Most science-fiction films are laden with visual effects. They feature elaborate set designs and futuristic props, focusing heavily on capturing the scope of their fictional worlds. That’s especially the case nowadays, as most popular sci-fi films are studio blockbusters with staggeringly high production budgets (see: Blade Runner 2049, Interstellar, and every single Marvel movie.)
That’s not a bad thing, and such films offer certain pleasures that others simply can’t deliver. But they aren’t the only kind of cinematic sci-fi experiences audiences should have.
Other, smaller sci-fi films prove a filmmaker doesn’t need special effects or gargantuan sets to create a compelling, vivid vision of the future. That’s certainly the case with Alphaville, the 1965 French New Wave classic that may be one of the most quietly influential sci-fi films ever.
Never heard of it? That’s alright. It’s streaming now for free online. Here’s why it’s a must-see.
Directed by legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville follows a secret agent as he ventures from the “outer countries” into a futuristic city known as — you guessed it — Alphaville. The city is run by a tyrannical, sentient computer system known as Alpha 60, which has outlawed the city’s citizens from reading poetry, falling in love, experiencing emotions, or engaging in any kind of free thought. It’s a city where, as the film’s central protagonist learns, individualism has essentially been wiped out.
While the film’s setting may make it sound like Alphaville features plenty of constructed sets, visual effects, and sci-fi props, that’s actually not the case. In fact, what makes Alphaville such an interesting film is that it does entirely without such adornments. Godard shot the entire movie in real locations across 1960s Paris; it’s filled with cars, clothing, and accessories unique to that era.
But if this makes it sound like Alphaville isn’t a convincing sci-fi film, such an impression couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, Godard’s trademark free-wheeling, frenetic filmmaking style does more than enough to give Alphaville a disorienting quality, and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (by Raoul Coutard) reinforces its somber, dangerous mood. Combined, Godard and Coutard turn Alphaville into a terrifyingly real place.
What’s even more surprising is how legitimately moving Alphaville is to watch. Godard did not typically make sincere or emotionally wrenching films, typically opting for highly ironic films that overflowed with sarcasm and metatextual discourse.
There’s certainly some of that in Alphaville (two of the missing agents the film’s protagonist searches for are named Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon), but such meta flourishes don’t overtake the emotional catharsis of the film’s final act. Alphaville’s ruminations on the power of love don’t come across as cheesy, either, bringing the film’s powerful themes to the surface.
Part of what makes Alphaville so effective and sincerely moving is the chemistry between its two leads, both excellent. Anna Karina, stylish as ever, shines as the daughter of the scientist behind Alphaville’s tyrannical supercomputer. Eddie Constantine, meanwhile, turns in a grumbling performance for the ages as the film’s lead character, Lemmy Caution, a fictional FBI agent originally created by British writer Peter Cheyney.
Constantine had, notably, already played Caution in a number of other films before Godard decided to take him and the character on a journey into the future. As a result, Constantine’s performance feels simultaneously confident and insecure, which only works to heighten Caution’s journey into a city he can’t quite comprehend.
Together, Constantine and Karina bring heart and soul to Alphaville. Its influence can be felt throughout many of the sci-fi noirs released in the decades since, including Blade Runner. But despite its considerable impact, Alphaville still feels wholly unique. Indeed, by filtering his signature wit and style through the sci-fi and noir genres, Godard created a one-of-a-kind work.
To put it simply: you’ve never seen a film like Alphaville.
Alphaville is streaming for free right now on Kanopy in the U.S.