There are not too many films that I would require students to watch, but given the proclivity of many young filmmakers for science fiction and fantasy epics, Jean-Luc Godard’s futuristic Alphaville is one of them. Not because it is especially important or profound, but because it demonstrates that you do not need to spend a sum greater than the national debt to produce a convincing vision of the future. What matters is ambition beyond the “Wow!” factor in a fresh, open response to what is available and working with it.
Eddie Constantine stars as Lemmy Caution, a secret agent from “The Outer Worlds” who comes to Alphaville (a thinly disguised Paris) to convince or coerce Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon), the evil genius at the heart of Alphaville, to return to the Outer Worlds and free the Alphans from their somnabulant existence. Lemmy soon hooks up with von Braun’s daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina) who initially is just another of Alphaville’s sleepwalkers, but who gradually comes back to life thanks to Lemmy’s attentions.
Godard’s theme, the dehumanization produced by technologically based culture, is not particularly interesting. What is interesting in Alphaville is the way he creates the future from the present with minimal means. Helped by the stylized black-and-white cinematography, “Alphaville” is dystopia as chilly banality. Despite being yesterday’s vision of the future, the polished Miesian crystal and marble lobbies, spotless laboratories and industrial infrastructure still evoke a world in which mechanical order is synonymous with perfection.
The characters move through these spaces as aimless, lethargic victims of Modernism gone berserk. Because the citizens of Alphaville pop tranquilizers like candy, Lemmy is immediately believable as an outsider, marked by his violence, directness, and ability to react emotionally. Godard, in short, relies on the human material to compensate for the lack of technical fireworks in the film itself.
There are no special effects to speak of, no cavernous sets and nothing that today would require CGI wizardry. The “futuristic” paraphernalia consists of one or two minor props which are little more than variations on older technologies. The room-filling mainframe computers, no doubt way past obsolete technically, still feel like the right setting for a mastermind. Even when things go awry in Alphaville, when Alpha 60, the central computer, short circuits, the walls and buildings do not begin to collapse in literal-minded Hollywood fashion. Instead, people start swaying and crawling through the pristine corridors, as if their balance has been set askew by the machine losing control.
That is the key to Alphaville’s success: it evokes the future in terms of how it affects the people, not to show off the hardware. (It is also graced with a good deal of winning humor.) Instead of being an example of the hard-edged technology that produces both an “Alphaville” and the soulless special effects in contemporary film, Godard demonstrates how wit and imagination can transcend material circumstances to compel. Film students, please take note.