The Impossible Voyage Was Méliès’ Trip to the Sun
Note: This is the twenty-sixth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1904 film, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, directed by Georges Méliès.
If A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) was Georges Méliès’ sly, Vernian dig at the scientific community, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE (1904) was an out-and-out assault. And A TRIP TO THE MOON wasn’t all that subtle about what it had to say about its “heroes.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE is invariably compared to A TRIP TO THE MOON, and understandably so. Really, all of Méliès’ films are compared to his most famous masterwork, but THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE especially warrants it. The similarities, I would think, are intentional, whether to capitalize on the success of A TRIP TO THE MOON or to follow a more creative inspiration, to create a sequel or companion piece of sorts to ratchet up the commentary of A TRIP TO THE MOON. Perhaps both. But regardless of intent, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE undeniably reads like a mirror image of A TRIP TO THE MOON, and not just because it follows a group of scientists that travel to the sun instead of the moon.
Indeed, much of THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE is built upon the reversal of key A TRIP TO THE MOON moments and set pieces, while maintaining a general premise and theme. In THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, the Institute of Incoherent Geography plans to make a world tour and accidentally ends up inside the belly of the sun; in A TRIP TO THE MOON, the Astronomic Club is determined to reach the moon. The scientists’ progress in THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE typically proceeds from the right side of the screen to left, whereas its predecessor’s astronomers generally make their journey left to right. In THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, the characters experience the sun from the inside after it swallows them, rather than hitting the surface and “injuring” the eye of a celestial body in the process. The dangers on the sun are elemental, impartial unlike its personification; the innocence of the moon is underscored by the “evil” of its biological inhabitants. But ultimately, the films reconvene with a crash into the ocean and a celebratory final scene, although THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE does feature an immensely amusing underwater scene full of féerie flavor among the “steampunk” of Verne-inspired sci-fi.
Of course, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE is not the same movie as A TRIP TO THE MOON, but their similarities and marked differences are just so complementary and thematically inspired. Méliès used Jules Verne novels, among other literature and stage productions, as inspiration to find the humor in the pompous nature of 19th century science in both films. Ultimately, however, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE takes this to the next level by torturing its scientist main characters with morbid delight.
As mentioned, the Institute of Incoherent Geography never intended to reach the sun; they were embarking on an “impossible” world tour. Along the way, they change vehicles a number of times, being set upon by cliffs, crashing through Swiss lodges, and riding a train-dirigible over the summit of a mountain into space and the sun’s mouth. Once there, they battle intense flames, and incredible frostbite in trying to avoid said flames; even once they reach Earth once again, they can’t rest easy in their submarine/all-in-one vehicle without an octopus attempting to breach the hull of the brilliantly constructed cross section of the sub.
Méliès films have frantic, over-the-top, and theatrically comic performances more often than not, and in this, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE is not incredibly different. It is incredible, however, just how often its characters are harried, harassed, sent into desperation, and just straight up injured. For Christ’s sake, part of the movie just shows the scientists recovering in a hospital! Méliès had played with this dark comedy before, but typically in shorter films; A TRIP TO THE MOON exhibited this as well, but generally, the scientists succeed without much difficulty.
THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, which was also Méliès’ (and one of the world’s) longest film(s) to date, extends the macabre humor of a film like THE INFERNAL CAULDRON (1903) to an unprecedented run time. It works brilliantly. It’s so clear that Méliès loved to rip apart the elite, and at the time, the scientific community was so often insular, exclusionary, and close-minded, to its own detriment in many ways. It was an old man/boys’ club. It’s incredible fun to watch a film lampoon a questionable aspect of society with such reckless physical abandon, and in a perfectly staged, creative space that echoes the very visual revolution A TRIP TO THE MOON invented.
In a lot of ways, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE improved upon a lot of what A TRIP TO THE MOON did, at least in its storytelling structure and satire. Its build up is more involved and staged upon a comedy of errors, making the ultimate success and climactic action all the more enjoyable. Visually, however, it feels less impactful, just by sheer expectation and repetition.
To THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE’s credit, though, it’s no less competently made or enjoyable to watch just because it’s similar to a film made two years prior. It stands among the very best of Méliès’ films, yet marked the beginning of the end of his dominance over the film industry. THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE was probably the last hugely popular and successful Méliès’ film, although not his last great film, of course, as filmmaking style turned to something more realistic and emotionally resonant. 1904 marked an industry-wide turn to narrative film rather than relying on the actualities of the earliest days of film. Audiences were expecting more, even from the pre-existing makers and styles of narrative film.
THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, to me, is a fascinating relic, a huge success on the precipice of a transition into a film world where films like it would never be popular again. It reflects its characters ultimate desire to strive for recognition, and like its characters, it was successful. But only for a time. It’s sad, in a way, but necessary and not unexpected that any one style of media could not be popular forever. It does, however, stand the test of time, a cliche phrase that nevertheless sums up the quality of my favorite film of 1904, 113 years later.
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