I've often heard about 12 Monkeys (released in 1995) being influenced by La Jetee. Some consider the latter superior, and others diverge from that school of thought. Either way, I'm glad to have first seen the original. 12 Monkeys has a lot to live up to.
La Jetee's plot is simply fantastic. In a post-apocalyptic present, mankind has fled underground. A group of people try to make contact with the past and the future in order to help their bleak present. To make contact, they experiment on their prisoners. However, their attempts to make contact are never successful due to the test subjects going insane or even dying; until, they find a prisoner whose obsession with a childhood memory prove to be a great match for time travel's focus on the memory and imagination. Several tests are conducted and the new prisoner frequently travels to the past. There, a romance blooms between him and a woman. Due to the success of these experiments, the captors send the man to the future and he is able to make contact. He soon realizes that his captors, having accomplished their goal, no longer require his help and will soon dispose of him.
What is more fantastic about La Jetee is its cinematography and its visuals. Marker, unable to afford a motion-picture camera, then decided to convey the film through stills. During the 28 minutes run time, photographs play across the screen and relate the story in a way that is visually enriching, intriguing and different. Only one brief scene is shot by a moving camera. There is no dialogue, save for the narrator's voice recounting the story. The stills actually strengthen the bond that is felt between the prisoner and the woman from the past. The fluidity of the shots showcasing their blooming romance is more than effective. The romantic aspect of the story is relayed in a way that moving images would have been unable to capture.
Yet, what I most love about the film is how everything ties in together in the end. Though I realized where it was going 10 minutes prior to the ending, I still felt a rush as the final scene was unfolding. I recognize this as another effect of the stills. In a movie about time travel, still photographs help give a sense of time being captured bit by bit as it is streaming. It gives one time to reflect on the film's themes and the implications behind each shot. It feels like time has slowed down for a bit, giving one ample time for speculation. The story, which I cannot praise enough, ties its themes beautifully well. The past, the present and the future work together to deliver the perfect ending, however tragic.
La Jetee is one of the best films I've ever seen and a sure way to hook me in to see the rest of Chris Marker's films.