France’s love affair with science fiction goes back centuries with authors like Cyrano de Bergerac addressing an alien utopia in 1657’s Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon. This early story contains unheard of technologies including machines that can talk and solar energy converters. The tradition of the genre carried in the popular 19th century works of Jules Verne, who could forecast technology in an eerily accurate manner. Innovations like jukeboxes, the Internet, and a system of space travel similar to the Apollo Program all were predicted by Mr. Verne. The majority of these works were optimistic about the potential of technology to improve lives and further man’s reach into the universe. But after World War I and its machine guns and mustard gas, the French populace turned pessimistic about what technology could provide mankind.
Sci-fi continued on though, in literature and on the silver screen. The first sci-film film of all time was made in France in 1902 and the country has consistently produced landmark films for the genre. The pessimistic views of technology remained prevalent, especially in exploring society. A distrust of the media also runs through several of these films as do sexy French landscapes, hilarious special effects, and dogs wearing berets (okay, maybe not the dogs). Let’s check out seven of the greats.
7) Le Dernier Combat
Luc Besson’s (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) first feature, made in 1983, is a bleak, black-and-white vision of post-apocalyptic endurance that contains almost zero dialogue. Besson never explains the catalyst that left the world in ruins or why no one seems to be able to speak, but that doesn’t take away from the content of the film at all. Pierre Jolivet stars as “The Man,” a survivor who has built a makeshift airplane and crashed it after fleeing from some thugs reminiscent of Toecutter’s gang from Mad Max. He builds a shanty-style home near his crash site, but is soon confronted by “The Brute,” played by Besson-favorite Jean Reno. The Man finds refuge from the Brute in a run-down hospital where he befriends a doctor who’s also been terrorized by the Brute. A bizarre friendship develops between the man and the doctor, and soon the doctor reveals his secret: he has a woman locked up in the hospital. Being the post-apocalypse, women are a highly sought after commodity to be locked up, traded, stolen, then locked up again.
6) La Voyage Dans la Lune
George M?li?s’ 1902 silent game-changer may contain some hilariously outdated special effects, but you can’t knock its title as the first science fiction film in history. The film is loosely based on H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and national hero Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and features a group of ballsy astronomers travelling in a capsule to the moon. In one of the most iconic moments in film history, the astronomers land right in the moon’s right eye. They find some giant mushrooms and are attacked by a gang of “Selenites” (little green men). They’re comically fragile and explode when hit. It’s adorable!
5) Le Prix du Danger
A precursor to the Schwarzenegger action flick The Running Man and voyeuristic reality shows in general, 1983’s Le Prix du Danger (a.k.a. “The Prize of Peril”) is based on a 1960 short story from American author Robert Sheckley. Set in the future, the film is about a reality TV competition in which volunteers are tracked down and killed by five hunters. They’re dropped off at a specific location in the middle of the city and if they can make it back to the TV studio, they win. But, of course, no one ever wins. The latest contestant is Fr?d?ric (Michel Piccoli), an unemployed laborer who wants to give his wife a taste of the good life. But how can you run and hide when a camera crew is following you around and the entire audience wants to see you dead? Watch and see.
There’s a lot in Le Prix du Danger that will look familiar to fans of The Running Man. It’s almost as if the screenwriter just picked some character names from Stephen King’s 1982 short story, mixed them into scenes from Le Prix du Danger, and combined them to make an awesome ’80s action flick. Check out this French film if you want to see the source material.
Part Orwellian dystopia, part film noir, Jean Luc-Godard’s Alphaville is a satire filled with Godard’s signature, playful style. In place of Big Brother, Godard has Alpha 60, a dictatorial computer system created by a Professor von Braun. The professor and Alpha 60 have abolished love and outlawed any kind of emotion. In comes Lemmy Caution (American actor Eddie Constantine), a hard-boiled secret agent from “the Outlands.” He infiltrates Alphaville on a mission to capture von Braun and destroy Alpha 60; freeing Alphaville from the cold hand of tyrannical oppression. Along the way Caution is aided by Natacha von Braun, the daughter of the professor as well as a programmer of Alpha 60. Caution falls for Natacha, but being from Alphaville, she doesn’t know what the concept of love is.
Godard cleverly plays Paris off as a dystopian city using no constructed sets or futuristic props. This bare-bones approach to sci-fi pairs well with the Luddite undertones of the film and its message against dehumanization caused by advanced technology. It’s territory that had been explored countless times by its premiere 1965, but even today it still seems fresh packaged in Godard’s cinematic style.
3) Fantastic Planet
This surreal animated film from Ren? Laloux won the special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and was distributed in the U.S. by Mr. Roger Corman. The film is set on the planet of the Draags; a giant humanoid race that keep humans (called “Oms) as pets. They attach pseudo-magnetic collars to their Oms that have the capability of literally dragging them back home. For fun they make them fight or create miniature storm clouds to chase them around. The story revolves around a pet Om named Terr, who acquires forbidden knowledge via his owner’s educational headset. Terr escapes and takes the headset with him back to the wild Oms. Some of the Oms refuse the knowledge the high-technology of the headset offers, and the debate of science vs. religion begins. Far out.
2) La Mort en Direct
Based on the novel The Unsleeping Eye by British author David G. Compton, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 film La Mort en direct (a.k.a. “Death Watch”) was unfortunately never theatrically released in the U.S. and the American VHS has about 20 minutes cut from it. Harvey Keitel plays Roddy, a man who has a camera implanted in his brain by a television studio, run by TR favorite Harry Dean Stanton. Roddy’s assignment is to record the final days of a terminally ill woman for the show “Death Watch.” Of course, the woman doesn’t know that the friendly stranger Roddy’s eyes are recording everything. In this era of reality TV drivel filled with junkies, hoarders, and pregnant teens, La Mort en direct is an eerily prophetic film as well as a dark precursor to others like The Truman Show. It’s definitely worth tracking down. If you’re reading this that means you have the Internet. You can find anything on here. Get to it.
1) La Jet?e
Survivors of the Third World War live underground in the galleries of the Palais de Chaillot region of Paris. Time travel researchers have chosen a male prisoner to send into to past for the “rescue of the present.” He’s chosen because of his obsessive childhood memory concerning a woman at an airport during a violent incident (Terry Gilliam generously borrowed this concept for Twelve Monkeys). Researchers believe he’s the only human left whose ability to focus is so strong that time travel won’t cause him to go insane. He successfully travels to the past and is then sent into the future where he is given a bit of technology for restoring the past to its pre-apocalypse state. He then flees his jailers by returning to the past and finally is able to witness the incident at the airport first-hand. Phew.
This visionary, 1962 short film on time and memory from enigmatic director Chris Marker is made up of filmed photographs arranged as a montage. Besides some mumbling in German, the film contains no dialogue and all exposition is delivered through narration. Only one shot contains a moving image and it happens so briefly you initially wonder if your own memory is playing tricks on you. None of this stops it from being a visceral kick to the nuts.