Members of the Astronomic Club land on the moon in a cannon-launched rocket and encounter the malevolent King of the Moon and his Selenite army before escaping back to Earth and a heroes' welcome.
Considering how long it took the other narrative artforms to reach maturation, it's rather remarkable that cinema managed to produce a work of this sophistication within seven years of its invention. Much of the credit has to go to Georges Méliès, a stage illusionist who first used moving images as a novelty spectacle in his act. Working in a garden studio in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, Méliès made around 500 films between 1897-1913 and, in the process, stumbled across such crucial narrative devices as the fade and the lap dissolve, as well as such effects as the matte, double-exposure and stop-motion - all of which he created in-camera.
Initially known for féeries or trick-shot films like The Man With the India-Rubber Head, Méliès also produced actualités reconstituées or historical recreations like The Dreyfus Affair (1899), which was his first multi-scene outing. But this adaptation of a Jules Verne novel was more ambitious than anything he had previously attempted and its 30 scenes ran for an unprecedented 825 feet or some 14 minutes, thus setting the standard length of films at one reel for the next few years.
Designed with his typical imaginative flamboyance, the scenes were essentially theatrical tableaux, which Méliès filmed front-on with a static camera to approximate the gaze of a patron in a prime seat in the auditorium. But, ever the showman, he littered the action with visual effects, such as the iconic shot of the rocket ship landing in the Man in the Moon's eye (which he achieved by moving the papier maché moon towards the camera on a dolly rather than the other way round) and the disappearance of the Selenites in a puff of smoke on being struck by the astronomers' umbrellas.
Yet, for all its ingenuity, this was still very much a rudimentary picture, with the action being linked by dissolves rather than cross-cuts within or between the individual scenes. But Méliès gave film a new fictional function and not only paved the way for such contemporaries as Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith, but also for the later avant-garde.
Astoundingly ambitious and sophisticated, it's hard to believe it was filmed only seven years after the invention of the medium.