In his Chicago Reader review of Alphaville, Dave Kehr said: “The view of technology as inherently evil is too facile for Godard’s fine, paradoxical mind, and the film as a whole is light on insight.” And Andrew Sarris says in his essay for the Criterion DVD edition that Godard’s central theme in the film is “imagination versus logic.”
But, as I discovered watching the film for the first time in probably ten years or so, Godard had more than those simplistic themes on his “fine, paradoxical mind.” Because the interesting thing about Alphaville — and what separates it from many of the great scientific dystopias — is that it is not anti-technology, but anti-technocrat. And it appears, as time goes on, that he doesn’t so much hate the social scientists who try to put people in boxes, as consider them and their machines ridiculous.
That doesn’t mean he’s above creating some cool and eerie low-fi effects for his supercomputer, Alpha 60 — when one of the computer’s terminals, Alpha 5, interrogates hero Lemmy Caution, microphones telescope back and forth around his head like inquisitive feelers. But it becomes apparent that Alpha 60 is entirely dependent on human beings, and that his power over people likewise depends on people. In one scene, as Alpha 60 rambles on in one of his interminable lectures, a scientist walks back and forth in a glass booth inside him, monitoring equipment and making adustments. After several iterations of this, he trips over something on the floor; regaining his balance, he glares at whatever it is for a moment before resuming his duties. It’s impossible to know whether this was planned, or merely an accident Godard decided to incorporate into the film, but it adds to his recurring theme — that computers are essentially manifestations of the foolish desires of the people who build them. Alpha 60 literally has people inside him — people wandering his corridors, people operating and maintaining him, even a random nude girl in a Lucite case. When Caution tries the old sci-fi gag of trying to destroy the computer by confusing it with poetry, nothing happens. This shouldn’t surprise him — Alpha 60 himself recites Borges to a group of robotic-looking students. In order to take out Alpha 60, Caution instead has to kill his inventor, Dr. VonBraun — it’s this murder, and not any act of technical sabotage, that harrows and ultimately frees the people of Alphaville.
It’s also clear that neither Alpha 60 nor the technocrats who conceived him are particularly logical, despite the computer’s recurrent, raspy insistence that everything in Alphaville society is a logical necessity. Alpha 60 is so convinced of his own logical perfection that he outlaws the word “why,” insisting that everything follows absolutely from his calculations. In fact, Alpha’s ability to predict even the simplest human behaviors is so pathetic that neither the computer nor its agents think to take Caution’s weapon from him when he’s arrested. Lemmy Caution, on the other hand, despite the supposed weaknesses of love, conscience, and humor, generally acts rationally on the necessities of the moment. “I’m too old to argue, so I shoot,” he admits during one of his interrogations.
This is a dumb, silly totalitarian state, that can be brought down by one lousy P.I. with a handgun; if stories like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World grimly anticipate that every human feeling will eventually be anticipated and neutered by science, Godard gleefully mocks the idea that science can manage anything, suggesting that attempts at totalitarianism will inevitably be undermined by the venality, short-sightedness and sheer human weirdness of the totalitarians. What kind of computer would think up the utterly baroque and comical method of execution used in Alphaville? This is not a dystopia, not a horror film of futurism, despite its creepy modern locations and somber, aggravated score. Without denying the potential for brutality and inhumanity in a technocracy, Godard’s film ends up being a bit of a lighthearted comedy and completely, dopily optimistic about the durability of human feeling.