Avid sci-fi addicts looking to check out 1965’s Alphaville will likely wind up disappointed. This is not a traditional science fiction movie, but instead a hardcore Jean-Luc Godard flick carrying sci-fi undertones. Compared to a commercial product like Minority Report, Alphaville looks woefully under-produced and cheap, but only superficially. At its core, this is an thoughtful treatise on technology and society that intertwines film noir and sci-fi, and its ostensibly slipshod appearance is a part of the satirical slant. Godard originally wanted to name the film Tarzan vs. IBM, a title which perfectly encapsulates the essence of Alphaville. This is a story of a rugged spy battling a dystopian society, and the character of Tarzan was a rugged, individualistic caveman who competed against futuristic technology.
An American secret agent, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) travels to the outer space city of Alphaville disguised as a journalist named Ivan Johnson. Alphaville is a dehumanised, dystopic society controlled by fascist supercomputer Alpha 60, which was created by Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon). Alpha 60 seeks to conquer further societies, ruling under an iron fist in a police state where creativity and individualistic expression are replaced by ruthless logic. Caution’s assignment is to infiltrate the city and assassinate Von Braun, looking to free Alphaville and destroy Alpha 60 before the computer wages nuclear war on other galaxies.
Alphaville wears its influences on its sleeve, containing elements from George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. To allow for easy identification, the citizens of Alphaville are assigned a unique number that’s tattooed on their necks. Added to this, people are executed for the slightest of things, and the population are kept in the dark about numerous events. This material mirrors repressive regimes. Furthermore, there is a “Bible” in every hotel room, but the book is in fact a dictionary that’s consistently updated rather than a religious text. Each new edition subtly drops words from its vocabulary, as more and more words and expressions are outlawed. Words such as “love” and “conscience” are unknown to the citizens of Alphaville, and the word “why” has been replaced with “because.” The word “why” is outlawed in order to brainwash citizens into following their daily routines and abiding by the law without questioning it. Hell, the absence of questions is so ingrained into the population that they automatically greet people with a phrase (“I’m very well, thank you, you’re welcome“) that’s completely lacking in context.
In keeping with Godard’s usual modus operandi, it’s difficult to nail the narrative of Alphaville, as it’s full of non-sequiturs which makes the film challenging to follow. Images are seemingly shown without context, scenes look out of place, and the editing is peculiar, even though the story is straightforward. Also interesting about the film is that Godard used no special effects despite Alphaville being an intergalactic city. The city looks like France in the ’60s, and the technology, fashion, sets and cars all look very “normal” for a sci-fi story. One could contend, however, that this compels us to look at the peculiar city of Alphaville and pick out the similarities to our world, and wonder if that’s where we are headed…or if we’re already there. In keeping with these themes, the performances also seem purposely stilted, in a sense underscoring the robotic invasion of the human soul. As Lemmy, Constantine seems positively unexcited, as if the peculiarities of Alphaville have provoked mental unrest within him. However, the big problem with Alphaville is that, although it runs a brisk 95 minutes, it feels very draggy, and struggles to be involving despite its thematic framework.
Due to its exceedingly experimental nature, Alphaville will not work for everyone. This is not so much a “movie” movie, but rather a cinematic representation of political and philosophical ideas. This should not be anyone’s introduction to Godard, and the film will not be considered easy or fun to watch by many, but it does offer food for thought. Our postmodern society resembles the city of Alphaville more and more with each passing year, continually heightening the film’s relevancy, which is a feat in itself. Still, there are more contemporary and commercial sci-fi flicks which are more accessible and involving, though Alphaville is still worth checking out.