La Jetee courtesy Criterion Collection
Could La Jetée -- the original Twelve Monkeys -- just be the most perfect science fiction film ever made?

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This is the shortest movie I'll ever feature in DVD Tuesday, and it's the ultimate vindication of the saying that good things come in small packages: Chris Marker's 28-minute, 1963 science-fiction jewel La Jetée, which Terry Gilliam reworked into the film many fans consider his masterpiece, Twelve Monkeys (1995). La Jetée is also the most unconventional film I've featured to date: It's composed almost entirely of black-and-white still images and has no sync sound, just a narrator. It's Marker's only fiction film. And it's mesmerizing, thought-provoking and utterly haunting; I like Twelve Monkeys, but I love La Jetée.

It begins in Orly airport, where a boy on a family day-trip to watch planes take off instead sees a commotion on the ground. Allow me to quote the film's narration: "A sudden roar, a woman's gesture, the fall of a body and the cries of the crowd. Only later did he realize that he had seen a man die. And soon afterwards, Paris was blown up."

Marker then flashes forward to a postapocalyptic future, in which the ragged survivors live underground and a group of scientists have developed a way to travel through time. Their plan is to appeal to the human race of the future for help - food, medicine, or new technologies that could help them rebuild the world - and they've found a guinea pig in a nameless survivor (Davos Hanich) whose memories, especially his memory of a childhood outing to Orly, are so powerful that they can be used as a bridge out of the present.

The scientists send him into the past as a test, and he meets the woman (Hélène Chatelain) whose face made such an indelible impression on him all those years ago; he falls in love with her. He's abruptly recalled by the scientists and sent to the future, but all he wants is to return to the past. He finally gets what he wants, but time and memory are tricky things.

The difference between La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys is one of scale and detail: Marker doesn't care about fantastic machines or bizarre imagery, whereas Gilliam does, and Gilliam hopscotches his protagonist ( Bruce Willis) around various pasts and alters his mission - he's supposed to find the origin of the virus that poisoned the world and bring back a sample so future scientists can find a cure.

Marker's interest lies in the vivid, almost brutal power that fragments of memory - unreliable, subjective, easily misunderstood - have to shape our thoughts, character and perception of the world. A single blinding memory can color everything, and yet who hasn't shared some childhood recollection - a story you've told dozens of times - with a relative who was there, only to have him or her say, "But that isn't the way it happened at all"?

La Jetée came out on tape in 1998, but it's just been released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, paired with Marker's tricky 1982 documentary Sans Soleil. It looks breathtaking and includes some interesting extras.

Things to consider:

The cliché of science-fiction movies is that they're all rockets, robots and ray guns; the reality is more complicated. What makes a sci-fi movie (or TV show) sci-fi?

Genre historians often argue that Dracula was the first horror novel and Frankenstein the first science-fiction novel. What's their point?

La Jetée is consistently ranked among the cream of sci-fi movies, and its influence can be seen in places as diverse as Blade Runner (the scene in which the photo of Rachael's "mother" briefly animates, the overall theme of unreliable memory), the video for David Bowie's "Jump They Say (in fact, sci-fi imagery is a recurring element in his songs), Jack Finney's 1970 novel Time and Again (time travel through mental connection to the past) and The Terminator (a man from the future drawn to the preapocalyptic past by the image of a woman). So what's so special about it?

They're called "movies" and "motion pictures" because they move and "flicks" - short for "flickers" - because of the visible flicker your eyes perceive when a movie is projected at slightly more or less than 24 frames per second, as often happened in the earliest days of the medium. La Jetée doesn't move, except for a few seconds, and yet it's undeniably a movie. Thoughts?

Previously in DVD Tuesday

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Bob le Flambeur
Near Dark
Perfect Blue
Pan's Labyrinth
Les Girls
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
The Queen
Expresso Bongo
I'm Not Scared
Shocking Grindhouse Double Bill! - Scanners and The Candy Snatchers
Don't Look Now
Re-Animator
Casino Royale
http:/ / community. tvguide. com/ thread. jspa? threadID= 800073953#comments"> Pi
The Prestige
13 Tzameti
The Departed
Suspiria
Kiss and Make Up
Kiss Me Deadly
The Long Good Friday
What Alice Found
The Devil's Backbone
The Descent
The Devil Wears Prada
Pandora's Box
The Thief and the Cobbler
Nashville
Panic in the Streets/Jack Palance Interview
The Pusher Trilogy
Scarface
Slither
Sunset Blvd.
In Cold Blood
Brick

Also: This week's new DVD releases