Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
The early days of science fiction films were not the slick, expensive blockbuster productions invading our cinemas regularly now. Although Georges Méliès’ silent masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (considered the first sci-fi film), was made with lavish production values and cutting-edge special effects in 1902, as time progressed the genre became more synonymous with low-budget filmmaking. Science fiction movies aimed to tell inventive storylines commenting on our society, but studios wanted these films produced as cheaply as possible. Classic movies such as 1931’s Frankenstein or 1933’s The Invisible Man were each made for less than $330,000, less than a quarter of the total budget for most films made in the 1930s.
By the 1950s, the science fiction genre had turned to more schlocky, B-movie type fare. Movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Day the Earth Stood Still were popular with audiences. At the height of 1950s communist paranoia, these films smartly commented on our collective fears using monsters and aliens in place of radical leftists.
Influenced by the public’s obsession with technology, paranoia, and the future, filmmakers from around the world started creating stories with a science fiction edge. Outside of the United States, directors who came from an experimental film background found sci-fi to be a genre that allowed for the creative freedom to tell bold, daring stories. One of these filmmakers was writer, photographer, documentary filmmaker, and multi-media artist Chris Marker.
Before diving into creating narrative shorts, Marker primarily worked on documentary and experimental films. He was associated with the Left Bank Movement, a group of French creatives interested in literature and experimental art who identified with the left politically. Marker was fascinated by the concept of time and memory, and their inescapable grip on us. He used these obsessions to create one of the most memorable sci-fi films ever made, the 28-minute short La Jetée.
La Jetée tells the story of a man obsessed with the memory of a haunting event he witnessed as a child at Paris Orly airport. He only hazily remembers a man falling and a woman’s face. Soon after, we learn the world this man inhabits in Paris has been ravaged by nuclear war. The few remaining survivors have gone underground, where a group of scientists attempt to change humanity’s fate with drug-induced time-traveling experiments. The man is taken by the scientists and forced to go back in time and help avoid Paris’ dystopian future. Without giving anything away about the film’s incredible ending, La Jetée is above all a story about fate, the illusion of time, and our place in the world.
The short film itself is a remarkable and innovative piece of filmmaking. Except for one short scene consisting of a woman sleeping and then waking up, La Jetée is told entirely through still photographs. The movie consists of no main dialogue except for the narrator’s voice-over. Marker plays with the conventions of cinema by juxtaposing one still image with another, creating meaning and an emotional connection. It’s not the movement that’s important in a film, it’s the images that create the illusion of movement. When the film’s heart-wrenching ending occurs, it’s an emotional punch to the gut for audiences. We might be able to slow down time, but we can never outrun it. The influence of La Jetée can be felt in modern movies such as 12 Monkeys, Total Recall, and The Terminator, all dealing with the concept of time-travel in different, unique ways.
The scene in the film where the hero and a woman look at a cutaway section of a tree trunk is a direct homage to a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
In the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll conducted every 10 years, La Jetée is currently ranked the 50th greatest film of all-time.
What’s your favorite time-travel movie? What other classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.