In many ways, Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville remains cinema’s most unconventional science fiction film. With science fiction, filmmakers usually ask the audience to believe that certain technologies have advanced, or in the case of dystopian scenarios such as the brilliant Blade Runner, that technologies have advanced and subsequently corrupted society, standing as a testament to the foolishness of blind faith in progress. Godard, on the other hand, has made a film that asks its audience to take downtown Paris as the center of the galaxy by eliminating all special effects and simply shooting the film in the nocturnal, fluorescent and neon lit interiors of hotels and office buildings. That this technique works so well (much better than many films with millions of dollars worth of effects) represents only one of the triumphs of this remarkable work.
Eddie Constantine plays secret agent Lemmy Caution, an inter-galactic Dick Tracy sent from the Outlands (Earth?) across the “silence of infinite space” (in a Ford Mustang, no less!) to the capital of the galaxy, Alphaville. Alphaville is a city devised by renegade scientist Leonard Vonbraun (B-movie vet Howard Vernon), a.k.a. Leonard Nosferatu, who has established an evil technocracy run by the Alpha 60 computer, and whose city signs read “Science. Logic. Security. Prudence.” The inhabitants of Alphaville are indoctrinated to forget the past and not to worry about the future, living only in the present. Any kind of logical behavior resulting in emotion is punishable by execution. Posing as a reporter for the Figaro-Pravda newspaper (it’s interesting that Godard saw a Franco-Russian alliance as a future possibility), Caution comes to Alphaville to bring Vonbraun back, dead or alive, and to breathe some humanity back into his beautiful daughter Natasha (played by Godard’s then wife, the striking Anna Karina).
Caution finds women who have been conditioned to be docile sex robots with serial numbers stamped into their flesh, bizarre public executions held in swimming pools that look like aquacades, and hotel Bibles that are really dictionaries from which words like “conscience” and “tenderness” are periodically removed. Against this backdrop, Caution tries to thwart Vonbraun’s “logical” war against the Outlands, make Alpha 60 self-destruct and bring Natasha back with him.
Besides being the only film in history where the galaxy is, in effect, saved by poetry (here Paul Eluard’s gorgeous poems in the book La Capitale de la Douleur), Alphaville teems with an eccentric mix of high and low culture – from references to Louis Ferdinand Celine, Dick Tracy, and Heckl and Jeckl, to dialectics and philosophy mixed with science fiction. As a result, the film looks more complicated than it actually is. Formally, it is a radical work, almost avant-garde, though rooted in American B-movies as well, with Constantine’s craggy, trench coat-wearing secret agent almost a stereotypical private eye from a `50s film noir. The cinematography by the great Raoul Coutard is black-and-white raised to the level of high art, expressive in ways color seldom is. An influential film, one can easily see its influence on films such as Terry Gilliam’s wonderful Brazil as well as Blade Runner, and its depiction of a computer artificial intelligence gone haywire prefigures the HAL 9000.
Alphaville is ultimately one of Godard’s essay movies, bits of his aesthetic in short parcels that reflect the kind of diverse intellectual training completely absent from cinema today. As in Pierrot le Fou, in which he flashed pictures by Velasquez, Renoir, and Picasso along with comic strips, Godard’s world is one where pop culture is on equal footing with the profound and where the possibilities in life are the endless possibilities of cinema. If one still insists on seeing Alphaville as a complex film, it’s a complex film with a simple message: all you need is love.