Alphaville (1965)

By coupling the science fiction genre with the intellectual pontifications of writer/director Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville emerges as a congruent and cohesive synthesis of narrative and genre with the arthouse themes of Godard. While perhaps not his moth aesthetically boisterous or intellectually provoking films, Alphaville is quite possibly his most consistent work.

The film follows the investigation of Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a man from earth who ventures to Alphaville to discover what the city is planning against the outer countries. As he searches for the elusive scientist von Braun (Howard Vernon), he finds himself constantly running into the man’s daughter, Natachia (Anna Karina), who he believes has a hidden connection to the outer countries.

Godard’s construction of the world of Alphaville is built around reason and rationality becoming the cornerstone of society, the ultimate, and perhaps only, human virtue. It’s a world in which man has fallen in love with his intellectual capacity, crafting a deity in the supercomputer Apha 60 which runs the city of Alphaville.

While it might seem like Godard is dealing in extremities, he is building of an assumption that became prevalent in the past century, the notion that humanity is defined as distinct and unique by its rationality. If this is the foundations of what humanity believes separates man from animals, where does this assumption logically take human society in the future? Godard’s answer is Alphaville.

If not rationality, what then makes us human? Godard tackles this question through the two characters of Lemmy Caution and Natacha von Braun. Lemmy represents notions of an everyman, able to express the quest for truth, fear of death and ethical conscious which I would argue serves are a representation of an informed philosophical exploration, one that does not exist in the vacuum of reason which gave birth to Alphaville.

Natacha is an exploration of that intangible quality of humanity, the things we know, but cannot say, those lingering, elusive ideas and notions that defy pure reason as a source of explanation. Some might quantify this as the emotional aspect of humanity, but I think Natacha’s struggle goes deeper, that her evolution represents the awareness of a human soul.

Therefore, Godard’s Alphaville represents a predecessor to Philip K. Dick’s famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The intersection of noir and sci-fi and the exploration of that intangible human quality are shared among both. And the film adaptation of Blade Runner shares more than a few similar sequences to Godard’s piece. In some ways, Godard’s film works as a more restrained and controlled film.

Since the release of Alphaville, the notion of humans as the rational being has only grown in prevalence, making Godard’s deep insights even more relevant and profound. We stand on the cusp of creating machines more rational and intelligent than ourselves, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some already existed. Our future either lies in creating these machines as our deities (and perhaps we’ve already done that) or taking heed of Godard’s warning and realizing that man more than a rational machine.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing