In France, the movie was titled “Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution,” after its hero (Eddie Constantine), a trench coat-wearing investigator who’s known mainly by his ID number, 003 (sound like any other famous secret agent that you know?). Lemmy enters Alphaville from The Colonies in a Ford Galaxie, presenting himself as a journalist named Ivan Johnson who writes for Figaro-Pravda. He’s actually come to destroy the Alpha 60, a sentient computer that controls life in Alphaville, and find and kill professor Von Braun (named after the rocket scientist), who created the computer. This movie came out three years before “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with its murderous HAL-9000. Fear of computers was everywhere in 1960s cinema—it never went away afterward, really—and if you bought a ticket to the cinema then, you were likely to encounter a plot line that involved wall-sized units with magnetic tape spools and punch cards (even in romantic comedies like “Desk Set”), along with discussions of whether humanity was on the verge of losing its free will and sense of poetry and turning into serfs or worse.
Lemmy represents that disreputable wild-card sense of the human spirit that bubbled up from popular culture through gangster and detective movies and certain hard-edged Westerns (like the ones that starred Glenn Ford, as well as Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” films, which were made contemporaneous with “Alphaville”). It flowered fully in the 1970s, with combative counterculture heroes lashing out against The System, however incoherently. There are some affinities between this movie and the novel and film of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which pitted an outwardness emotionless oppressor character against a raging, scruffy, grandiloquent pig hero whose unpredictability and danger symbolized the free will that was in danger of being lost. The equations for quantum physics and spatial relativity are regularly flashed onscreen, further putting across the idea that a twisted caricature of “logic” defines Alphaville and is squashing the humanity out of it.
There’s a strain of misogyny, as there sometimes is in crime or detective films and what would later be known as counterculture fables. This movie has no use for women except as schemers, would-be seducers, and individuals in need of rescue, although, as is usually the case in Godard’s scripted films, the women look so fabulous and carry themselves with such assurance that they become dynamic life-forces anyway. (A man dies having sex with a “Seductress Third Class.”) Lemmy eventually teams up with Natacha von Braun—played by Godard’s muse Anna Karina—an Alpha 60 programmer and the daughter of Professor von Braun. They fall in love, even though she says she doesn’t understand love or conscience or other concepts, and even though poetry, emotion and affection have been banned by the computer overlord of Alphaville. “Star Trek” hound-dog James T. Kirk got into this kind of predicament, too. Lemmy’s impulsive, macho, instinctual attitude is a threat to the new status quo. His meathead roughness represents the humanity that’s on the verge of being lost. (The 1940s Hollywood movies were better with this sort of stuff, curiously; they let their femme fatales and even their “honey trap” minor characters have a bit of psychological depth even when the stories were primarily driven by ambitious, macho men.)