A poorly kept secret of mine is that I love science-fiction. In fact, I might very well go on a binge of some sci-fi movies I really like for this column (all the while trying not to tread on SciFriday‘s territory). So let’s start with a movie over half a century old that has influenced a lot of the genre–including Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, which is a sort of adaptation–the French film La Jetée. Also, on a slightly more general note about referring to movie titles in foreign languages: if a movie/series is only known by the original title, I will use that (see: La Jetée, Un Chien Andalou, Y Tu Mamá También), whereas if it’s largely referred to in English by a translation, then I will use that (see: Pan’s Labyrinth, Seven Samurai, The Three Colors Trilogy). Thus, I will try my best not to sound pretentious as I review:
La Jetée (The Jetty) (1962)
Plot: Told through a series of photographs and by a pseudo-omniscient narrator, we follow a prisoner, The Man, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world. Scientists want to send people into the future so that they can get the materials to save the present. However, time travel is often too taxing on subjects. Thus, they use The Man, who has a strong memory of a woman from his childhood that he saw shortly before a man was killed in front of him. This allows him to travel to the past easily, and thus the scientists hope to train The Man so that he can go into the future.
Okay, hopefully that was succinct and clear, because this movie can sound a bit complicated even though it is rather simple. That’s the first solid aspect of this film: despite a plot that involves time travel and an experimental format (the picture slideshow with a non-character narrator), the actual content is very clear. In fact, this is one of the most concise sci-fi films I’ve seen, which is impressive considering it’s an experimental French film from the 1960s.Even with time travel and all the crazier stuff going on, this movie is really about The Man and The Woman, who is the same lady from his childhood memory. They begin to develop a relationship while the scientists keep sending him back to the past in order to increase his ability to time travel successfully. But this keeps being disrupted by the present, and in that we have some interesting questions being asked: is the past making The Man unable to fix the problems in the present? Is the necessity of looking toward the future ruining his present life?
The interplay of society and personal wants/needs is highlighted by the time travel, and that’s what I always like in science fiction. Sure, crazy space-shenanigans are cool, but in my mind good sci-fi uses all the weird plot devices in order to comment on the real world. La Jetée does this wonderfully, not only asking questions about how our past, present, and future affect our lives, but also raising questions about our debt to society, the destructive side of human nature, and how much our destiny is predetermined.
That last question to me is particularly interesting, and here is where I will get into spoiler territory. I do highly recommend watching the movie first, as it’s only 28 minutes long, but proceed at will.
So, eventually, The Man does successfully go to the future and obtain a device from people there that will allow him to save the present. However, the scientists have decided that they have no more use for him now, so they decide to execute him. He is saved by the people from the future, who offer him a chance to live in their society, but instead he asks them to send him back to the past to be with The Woman permanently. He runs toward her on a jetty, but before he can get there, he recognizes an agent of the scientists, who shoots him. He realizes that the image from his childhood, the one that made him the time traveler he became, is of himself being killed.
So we have two questions of predetermination: first, if the people from the future gave the present a device to save their world, then who actually created it? Was the future always saved by this device? Second, was The Man always destined to die this way? After all, his selection for the time traveling program was based on a strong memory from his childhood, which he only has because he travels to that time in the future. In broader terms, how much of our lives is already figured out, and can we actually do anything to change it? I think that La Jetée might very well argue that, no, not only is the world we live in controlled by external forces (the destroyed world the scientists occupy), but even our own lives are figured out for us. The lurking philosophy in this movie is intriguing, even if slightly depressing.
Of course, I am merely scratching the surface of this movie, but I more so wanted to introduce the way I enjoy looking at science fiction for future posts. La Jetée is an intriguing movie with a lot of ideas crammed into less than a half hour, and and it really can be for anyone who is a fan of sci-fi or slightly philosophical movies.