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One of the most influential science fiction films that most people haven't seen, Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 "Alphaville" is a combination film noir, social satire and riff on tough-guy movies, set in a world of nonstop night. It's named after its setting, a technocratic dictatorship. Newly rereleased in a restored version, it's a disorienting, often unnervingly quiet and patient film that deliberately tries to induce a dream state in its audience, to the point of seeming to hypnotize them with repetitious bass-voiced narration and alternating black screens and closeups of flashing lights. Like a lot of great science fiction movies, it's more of an experience or vibe than a coherent set of philosophical or political ideas. And it's more valuable now for how it recorded the anxieties and curiosities of the time when it was made than for the predictions that it got "right" or "wrong" (though it should be said that the film's main storyline, which is about the fear of sentient technology taking over ever aspect of human life, feels unnervingly current).
In France, the movie was titled "Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution," after its hero (Eddie Constantine), a trench coat-wearing investigator who's known mainly by his ID number, 003 (sound like any other famous secret agent that you know?). Lemmy enters Alphaville from The Colonies in a Ford Galaxie, presenting himself as a journalist named Ivan Johnson who writes for Figaro-Pravda. He's actually come to destroy the Alpha 60, a sentient computer that controls life in Alphaville, and find and kill professor Von Braun (named after the rocket scientist), who created the computer. This movie came out three years before "2001: A Space Odyssey," with its murderous HAL-9000. Fear of computers was everywhere in 1960s cinema—it never went away after that, really—and if you bought a ticket to the cinema then, you were likely to encounter a plot line that involved wall-sized units with magnetic tape spools and punch cards (even in romantic comedies like "Desk Set"), along with discussions of whether humanity was on the verge of losing its free will and sense of poetry and turning into serfs or worse.
Lemmy represents that disreputable wild-card sense of the human spirit that bubbled up from popular culture through gangster and detective movies and certain hard-edged mid-century Westerns (like the ones that starred James Stewart and Glenn Ford, as well as Sergio Leone's "Dollars" films, which were made contemporaneous with "Alphaville"). It flowered fully in the 1970s, with combative counterculture heroes lashing out against The System, however incoherently. There are some affinities between this movie and the novel and film of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which pitted an outwardly emotionless agent of the oppressive Powers that Be against a raging, scruffy, grandiloquent pig hero whose unpredictability and danger symbolized the free will that was in danger of being lost. The equations for quantum physics and spatial relativity are regularly flashed onscreen, further putting across the idea that a twisted caricature of "logic" defines Alphaville and is squashing the humanity out of it.
There's a strain of misogyny, as there sometimes is in crime or detective films and what would later be known as counterculture fables. This movie has no use for women except as schemers, seducers, and individuals in need of teaching and rescue, although, as is usually the case in Godard's scripted films, the women look so fabulous and carry themselves with such assurance that they become dynamic life-forces anyway. (A man dies having sex with a "Seductress Third Class.") Lemmy eventually teams up with Natacha von Braun—played by Godard's muse Anna Karina—an Alpha 60 programmer and the daughter of Professor von Braun. They fall in love, even though she says she doesn't understand love or conscience or other concepts, and even though poetry, emotion and affection have been banned by the computer overlord of Alphaville. "Star Trek" hound-dog James T. Kirk got into this kind of predicament, too.
Lemmy's impulsive, macho, instinctual approach is a threat to the new status quo. His meathead roughness represents the humanity that's on the verge of being deprogrammed from the species. (The 1940s Hollywood movies were better with this sort of stuff, curiously; they let their femme fatales and even their "honey trap" minor characters have a bit of psychological depth even when the stories were primarily driven by ambitious, macho men.)
Lemmy is a film buff's construct who incarnates the French New Wave critic and filmmaker's academic, intellectualized interpretation of American genre films twenty years earlier. Though Lemmy is drawn from a character created by Peter Cheyney, whose stories were set in the modern day, Godard and Constantine's film incarnation vaults Lemmy into the future, but keeps the 1940s tough guy affectations and storytelling. The result is a sci-fi incarnation of Raymond Chandler's gumshoe Philip Marlowe as played by Humphrey Bogart in the black-and-white classic "The Big Sleep," down to the brusque attitude, cutting wisecracks, and "I work alone" ethos. But he's much wearier and less glamorous. And he captures some essential, true quality of World War II veterans in the 1960s when most veterans were in their forties. (Despite being set in the future, "Alphaville" presents Lemmy as a veteran of the Battle of Guadalcanal.)
The ingrained cynicism that the character radiates connects "Alphaville" to the sociocultural subtext of film noir, a genre that expressed some of the malaise that the world felt after being forced to reckon with wholesale slaughter in Europe, the Pacific, the camps, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then resume "normal" life. The fear that everything and everyone are being mechanized, plasticized, packaged and controlled was a common theme in mid-twentieth century fiction and film, in everything from Kurt Vonnegut's satirical science fiction novels to movies like 'The Stepford Wives," 'THX-1138" and the original "Westworld." At the same time these developments were happening in culture, the United States military was contracting with the RAND Corporation to apply computer science to foreign policy and warfare. (The corporation is name-checked in another iconic film from the '60s, "Dr. Strangelove," whose Henry Kissinger-inspired title character refers to his association with "The BLAND Corporation.")
Fans of the "Blade Runner" movies as well as visionary sci-fi fantasies like "Brazil" and "Dark City" will detect seeds of those and other future works in "Alphaville," particularly in the way that the story is told: drifting from scene to scene and set piece to set piece, often with so little connective tissue that when the movie does plant its feet and decide to focus on plot, it’s as if an obligation is being satisfied. (Oh, you want plot? Fine...Here you go.) Often the exposition is so perfunctory and elaborate and jargon- and name-filled that it sounds like doublespeak or a Marx Bros-style goof, as in the Orson Welles version of Kafka's "The Trial," which came out three years before "Alphaville."
Dream logic rules all. Lemmy and Agent Dale Cooper from "Twin Peaks" would have had a lot to talk about, particularly when it comes to finding one's way through a story intuitively, just by going to a place and then to another place and having conversations with people and making a left turn instead of a right turn at a crucial juncture. The hypnotic visual devices certify the dreamlike nature of the entire project. "Alphaville" flickers and rolls through the mind, like a memory of a nighttime drive.
A 4K restoration of "Alphaville" opens at the IFC Center today.