In the slick contemporary world of 21st-century cinema, science fiction thrives, with modern-day computer graphics allowing filmmakers to explore the most vibrant corners of fantastical galaxies featuring gruesome monsters of baffling size and scale. Often dealing with time travel, these films navigate the wonders of the future and the beautiful joys of the past with little consideration for the sheer existential nightmare that travelling from era to era can bring.
Of course, we wouldn’t expect Marvel’s Avengers nor the agents of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet to consider the baffling psychological impact of time travel on their character’s brains, though their stories pay a debt to La Jetée, Chris Marker’s pioneering science fiction film that obscured the cinematic perception of an existential dystopia. Clocking in at just 30 minutes long, Marker’s rudimental exploration of time travel thrives from its own limitations, telling its story using only monochrome still photos and eerie voiceover.
Telling the story of a man forced to explore his memories from a bunker beneath Paris in the wake of WWIII nuclear destruction, Marker’s film proceeds to explore the intricacies of human recollection as the man leaps into the promise of the future and the knowledge of the past. Haunting and ethereal, the film becomes an investigation into how memory plays a role in how we experience time itself.
Supported by an eerie soundscape that feels like the organic product of mother nature’s omniscient eye, Trevor Duncan’s score flows from moody orchestral pieces to wild choral moments that underline the dreamlike terror of dystopian life. Injecting a terrifying truth to the personal, claustrophobic travels of the protagonist through time, the science fiction trope is turned on its head, devoid of joy and frivolity as the folly of memory is dissected by Marker.
Transported to the past by the sheer power of memory, the man believes he can alter the catastrophic events of time by altering the perception of his own past, though quickly realises his bygone time was not as simple as he remembered. To return to one’s own past is to acknowledge one’s own total lack of knowledge, with Marker suggesting that there is simply no escaping from the reality of the constant present day. Though we may try to transport ourselves to the past, what we experience is merely an idealistic version of life, a fragmented vision made up of still images that are perpetually losing their vibrancy, much like the makeup of the monochrome film itself.
This fragmented, stilted impression of memory comes together, just for a moment, as the still images blend together in motion when the man remembers a lost love and his mind stitches together a visceral, poignant recollection of emotional frisson. Lasting mere seconds, this moment swells Chris Marker’s classic film into something far more pertinent, as at this short time the ingredients of cinema that the director had previously pulled apart come together. The narration disappears, soundscape transforms into diegetic birdsong and film becomes, just for a moment, a film, making the rest of the remarkable film something ‘other’, lodged in-between the fantasy of cinema and the reality of memory recall.
Less a piece of narrative cinema and more a philosophical investigation into the process of memory recall, Chris Marker’s film is a melancholy masterpiece that changed the way science fiction cinema was digested. Having a significant effect on stories that dissected a dystopian future, Terry Gilliams would call La Jetée “poetry” before reskinning the film as 12 Monkeys in 1995 starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.
Indeed, Hollywood may never be ready for the existential truth and fear inherent within Chris Marker’s cold classic.