Moon. The one in Josef von Baky‘s 1943 version, which yes was produced under Nazi Germany under order from Joseph Goebbels, is particularly magnificent (watch it here). But Terry Gilliam‘s take on the stories, made 20 years after Apollo 11 and filled with tons of homage to Melies, features the most fantastic trip. The Baron (John Neville), with little Sarah Polley by his side, sails into the heavens via hot air balloon-powered ship toward a very stylized crescent Moon on which the boat can drive through its sandy surface like water (it’s the Sea of Tranquility) until it arrives at the home of the king and queen. There they encounter the former, a surprisingly tolerably wacky Robin Williams as a floating head. The way Munchausen and friends get off the Moon is even more magical.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Who can imagine descending onto the lunar surface without blasting some Strauss? A year before man first stepped on the Moon for real, Stanley Kubrick‘s sci-fi masterpiece depicted such an operation with ease — and enough authentic detail to get people to think the director also produced the Apollo 11 landing itself, in a studio. In 2001, we slowly and beautifully follow a pod-like ship from space station to lunar outpost to the tune of “The Blue Danube,” and the waltz is most perfect when the ship seems to dance upon the landing platform with a bit of a bounce in its step. For that landing, go watch the whole movie. Watch the also awesome scene with the Monolith on the Moon below.
4. Superman II (1980)
One thing about the Moon is that it’s like a gateway for ships leaving from Earth or arriving from somewhere else. The latter is the case with many alien invasion films, though they typically just fly by rather than stop in on the way. However, if you have no spaceship, the extra land mass is probably good for a little rest prior to going further. That seems true for Zod, Ursa and Non (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran), who fly onto the Moon and disrupt a NASA mission just trying to collect some rocks. The trio of Superman villains meanwhile just want some answers. From their run-in with the astronauts they figure out their powers will only increase once they make the next leap over to “Planet Houston,”so their lunar visit is quite short.
5. The Mouse on the Moon (1963)
Also brief is the stay of both the Americans and the Soviets in this humorous British film, which is also by Superman II director Richard Lester. The movie is about a small country who wind up joining the space race and also wind up getting to the Moon first. Both the US and USSR attempt to beat the underdogs there, however, and arrive shortly after, at the exact same time. Not knowing they’re tied for 2nd place, they each plant their flags on the surface. But they meet up with the guys from Grand Fenwick and admit defeat. The funniest part comes in what follows. One of the men from Grand Fenwick notes that the real heroes will be the first ones back on Earth, because they’ll get the first parade. A new space race ensues.
6. A Grand Day Out (1989)
Technically, the actual landing on the Moon in this Oscar-nominated Nick Park short is not that notable. Well, it is cute that as they wait for their descent, Wallace and Gromit are just acting like they’re at home, nonchalantly making toast and building card towers. It’s the Moon picnic — planned for the sampling of the delicious lunar surface — that’s special. I love that filmmakers can still have an imagination and ignore things science has proven to be wrong, such as the idea of the Moon being made of cheese. I get hungry every time I watch it.
7. Woman in the Moon (1929)
Two years after making his more famous sci-fi classic, Metropolis, Fritz Lang directed this underrated Moon mission thriller that has even more resemblance to modern blockbusters of the genre. The landing plays out a lot longer than it needs to, in a good way. It’s like the antithesis of the quick splat of the Melies lunar trip. There’s a dangerous excitement to the way Lang keeps cutting to the rolling Moon surface through the window or to shots of the spaceship as it hurtles down-screen toward the ground as the inhabitants of the craft are shaking around inside. And finally, well, it does finish with a bit of a splat, too. But that crash feels heavy, especially following five minutes of tension. The special effects are impressive enough for their time, but it’s the way they’re used that makes the sequence work so well. Masterful filmmaking is always more important than cool tricks.