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Strangers in a Familiar Land:
The Mundanely Eerie World of Alphaville

May 24, 2000 | Using a satiric blend of American detective noir and science fiction dystopia, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution predated films like Blade Runner (1982) by almost two decades. Godard also reached back to Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) and Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1935) to find sources of scientific/political allegories (Dixon 61). Finally, Godard drew from the popular medium of comic strips to shape the film’s stark visual style (Roud 9). But even with its mishmash of pop-art influences, Alphaville retains a singular role in the canon of influential science fiction films–it completely omits the use of the usual sci-fi devices, props, gadgets, and sets. With his innovative technique of filming already-existing objects in ways that make audiences see everyday things as if for the first time (TV Guide), his use of scientific jokes, and his low-tech characterization of Lemmy Caution, Godard finds a fresh way to explore a hackneyed message. Technology has the power to empower our most profound yearnings, but it all too often services our most shallow instincts.

In the year 1984, secret agent Lemmy Caution drives his Ford Galaxy from the "Outlands" (which include cities like Tokyorama and Nueva York) across inter-galactic space to Alphaville in search of fellow agent Henri Dickson. Dickson, like agents Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon before him, has disappeared in Alphaville. Pretending to be Ivan Johnson, a reporter for the newspaper "Figaro-Pravda," Lemmy discovers that Alphaville is a coldly automated society run by Alpha 60, a giant computer invented by evil Professor Von Braun. At his strange hotel (where third-rate seductresses constantly continue to pester him), Lemmy meets Von Braun’s daughter, Natasha. Later, he finds Dickson at a hotel where dissidents are kept until they commit suicide. After seeing Dickson die, Natasha takes Lemmy to see her father, who is attending a bizarre poolside reception (complete with swimming showgirl-executioners) for the execution of men whose crimes include crying, acting illogically, or using forbidden words such as "why."

Von Braun’s guards capture Lemmy and take him to be interrogated by Alpha 60. Lemmy is then given a tour of the computer’s control center, where he learns that Von Braun intends to declare war on the still-civilized Outlands (with the intention of automating the rest of the galaxy). Lemmy is too complex for the computer to understand, so he is released until the computer can determine what to do with him. Lemmy returns to his hotel and finds Natasha waiting for him. Though he knows she is also automated, he cannot help falling in love with her, and tries to help her break through her automation by teaching her the meaning of words like "conscience," "tenderness," and "love." Their surreal, stylized love scene is interrupted as the police barge in. The police, who have discovered Lemmy’s true identity, arrest Lemmy and take him back to the control center, but Lemmy shoots all the guards and kills Von Braun. This final killing renders the Alpha 60 impotent. As the stunned mutant inhabitants of Alphaville stumble through the city, Lemmy saves Natasha, who has learned the meaning of the word "love," and they drive back to the Outlands together

Unlike 2001:A Space Odyssey (1968–only three years later!), which employed highly advanced scientific extrapolations, Alphaville uses science mainly as light background or as a basis for subtle witticisms. The film’s eerie science fiction mood is almost the sole product of sound, unusual negative-hue and jump-cut editing, and lighting. For instance, piercing electronic beeps, gravelly voices, and sudden absences of sound are unexpectedly scattered through the film. Mundane middle-class characters talk about their recent space flight. Most scenes take place in dank rooms, endless hallways, or outside at night. Take away these elements, and the result (aside from a few very strange scenes) resembles a third-rate French detective film.

Godard actually plays on audience expectation by conspicuously constructing scientific elements out of mundane objects. The film’s central scientific element, the Alpha 60, is constructed of an electric-fan with a light behind it (TV Guide), filmed close-up through metal bedsprings and venetian blinds, and voiced by a man who sounds like he’s in the last stages of lung cancer. Indeed, the visually low-tech Alpha 60 is a mix of scientific plausibility and human illogic. Even though the Alpha 60 is just a glorified electric fan, Henri Dickson describes it as a formidable object: "It’s a giant computer... like the ones we used to have... IBM... yup, General Electric... it’s the same, but a hundred and fifty light years stronger" (Godard 39). It is plausible for an extremely powerful computer to exist, but by using such pedestrian materials and words to construct and describe the Alpha 60, Godard is warning us of its deeper inconsistencies.

On its surface, logic is the law of Alphaville, and the Alpha 60 is the executor of that logic. Alpha 60 gives "logical orders" (Godard 56) to its citizens, and when citizens act illogically, the computer gives the order for their execution. But Alpha 60 has unmistakable streaks of illogic that no one seems to question. Though there are psychological reasons for a person to cry, the computer has an irrational hatred of tears. The computer runs vending machines that dispense useless tokens emblazoned with the word "merci" (Dixon 62). Alpha 60’s execution techniques are particularly bizarre and arbitrary. As the city’s gentry watches placidly, prisoners on death row are shot into a swimming pool and knived to death by young women who look as if they are "ready for a watery production number in a Busby Berkeley musical" (Sterritt 11). Foreigners who cannot be assimilated into Alphaville’s homogeneous culture are seated in rows of theatre seats and electrocuted as they watch a show. The theatre floor then tilts back, dumping the bodies to ready the theatre for its next "audience." Alpha 60 preaches logic, but it seems to have similar problems as the HAL 9000 in 2001: both suffer from logic malfunctions caused by human error and contradictory directives.

Von Braun and the Alpha 60 use mind-control over Alphaville’s inhabitants; this is a standard science fiction and adventure device. But while current biotech developments continue to increase the possibility of mind-control, Godard never really emphasizes its scientific aspects. Unlike in Metropolis, where an elaborate machine is shown transforming Maria into a robot, and in Blade Runner, where a magnification machine helps Blade Runners separate humans from Replicants, Alphaville uses no device to emphasize the scientific differences between Alphaville’s controlled citizens and other ordinary humans. The only distinguishing mark of a controlled citizen is the ID number stamped on his or her upper body. Because this mark is similar to the identification methods of real-life penitentiary inmates, it reminds us of the citizens’ status as prisoners, but it does not necessarily emphasize the science of the citizens’ existence.

Though Godard does not concentrate on computer or biological science in this film, he has a penchant for throwing around scientific names and terms in a humorous way. In an early scene, Lemmy and Natasha unknowingly discuss quantum physics:

Natasha: Which direction are you going?

Lemmy: To 12 rue Enrico Fermi.

Natasha: Oh, that’s just after Heisenberg Boulevard, on the corner of Mathematics Park.

Enrico Fermi was the first to split the atom (and the originator of Fermi’s Paradox), while Werner Heisenberg discovered the Uncertainty Principle of Subatomic Particles. Both men won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and both men worked to develop the atomic bomb–though Fermi worked for the Allies while Heisenberg worked for the Nazis. It makes sense that Professor Von Braun would name streets after these men, for the atomic bomb was so important to the Nazi cause, and Alphaville regime bears some striking similarities to the Nazis. Later in the film, Lemmy visits the Institute of General Semantics, Godard’s sly way to remind us of the semantic dysfunction of Alpha 60. Throughout the film, a shot of a neon light that says "E = mc2" will unexpectedly interrupt a scene. It seems that Godard’s most liberal use of science is for levity, both in its light and sarcastic forms.

From the way that Godard uses science in this film, it might seem that Godard either doesn’t take technology seriously or is trying to make fun of it. However, as a self-professed lover, creator, and user of film and its technology, Godard is making less of an "attack" on technology than a "concerned critique" (Sterritt 15). Through Lemmy Caution, Godard explores the sociological complexities and contradictions of technology. With his ever-present camera, gun, and Ford Galaxy (a shoddy sedan that Lemmy says is really "spaceship"), Lemmy clearly uses technology, but compared to the "advanced" technology of Alpha 60 and its engineers, a lot of Lemmy’s tools seem obsolete. However, Lemmy’s hardboiled, low-tech image to frame a surprisingly deep sense of poetry. This side of Lemmy is strongly apparent when he must fight technology, both to overcome Alpha 60 and break the brainwashing of Natasha. Alpha 60 asks Lemmy about his choice of religion, and Lemmy replies, "I believe in the immediate inspirations of my conscience" (Godard 54). Conscience is one of the film’s recurring words, emphasizing that Lemmy is willing to use technology, but not at the expense of his own depth of thought.

Like most great filmmakers, Godard has obvious opinions on certain issues, but he does not try to answer all the questions he asks. Instead, he tries to give the audience the opportunity and desire to make its own conclusions. In Alphaville, this effort is especially important, for it puts special emphasis on the necessity of genuine thought and feeling. On its surface, Alphaville may seem like traditional entertainment, but by unexpectedly skewing expectations so that the mundane is made flamboyant, the scientific is made mundane, and the pragmatic is made poetic, Godard jolts the audience beyond its usual complacent approach to popular commercial cinema.

Works Cited


Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. Albany: State University of

New York Press, 1997.


Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville Screenplay. London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1966.


Roud, Richard. Introduction to Alphaville. London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1984.


Sterritt, David. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1999.


TV Guide Online: Alphaville.

< http://www.tvguide.com/movies/database/ShowMovie.asp?MI=14166>
This site is a great source for extensive movie reviews-- the older the film (pre-1980), the better the review!

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