If you think Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to set foot on the moon when they landed there 40 years ago today, think again. By the time Apollo 11 touched down at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969, we'd already been going to the moon for almost seven decades—on film, that is! And the movies continued journeying to the moon long after the Apollo program ended, bringing us fictionalized landings as recently as early this year.
To help celebrate humanity's remarkable achievement, check out these clips from some of the best (and sometimes extremely bizarre) moon landings ever filmed.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Georges Méliês, the French special-effects pioneer who'd already attacked audiences with a giant bug in 1899's A Midnight Episode and shown them a robotic horse in 1901's Off to Bedlam, took off for the moon in what turned out to be his masterpiece. Le Voyage dans la Lune is considered to be the first sci-fi epic (those earlier films were only about a minute apiece), and features a landing at the 4:12 mark that's one of the cinema's most famous images.
The Woman In The Moon (1929)
Without Die Frau im Mond, the space program wouldn't have had its countdown. Fritz Lang, who also directed 1926's Metropolis, came up with it to add a sense of drama to the launch, and it stuck. The rocketship pictured, built with the advice of German scientists, so frightened the Gestapo that it ordered the film withdrawn and the model destroyed so as not to give away any V1 or V2 rocketry secrets. The melodramatic quartet—including a lunar traveler with a Hitler haircut—make landfall at the 6:05 mark.
Destination Moon (1950)
Director George Pal's voyage to the moon pictured the most accurate trip made up until that time, thanks to contributions from two SF geniuses. Robert Heinlein, winner of the first Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America, co-wrote the script based on his novel Rocketship Galileo, while Chesley Bonestell, known as the father of modern space art, helped create the realistic lunar surface. The film's special effects won an Academy Award.
We can only embed the trailer here, but the the entire film is available on YouTube. The landing sequence begins at 56:52.
Radar Men from the Moon (1952)
On the other hand, there are some moon landings so lame that the only versions which exist on YouTube are thanks to those mockers at MST3K. Radar Men from the Moon edited together a 12-part 1949 Republic movie serial into a supposedly coherent feature film. The hero, who flew through the skies wearing a rocket pack, was known as the "Sky Marshal of the Universe," but considering the fact that the lunar landscape here looks very much like an Arizona desert, that universe must not have been very large. The ship sets down at 5:03.
Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
Armstrong and Aldrin may have found nothing more than a barren landscape when they landed 40 years ago, but the space men of Cat-Women of the Moon found, well, cat-women, wearing black leotards. And giant spiders, too! Though the acting here was entirely two-dimensional, the movie was originally made in 3-D. The lunar approach begins at 5:09.
From the Earth to the Moon (1958)
Byron Haskin, who had already directed a far better adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds in 1953, turned five years later to Jules Verne to create this rather plodding film, apparently to cash in the success of the other recent films based on Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. While we couldn't find footage of the entire landing to show you, this trailer from the original release shows snippets of it.
Mouse on the Moon (1963)
In this satire on the space race, citizens from the tiny (imaginary) country of Grand Fenwick make it to the moon first, to be followed simultaneously by competing teams of U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. Richard Lester, director of Superman II and Superman III, directed this sequel to 1959's surprise hit The Mouse That Roared. The latecomers land at the beginning of the following clip.
First Men in the Moon (1964)
This adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel comes with quite a pedigree—the screenplay was co-written by Nigel Kneale, best-known for creating the popular sci-fi character Professor Bernard Quatermass, and the special effects were provided by famed stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. The film follows Wells' novel closely, as opposed to Georges Méliês' more fanciful version above. The landing begins at 2:05, as soon as the extended credit sequence ends.
Way ... Way Out (1966)
Three years after Jerry Lewis made his sci-fi classic The Nutty Professor, the comedian auteur merged the space race with the battle between the sexes in this terribly dated film. In the then far-future setting of 1989, Lewis is sent to the moon along with astronaut Connie Stevens, where they face off with a pair of Russian cosmonauts played by Anita Ekberg and Dick Shawn. All four have been far funnier elsewhere. The lunar module sets down at 2:53.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It's fitting that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's creation, which is often included on critics' lists of the top 10 films of all time, has what may be the grandest lunar landing ever. The film received an Oscar for visual effects, and in 1991 was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in The National Film Registry. The clip below reflects the unused soundtrack of composer Alex North, who had previously worked with Kubrick on Spartacus. By the landing of 2001, arriving at the the moon has become almost routine.
Starring Star Trek's Walter Koenig and Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell, the film features a killer cyborg, artificially intelligent machines, and the ruins of an ancient human civilization. But Moontrap begins closer to reality—showing the familiar real-life moon landing, but with one important difference which sets off the wild plot.
The opening credits to the long-awaited adaptation of the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set up the alternate timeline by giving us brief glimpses of a world in which superheroes are real and have been outlawed. As with the opening of Moontrap, when the Apollo 11 astronauts land, they are not alone. In this case, a certain blue-skinned welcoming committee is on hand to photograph their arrival at the 4:18 mark.