As Nouvelle Vague's venture into science fiction, Jean-Luc Godard's 'Alphaville' (1965) is still a fascinating piece of conceptual (as opposed to spectacular) sci-fi. Fully titled 'Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution' ('Alphaville, a strange adventure of Lemmy Caution'), the film portrays a dystopian future dictated by Alpha 60, a super-computer which resembles Kubrick's later HAL. Intergalactic special agent Lemmy Caution (003), disguised as a reporter, is the archetypical film noir anti-hero who runs amok in this technocratic world where logic rules and emotions are a crime.
Like any Godard film, 'Alphaville' is a cinematic essay more than a conventional story. The film was shot without special effects in 1960's Paris, creating a future that resembles today (or, by now, yesterday) more than tomorrow. At the same time, it has the timeless, exaggerated feel of a comic strip, with titles flashing, charicature dialogue and discontinuous editing. In fact, an alternative title Godard considered was 'Tarzan versus IBM'. (Also, Caution is sent on his mission to Alphaville after several agents have already failed. Among them: Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon.)
Language, and specifically poetry, plays an important role in 'Alphaville'. Every hotel room and household contains a Bible, but in Alphaville, the Bible is a continuously updated dictionary, with 'emotional' words disappearing from it every day. Moreover, asking 'why' is forbidden; instead, one should say 'because'. But even though language and emotions can to some extent be controlled, poetry still survives in Alphaville, symbolizing the individual in man, the personal and irrational which no logical computer can fully fathom. As the man condemned for weeping when his wife died exclaims before being executed:
Listen to me, you normals. We see the truth that you no longer see. This truth is, that there is nothing true in man except love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice; everything else is but the artifice created by the progress of your own blind ignorance.
Besides extensive quotes from poet Paul Éluard's 'La Capitale de la Douleur' ('The Capital of Pain'), another important source of references in the film is Jorge Luis Borges' essay 'A New Refutation of Time', from which Alpha 60 repeatedly quotes. In this essay, Borges wrestles with the concept of time and its relation with the individual. Philosophically, he goes back to the subjectivism of Berkeley, who maintained that since man ultimately has to depend on his perceptions, which are fundamentally subjective, the outside world cannot be proven to exist objectively, outside of the subject's perception. (Whereas Berkeley, a Bishop, believed that God perceived everything and thus lent coherence to the world, Hume denied even this.)
Borges takes this doctrine to its logical end, arguing that time cannot be proven to exist either, since it is only a subjectively experienced series of perceptions. Crucially, however, in Borges' (and Hume's) argument the individual also disappears as a meaningful concept. Ultimately, Borges isn't willing to accept this conclusion, and he ends his essay by refuting his own refutation of time.
Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.
In the same vein, 'Alphaville' shows how Alpha 60's logical refutation of all that is meaningful to humans is ultimately doomed. Lemmy Caution has several conversations with Alpha 60, who at one point asks him what his secret is. Caution answers by posing a riddle:
Something that never changes with the night or the day, as long as the past represents the future, towards which it will advance in a straight line, but which, at the end, has closed in on itself into a circle.
Alpha 60 is sure it'll find the solution to the riddle, but Caution warns him:
If you find it... you will destroy yourself in the process... because you will have become my equal, my brother.
The answer to the riddle is exactly the quality of being a human individual - something Alpha 60 will never know except by becoming human itself. Ironically, Alpha 60's last words, after having been destroyed by Caution, hint at the machine's realization of its own identity. Echoing Borges, it says:
For our misfortune, the world is a reality... and I... for my misfortune... I am myself - Alpha 60.
In the end, of course, Caution escapes from the chaos of Alphaville with the woman he loves, who has to relearn how to use the word 'love' all over again.
The entire film is online - watch it here.