Alphaville

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #25: Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

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Watching this film, one of the first things I realized is that Jean-Luc Godard has no idea how to make convincing science fiction. The next thing I realized was that Godard was merely using enough of the science fiction idiom to display and enact his dialectic battle between love and logic. From this point of view, the inconsistencies and pathological inability to fully suspend disbelief are of secondary consequence to observing philosophical gymnastics that only the French are capable of. Alphaville is a city controlled by a computer called Alpha 60, whose goal is to remake humanity in his own image, purely logical and without even the slightest ability to express emotion. Alpha 60 also sounds like you’d expect a guy who smokes through a stoma to talk. Thank God the Intergalactic Secret Agent Lemmy Caution has been sent from the Outlands to do a little recon, kill a man and destroy Alpha 60 if he can. As a bonus he gets to sleep with Anna Karina.

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Since this was shot in the 60s it feels pretty dated, because the sci-fi is cultural, it becomes anachronistic in its setting; whereas something like The Day The Earth Stood Still brings in all the science fiction from an extra-terrestrial source, and while dated, remains believable. Alphaville is more on the order of Philip K. Dickian, psychological trauma fraught with paranoia. Alpha 60’s omnipresence facilitates cultural comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 and David Bowie’s song Saviour Machine. At the same time, the 60s were the perfect time to find visual cognates to reflect the technological advancement of society. You’ve got to think in that frame of mind to recognize buildings that look like punch-cards though. Much like sci-fi from that period couldn’t predict personal computer or the digital age, and you end up with spacemen using slide-rules.

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At one point Lemmy is interrogated by Alpha 60 to determine whether he can be successfully assimilated or whether he should be executed. He manages to present the computer with a conundrum that eventually short circuits the thing, simultaneously freeing and destroying most of the inhabitants of Alphaville. The ones who had become fully logical and emotionless, who had forgotten words like weeping and redbreast, went mad and died when the lights went out. Only those with some emotional bearing left to them had the ability to survive the death of logic in the face of universal poetry wielded by the ugly crag of a man called Lemmy Caution. Light is both safety net and the yoke of logic in Alphaville, and it is only in the dark recesses of intergalactic space, and in the human heart that emotion can find the strength to triumph.

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