Moon rising: Two new lunar movies are taking viewers back into orbit

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US astronauts travel to the moon, which they discover is inhabited by attractive young women in black tights. These women want to come to Earth, take the planet over and get rid of men, whom they consider of no use except as sex objects. This is the plot of the much reviled 3-D movie, Cat-Women of The Moon (1953). The movie may not have been up to much ("juvenile" and "wholly lacking in verve" was how the Monthly Film Bulletin described it, "breathtakingly bad" was the Village Voice verdict when the film was revived in the late Eighties), but the potted synopsis hints at just why film-makers have always been so intrigued by the Moon. In cinema, the Moon stands for the exotic and the unexplored, whether that is defined in geographical or sexual terms, with curiosity or with disgust. It's a place where monsters may lurk or – at least in Fifties B-movies – femmes fatales in Lycra. Is there someone up there, looking down on us?

Moon movies for adults and for kids continue to land on our screens. British audiences can currently see Ben Stassen's 3-D animated extravaganza Fly Me to the Moon, about three pesky flies who hide in a Nasa space rocket. Last year, the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, chronicling the Nasa moon missions, briefly docked in British cinemas. We will shortly be seeing Moon, the debut feature from commercials director Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie, son of rock star David). This is a dark sci-drama about a lone astronaut/engineer (played by Sam Rockwell), working for a corporation, stuck on a moon base with a sardonic robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and multiple clones for company while his wife is back home on Earth.

"For me, the Moon has this weird mythic nature to it," Jones says of his own lunar obsession. "There is still a mystery to it. As a location, it bridges the gap between science-fiction and science fact. We (humankind) have been there. It is something so close and so plausible and yet at the same time, we really don't know that much about it."

One of the ironies about the Moon as a movie location is how unromantic it really is. "It's the desolation and emptiness of it... it looks like some strange ball of clay in blackness," Jones notes of how the Moon appears in recent images taken by the Japanese as part of the Selene mission. Look at photos and you'll think that they're monochrome. In fact, they're not. There simply are no primary colours.

This is certainly not how the Moon appeared in movies made in the days before Neil Armstrong et al had actually set foot on the Moon. When Georges Melies depicted the Moon in his silent movie Voyage to the Moon (1902), he showed a phallic-looking rocket plopping happily into what appeared to be a sea of meringue. Melies' moon was lush and benign. Other film-makers have taken an equally extravagant approach to showing the Moon on screen. As his biographer Patrick McGilligan notes, German director Fritz Lang dispatched a convoy of trucks to collect sand for his reconstruction of the Moon in the UFA Studios for his 1929 feature, The Woman in the Moon. This was an embroiled sci-fi melodrama about the first rocket trip to the Moon. McGilligan argues that the lunar side of the story wasn't uppermost in Lang's mind at all. His real preoccupation was his beautiful star, Gerda Maurus, whose face was shown in luminous close-up at every opportunity.

Since the silent era, there have been various Moon movies, among them adaptations by Jules Verne and HG Wells. If the Moon has been the excuse for exercises in cinematic kitsch, it has also been behind some earnest sci-fi dramas in which film-makers tried to envisage what space travel and Moon landings would really be like if only the scientists made them possible. The George Pal production Destination Moon (1950) shot in iridescent Technicolor, showed four intrepid American astronauts venturing into space against Government orders. Their spirit was much the same as that of the settlers heading west in their wagons in old cowboy movies. They were out to colonise new territory. "By the grace of God and in the name of the USA, I take possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, mankind," was the chauvinistic speech of the first astronaut to set foot on the Moon. Pal and his team, who had done exhaustive research into their subject, won an Oscar for visual effects. They also sent a symbolic message to the Soviet Union, letting them know (as the Cold War heated up) that the Americans wanted to get to the Moon first.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Moon landings were a source of huge public fascination in the UK as elsewhere. British actor Tim Curry, who voices a villainous animated Russian fly called Yegor in Fly Me to the Moon, recalls watching the landings in the heart of London. "David Frost, I guess for his show, had set up a huge screen in the middle of Trafalgar Square. Half of London was standing in Trafalgar Square, watching man land on the Moon in real time." What made the scene all the more eerie, Curry adds, was the fact that the spectators only needed to look up to see the Moon in the night sky.

Different generations of film-makers have fashioned different kinds of "Moon movies" to reflect their times. In the era of the Moon landings, the approach to the subject in films and documentaries was matter-of-fact. Humans really were walking on the Moon. An idea that might have seemed fanciful in the extreme to Georges Melies, was everyday reality by the era of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (who has a cameo at the end of Fly Me to the Moon, explaining that there were no flies or other "contaminants" aboard when they headed moonwards on Apollo 11 in July 1969).

This was also the year of the release of (arguably) David Bowie's most famous song, "Space Oddity". The BBC used the song in its coverage of the landing. Forty years on, Bowie's son points out some of the mystique surrounding Moon landings has returned. Moon missions, like Concorde journeys, are in the past – activities that, for whatever reasons, human beings have largely given up on for now. That makes them seem almost exotic again.

"There is a lot in my story that is imagined but there are enough links to reality that I don't feel I've strayed too far from possibility," says Jones. He researched the project extensively. The look of his film (which was shot at Shepperton Studios earlier this year) owes much to Michael Light's photography book, Full Moon. "His photography is terrific. It's basically cleaned up photography from the Apollo mission but it is presented beautifully in 70mm prints. It's absolutely gorgeous."

With a father who is a world-famous rock star, Jones must be used to the world of celebrity, but he still sounds awed when he describes his fleeting encounter with Buzz Aldrin at the New York launch of In the Shadow of the Moon last year. He and his producer Stuart D Fenegan were introduced to Aldrin and other surviving astronauts. "It was amazing to meet those guys who had actually been up there," he enthuses. "For my generation, it's almost a mythology that people went to the Moon. For their generation, that was frontier science."

Many artists and film-makers have used the Moon as a metaphor for unattainable desires or for hubris or for dreams. Jones' movie promises to be very different. The story, which he developed but was eventually scripted by Nathan Parker (son of director Alan Parker), is rooted in reality. The idea that humans, desperate for energy, might head to the Moon to mine helium-3, was explored on last year's BBC Horizon programme, "Moon For Sale". Jones says: "My film has a romantic element to it, but the story revolves around a man's loneliness, who has to work there on his own." In other words, there won't be any cat-women in black stockings hovering outside Sam Rockwell's moon base. Nor will any animated flies be along for the ride.

Film-makers will continue to tell stories in which the Moon features. Some will be awe-inspiring fables. Some will claim to be rooted in fact, not science fiction. The best, of course, will be both. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is likely to remain a benchmark for years to come. As has been well chronicled, Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke were obsessive about making every detail of their movie as plausible as possible and sought approval from the best-informed scientists of the era. Even so, as the film begins to the strains of Strauss and we see the Earth rising over the Moon, the effect is on our imaginations, not our intellects. As Kubrick well knew, if audiences want to watch Horizon-style documentaries, they can stay at home. For the Moon to draw them to cinemas, they still need magic.

'Fly Me to the Moon' is on general release. Duncan Jones' 'Moon' will be released early next year