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Fantastic Flights

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A Trip to the Moon
Rescued from an Eagle's Nest
The Thief of Bagdad
Woman in the Moon
Dark Star
Saviour of the Soul
The Strange Case of Angelica
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Since its inception, cinema has offered captive audiences the opportunity to travel without ever leaving their seats. The Lumière Brothers sent their cameras to the city, the country and then all around the world to capture scenes for their audiences but it took Georges Méliès to use cinema to travel through the imagination. He gave viewers the original fantastic voyage, allowing us to fly at a time when we were airborne only in our dreams. Filmmakers have been defying gravity and technology ever since to send us floating and flying through the screen in adventures limited only by imagination and special effects. From space voyages to floating through dream states, cinema not only gave us the power to fly before science caught up with our dreams, it continues to dream up new flights that the real world cannot duplicate. These flights of fantasy across the big screen, from science fiction to magical fantasy, all created to transport us from our earthbound lives cover a hundred years. Countdown to lift-off.

By Sean Axmaker

A Trip to the Moon

(1902) directed by Georges Méliès, 16 minutes

Georges Méliès’ landmark fantasy short, "the first international hit in motion picture history" (in the words of film historian Serge Bromberg), imagined space flight before the Wright Brothers took their first powered flight. Though ostensibly inspired by Jules Verne's book, Méliès was a magician and showman before he was a filmmaker and his approach is pure flight of fancy, with showgirls cheering on the first astronauts and insectoid moon monsters exploding into clouds of stage smoke. Constructed out of magnificent hand-painted stage flats and then-revolutionary special effects, cinema's first portrait of space travel was a shot of pure imagination. The pulsating hand-painted colors of the day, restored in one of two versions of the 1902 film, only enhances its creative energy.

Rescued from an Eagle's Nest

(1908) directed by J. Searle Dawley, 7 minutes

Call it a rural legend: an infant playing in a meadow is plucked by an eagle that carries it off to its nest. The 1908 film itself, photographed by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, is as crude and indifferently directed as A Trip to the Moon is lovingly and lavishly mounted, with a pathetic-looking taxidermy victim passed off as the majestic bird. But it gets credit for the sheer audacity of the image of the baby swooped up by the moth-eaten turkey-buzzard and for the debut of a struggling stage actor with a bright future in cinema: D.W. Griffith is the woodsman who heroically wrestles the stuffed bird into submission.

The Thief of Bagdad

(1924) directed by Raoul Walsh, 151 minutes

Douglas Fairbanks is the great American action hero of the 1920s and this lavish, luscious adaptation of the Arabian adventure fantasy A Thousand and One Nights (directed by Raoul Walsh from a script by Fairbanks) is one of the grandest and most glorious spectacles of the silent era. It's a film of magnificent sets, a cast of thousands, and one magical set piece after another, but the most amazing spectacle was the magic carpet ride. Fairbanks bought the American rights to Fritz Lang’s dark fantasy Destiny just to lay claim its flying carpet effects and he makes it the centerpiece of this film. The flight is so enchanting that it even humbles Fairbanks' swaggering thief.

Woman in the Moon

(1929) directed by Fritz Lang, 169 minutes

Thirty years after Méliès sent audience on the first trip to the moon, Fritz Lang imagined a return trip with a mix of scientific realism and expressionist melodrama. His visionary portrait of space flight is a model of scientific imagination conquered by mechanical invention and pioneering rocketry. The unveiling of the rocket is an awesome sight; the director of Metropolis knew how to wow audiences with a sense of scale and modern design. But even more impressive is how prescient his portrait is. Lang and his collaborators imagined the G-forces of lift-off and the zero gravity of deep space and Lang himself contributed a dramatic element that has become an iconic part of the space race: the countdown to lift-off.

Dark Star

(1974) directed by John Carpenter, 82 minutes

After decades of spaceflight imagined in terms of wonder and human triumph in films from Woman in the Moon to 2001: A Space Odyssey, John Carpenter and co-writer Dan O’Bannon deglamorized the allure of space-age technology with a drab, industrial practicality and an atmosphere of apathy. Dark Star offers "truck drivers in space" stuck on the fringes of the galaxy in a broken-down ship long past a dry-dock overhaul, numbly trudging through the twentieth year of a mission that long ceased to matter. It's sci-fi mumblecore by way of Mad magazine, a grungy, darkly humorous portrait of the interstellar spaceship as prison and a declaration that boredom and human slovenliness trumps high ideals.

Saviour of the Soul

(1991) directed by Corey Yuen, 92 minutes

Hong Kong cinema has a history of heroes who defy gravity by their mastery of the martial arts (with a little boost from special effects). In the wuxia pian tradition, the greatest heroes (and some villains) appear almost weightless as they leap through the air with a martial artistry that defies gravity. Saviour of the Soul wraps that tradition in a delirious big screen comic book of self-appointed superheroes and a bloodthirsty one-eyed villain on a mission of revenge. Forget the pretense of acrobatics, these fighters huff a smoky potion and soar through the air in Hong Kong's wirework answer to Superman. Don't ask for an explanation, just enjoy the fantasy of human flight as a drug-fueled state of grace.

The Strange Case of Angelica

(2010) directed by Manoel de Oliveira, 96 minutes

Manoel de Oliveira's gentle ghost story begins with its heroine found dead with an expression of peace and happiness and contentment on her face, like a Sleeping Beauty spinning a wondrous dream. And this is something of a dream movie, with Angelica coming to life through the lens of our hero's camera and floating through the mind's eye of his subconscious, a glowing black-and-white figure flying high above the worldly concerns of mere mortals like an angel in silk. Oliveira is the last living director who began in the silent era and his imagery comes full circle to the elegant, ethereal fantasies of the silent movie effects and imagination. Such simplicity and romantic yearning carries us along her flight.