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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