By J.G. Newman / August 29, 2016
To say that the box office success of Star Wars in 1977 shifted Hollywood’s interest toward blockbuster genre fare is, to put it lightly, an understatement. Before the release of George Lucas’ space saga, realistic, Oscar-lauded films such as The Sting (1973) and The Godfather (1972) stood on nearly equal box office footing as more fantastical effects movies like Jaws (1975) and The Exorcist (1973). Today, this seems downright impossible. In our modern cinematic climate, the idea of a Best Picture-minted political thriller like Argo standing toe-to-toe (and dollar-to-dollar) with a new Star Wars or blockbuster-mode Spielberg is more outlandish than anything Lucas dreamt up in his galaxy far, far away.
Ask the right cynic about the state of Hollywood’s obsequious commitment to the CGI blockbuster, and he’ll tell you that Star Wars is solely responsible for the sort of commodified sci-fi and fantasy films we’ve grown far too accustomed to, that the Death Star-sized explosion Luke Skywalker left in his wake forever married audiences to special effects and escapism. But the actual cultural moment of Star Wars tells a different story. While there were plenty of detractors—Pauline Kael, famously—Star Wars was a phenomenal success with critics as well as the public. The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and won not just the obligatory effects and sound Oscars, but awards for editing, costume design, and art direction. Lucas himself was hardly a journeyman director at the time. While his ode to 1950s teens, American Graffiti (1973), was also a crowd pleaser, he grew out of the same cinema-obsessed movement as his more auteurist contemporaries like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and his first feature—the dour, dystopian THX 1138 (1971)—has clear aspirations for arthouse singularity. Perhaps most tellingly, the film’s impact led to Hollywood releasing some of the few American sci-fi films that hold water with both sci-fi geeks and cinephiles: Ridley Scott’s grimy space horror Alien (1979) and his future-noir Blade Runner (1982), Terry Gilliam’s absurdist dystopian comedy Brazil (1985), and James Cameron’s geek-punk The Terminator (1984).
So, did the ascension of the sci-fi film to box office dominance really emerge because of an audience desire to escape “realistic” movies in favor of something easier and less earthbound? (“What happened with Star Wars was like when McDonald’s got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared,” said director William Friedkin.) If that’s the case, why did it take a film like Star Wars to spark the trend, and not the decades’ worth of goofy but popular Mystery Science Theater fodder that preceded it? Perhaps the answer isn’t that Star Wars and its immediate descendants made movies dumber, but instead simply asked audiences to watch sci-fi stories with a greater eye for formal sophistication. These films play with movie history and filmmaking techniques in inventive and tasteful ways, and owe more to preceding syntheses of arthouse and genre films than they’re often credited for.
As far back as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), released exactly half a century before Star Wars, auteur directors were using sci-fi premises to explore their concerns about the rapidly evolving twentieth century. Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi work, both in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), were clear signifiers that sci-fi and the art film could cohabitate. In the early 1970s, cult oddities like Nicolas Roeg’s Bowie-starring The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) primed audiences to appreciate a greater level of sophistication from stories involving aliens and spaceships. While certainly more narratively straightforward and not as heady in theme as films like 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Star Wars, Blade Runner, and many of the other post-Lucas run films riff on the cinematic past for inspiration in a way that puts them closer in construction to avant-garde pop-art than, say, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958).
Yet the impact of one filmmaking movement on the ascent of the American science-fiction film, as well as the public’s ability to take genre films as seriously as more “important” movies, often gets overlooked. Ironically, it was the movement that birthed the idea of the director as auteur (a concept many American directors and critics feel Star Wars destroyed): the French New Wave.
The French New Wave most likely conjures up an image in most people’s minds far removed from spaceships and laser swords: one of girls in berets and men in dark sunglasses smoking clove cigarettes and obliquely discussing philosophy. And, in truth, the movement was largely a rebellion against the schmaltzy period pieces French cinema produced in the 1950s and ‘60s, a controversial blast of creative energy meant to restore intellectualism and politics to the realm of filmmaking. Many of the directors who would become associated with the movement in its broadest sense got their start making serious-minded documentaries, or writing film criticism for the famous Cahiers du Cinema magazine.
Yet the group’s self-conscious focus on dissecting film history meant they could not outright ignore the allure of cinema’s pulpier material. Hollywood gangster and noir films formed the narrative backbone of many of the New Wave’s most popular films, and its directors often let pop influences shine through their dissections of social issues and the meaning of art. Alain Resnais, director of the tragic postwar romance Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and the haunting puzzlebox film Last Year at Marienbad (1961), was so devoted to his love of Marvel Comics that he claimed reading them taught him English, and even tried to collaborate with Stan Lee on two unrealized film projects. And, every once in awhile, one of these high-art auteurs would make an honest-to-god science fiction film. While these films aren’t exactly the purest of hard sci-fi, their combination of high-concept storytelling and formal cinematic daring provide a crucial puzzle piece in the evolution of the science fiction film’s wider reputation.
One of the earliest French New Wave sci-fi films is at once the most traditionally satisfying in its narrative and the most audacious in its construction. Chris Marker’s 1963 short La Jetee is, by its own admission, perhaps not a film at all; Marker credits the film as a “photo-roman,” or “photo-novel.” Told entirely through still images, the story follows a man who observed a mysterious shooting as a child, then is recruited as an adult to be sent back in time to stop a devastating world war from ravaging the planet. (If the premise sounds familiar, Terry Gilliam would later base his own time-travel movie, 1995’s 12 Monkeys, on the short.) The man is sent back to the era of his childhood, then rebels against the scientists conducting the experiment on him by falling in love with a woman he remembers seeing on the day he witnessed the murder. Of course, this being a time travel story about fate and mortality, the execution ends up being his own, as the men who sent him back to the past hunt him down for attempting to escape.
La Jetee manages to do so much within its constraints that much of the visual language of science fiction films, including later big-budget sci-fi opuses, seems pulled directly from its scant twenty-eight minute runtime. The black-and-white images demand a greater focus on the composition of the frame, creating contrasts of light and dark to build otherworldly settings and create unease in familiar ones. Sound design, such an important component of creating mood in films like Alien and Star Wars, has to do much of the atmospheric heavy-lifting here, proving that sound alone can transport us into the fantastic and unreal. And our few glimpses into the world of the future—where scientists wear monstrous goggles and cloaks, and hide out in nightmarish catacombs—are clear precedents to the grittier sci-fi aesthetic that would come to dominate the early films of Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, and James Cameron. Even La Jetee’s somber, fatalistic conclusion of a man stumbling into the time loop of his own demise seems like an ancestor to the moodier, more morally ambiguous notes that many of the great American sci-fi films of the ‘80s would conclude on.
La Jetee is an audacious formal experiment, but leave it to the most famously rebellious of the New Wave enfant terribles to make a sci-fi movie without a single futuristic set, prop, or costume. Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) is the story of a futuristic dystopia, filmed entirely amongst—and within—the rapidly modernizing architecture of 1960s Paris. Yet despite the oddness of the contemporary setting, Alphaville manages to tell a surprisingly straightforward sci-fi story of pure-hearted good versus authoritarian evil, albeit one filtered through Godard’s unruly sensibilities.
Godard sets the pulpy, winking tone before the first line of dialogue is even spoken, calling Alphaville a “Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution” in the titles. Created by British novelist Peter Cheyney, Caution is a private eye character who starred in a series of French films after his dime store adventures become popular in postwar Europe. (He is played both in his “real” adventures and in Godard’s skewed take by Eddie Constantine, who claimed he never got offered the Caution role again after Godard got his hands on it.)
Godard rips the Caution character from the pages of pulp (he claims he’s friends with Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon at one point in the film) and sends him riding into the suffocating future-city of Alphaville. Once there, Caution clashes with the city’s omnipresent computer overlord Alpha 60, who keeps Alphaville running with emotionless efficiency and orders his people to somberly execute anyone who dares so much as shed a tear. While the Caution character looks, dresses, and speaks like your typical tough-guy American antihero, Godard employs his rebellious fighter’s streak to make Lemmy a symbol for artists, lovers, and thinkers hampered by modern society’s logic and efficiency.
Despite the dystopian death squads and the rough-and-tumble Caution character, Alphaville isn’t exactly action-packed. Much of its runtime is devoted to philosophical conversations, some of them lifted from Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. And yet, the ensuing existential debate is somehow even more black-and-white than the Orwellian literature that clearly inspired it. Godard unambiguously sides with Caution and the woman he falls in love with, Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), and openly disdains the “order-at-all-costs” philosophy of Alpha 60 (not to mention the geometrically stark, modernist buildings where the film takes place). It’s honestly not a far cry from the conflict at the heart of Star Wars: scrappy, likeable rebels versus cold, calculating authoritarians. (Alpha 60 is even voiced by a man with a mechanical voicebox, whose menacing burble is not unlike Darth Vader’s wheezing.) And the fusion of noir tropes with a dissertation on the increasingly autonomous nature of society clearly influenced Blade Runner’s neon-soaked ruminations on the line between human and machine. Whether or not it was his intention, Godard’s film proves that sci-fi can be a fertile meeting ground for low-art fun and cerebral explorations of theme.
Surprisingly, the French New Wave sci-fi film that most thoroughly commits to its conceit is the one that feels the least sci-fi in content. 1968’s Je t’aime je t’aime (“I Love You, I Love You”), directed by the aforementioned Marvel aficionado Alain Resnais, is a clear forebear of a particular strain of sci-fi films: the indie relationship dramedies with meta and metaphysical twists by the likes of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. Its focus on the inner workings of its characters and the mundanity of their lives gives it a lived-in, human quality, proving that sci-fi could tell purely human stories, too.
Co-written with Resnais by acclaimed science-fiction author Jacques Sternberg, Je t’aime je t’aime tells the story of Claude (Claude Rich), who, after a recent suicide attempt, is recruited for a mysterious scientific experiment calling for someone with nothing left to lose. The scientists who take Claude back to their remote countryside lab want to send him back in time—only for a single minute, or so they claim. Of course, once Claude is inside their disconcertingly flesh-like time machine, the experiment goes horribly wrong, and he begins pinging around his own past like a time-traveling pinball. More specifically, he relives his doomed relationship with his ex-lover Catrine and—in scattershot moments both dull and revelatory—we see them drift apart, at least up until Catrine’s mysterious death, possibly caused by Claude purposely leaving her to die in a gas leak.
The structure of the film is jarring, cutting back and forth across Claude’s memories, sometimes repeating them over and over, but never settling into a scene for longer than a moment or two. It mirrors the way our own subconsciouses bounce between recollections, getting fixated on some and circling (but never quite touching) the ones that prove too painful. It’s a morally ambiguous film where part of the “point” is never settling on a clear theme or even a decided opinion concerning its own protagonist. Claude’s memories are a scattered mess he can barely make sense of, and so we, too, are forced to observe them at a piecemeal remove. But despite that, the editing in Je t’aime je t’aime still finds moments of sublime rhythm, where images crash into each other and scenes reflect one another in ways that play more to the heart than the head. It frees science fiction from linear sequence even more so (if much more quietly) than 2001’s psychedelic final act. It’s hard to imagine the dreamier passages of a film like Blade Runner—the opening credits cutting between a fire-belching cityscape and an eye taking it all in, or Deckard’s unicorn dreams—without a movie like Je t’aime je t’aime, illustrating that a film’s sequence of images doesn’t have to be linear or plot-driven.
The web of influences on the predominant sci-fi films of the late ‘70s and throughout the 1980s is vast and well-documented. Lucas’ affinity for Akira Kurosawa and old adventure serials is almost household knowledge at this point, and Scott has spoken extensively about the influence of artists like Moebius on his early work. Gilliam went so far as to develop Brazil under the working title 1984 ½, an homage to both Orwell and Fellini. Yet among this myriad of influences, few speak to how these filmmakers, with their attention to craft quite like the genre experimenters of the French New Wave, elevated the American science fiction film. By combining both philosophical conceits and pulp concepts, and by creating believable sci-fi worlds despite limited means, directors like Marker, Godard, and Resnais subtly shifted the language of the sci-fi film toward something more refined and formally daring. If Hollywood filmmakers like Lucas, Scott, and Cameron managed to sell a few more buckets of popcorn in the process, that doesn’t make their films—or the impact of the New Wave directors that inspired them—any less meaningful.
J.G. Newman is a writer and film researcher living in Los Angeles. At his former blog, Playing the Canon, he reviewed highly regarded classic and contemporary video games.