“Cinema is showing more and more. It’s a paranoid, dictatorial cinema. And it’s saying less and less. We need a schizophrenic cinema.”–René Laloux
DIRECTED BY: René Laloux
FEATURING: Eric Baugin, Jennifer Drake, Jean Valmont (voices)
PLOT: On a fantastic planet full of strange creatures, a race of mystical giant blue aliens (named “Traags”) treat humans (called “Oms”) as either pets, or as pests to be exterminated. An orphan Om dubbed Ter is adopted by a young Traag, but eventually escapes captivity, taking along an encyclopedic headband that holds all the aliens’ knowledge of their world. He meets up with a band of wild Oms scratching out a living in the surreal landscape and, using the alien technology, fashions a plan for humanity to escape its captivity.
- Fantastic Planet was a French/Czechoslovakian co-production, and is often assumed to be an allegory for the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The similarity between the enslavement of the Czechs and the Oms is coincidental, however. Fantastic Planet was based on a science fiction novel written by Stefan Wul in 1957. Laloux only used Czech animators because there was no real animation industry in France at the time and the Czechs worked cheaply; he began production in 1968, before the Soviet invasion. The newly installed Czech puppet regime canceled the production, but eventually relented, and work resumed in 1971.
- The Czech animation team reportedly tried to depose Laloux and install one of their own animators as director. The coup failed, and friendly relations were restored.
- “Oms,” the term the aliens use to refer to humans, is a corruption of the French word “hommes” (“men”). The original French novel was titled Oms en série (“Oms in series”), which is also an electrical pun (“Ohms in series”).
- Writer/painter Roland Topor was the production designer for the film and the man responsible for much of the movie’s surreal look. Topor drew up the designs and the original cutouts used in the production, but left the project before animation began. Topor was a bit of a weird movie polymath; besides working on Fantastic Planet, he wrote the novel on which Roman Polanski‘s The Tenant (1976) was based, and appeared as Renfield in Werner Herzog‘s Nosferatu the Vampire (1979). Topor was also one of the three co-founders of the French theatrical “Panic movement,” together with Fernando Arrabal and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
- Fantastic Planet won the Special Jury Prize (the second most prestigious award) at Cannes in 1973.
- The movie was distributed in the United States by Roger Corman‘s New World Pictures, known mainly for their drive-in exploitation movies.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The twisted topography of Fantastic Planet features flying sawtooth-beaked anteaters, bat-winged flora straight out of Hieronymus Bosch’s worst nightmares, and glittering crystals which spontaneously grow and shatter with a whistle. Selecting a single souvenir snapshot from among these startling vistas would be an impossible task. Fortunately, Fantastic Planet‘s artists animate not only landscapes, but mindscapes as well, illustrating the giant blue Traag’s spiritual expeditions by showing their heads floating away in giant soap-bubbles and other trippy tropes. From among these, we’ll choose the moment when four Traags’ close their eyes and blank out while their bodies do impressions of lava lamps, morphing and flowing like heated wax, as the film’s indelible image (though we’d be unable to quarrel with anyone who chose to canonize almost any other moment of the film).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Terry Gilliam-meets-Salvador Dalí-in-space animation combined with the acidic prog-rock soundtrack encourages (or even precipitates) altered states of viewing, but Fantastic Planet is more than just an astral trip. It’s a solid sci-fi parable set in a fully realized, incredibly detailed, and truly alien world that provokes more and more astonishment with each succeeding scene.
American trailer for Fantastic Planet
COMMENTS: Made between 1968 and 1973, at the height of the Acid Era, Fantastic Planet certainly could be accused of pandering to the stoner crowd. Some freaky folk seized on similarity between the word “Traags” and “drugs” (a misconception partially fostered by the fact that New World Pictures translated the name of the alien race as “Draags” for American audiences) as further proof of a turned-on connection. The fact that the Traags take literal head trips—their noggins literally float away into the stratosphere to visit the distant “Strange Planet” when they meditate—makes the psychedelic allegory seem inevitable. Yet, Fantastic Planet was not made with the LSD culture in mind, although it benefited from post-hippie fascination with esoteric realities. The source novel, written in pre-psychedelic 1957, was standard science fiction fare. Painter/art designer Roland Topor, who drew the cutouts animated in the film by hand, came from the older world of Surrealist painting and performance art, not the counter-culture. And director Rene Laloux’s penchant for weirdness was inspired, not by the mock-schizophrenia induced by the lysergic acid diethylamide molecule, but by the unfettered creativity of genuine schizophrenics; as a young man he worked at a psychiatric hospital (together with Topor), and his first movie was a bizarre shadow-play scripted and created by the mental patients as part of their therapy. The giant blue aliens of Fantastic Planet didn’t arise out of some hashish haze; which is not to say that they weren’t commonly viewed through one.
If the scenario of Fantastic Planet—humans are enslaved by an alien race and taken to their planet, where they are treated as pets until they eventually revolt—is relatively standard science fiction stuff, the presentation is anything but conventional. The animation here is done via cardboard cutouts (a technique familiar to “Monty Python” fans) which are painstakingly moved against painted backgrounds. The individual cutout figures are realistic, incredibly detailed and impressively crosshatched; they sometimes even resemble figures by Boticelli or another Renaissance master. (In the classical style, the human women—er, “Oms”— in Fantastic Planet usually have at least one breast exposed). The way these paper models interact with their environment, on the other hand, is decidedly unreal. The figures are barely animated; their motions are clipped and choppy. Shadows are permanently etched onto the cutout portraits, so they cannot change angles. Each figure remains permanently aligned in its own plane perpendicular to the camera’s gaze; even when they’re fleeing from giant blue fingers, they look stiff and formal. The effect is defiantly two-dimensional, collage-like, with the figures posed standing in the foreground of bleak plains, with a sprinkling of the planet’s bizarre bat-wing bushes standing between them and the flat horizon in the distance. Alain Goraguer’s acid-drenched avant rock score complements the strange art style perfectly. The instrumentation is mostly reverb-heavy guitar with a rhythm section, but exotic accents are spread throughout: wordless chanting, waka-waka funk riffs, woodwinds, vibes, and even a sleazy sax to accompany the wild Oms bizarre luminescent striptease ritual. Goraguer sprinkles electronic synthesizers throughout the soundtrack to mimic the weird calls of the planet’s surreal beasts. The Gallic rock score thrums through the film almost constantly, never turning grating despite constantly flirting with dissonance, and composes a large part of that peculiar Fatastic Planet feel. It’s an art style that’s representational and extremely realistic in its fine detail, but highly artificial in the way it’s assembled, like a child’s pop-up book. The effect is simultaneously real and unrealistic, a perfect mix considering the bizarre alien lifeforms the film depicts.
Foremost among those lifeforms are the Traggs, blue aliens with red eyes, webbed ears, and pinkies as tall as a full grown man. The haughty Traags stubbornly refuse to recognize human intelligence and would like to believe that their highly evolved civilization is incomprehensible to lower beings. Even if the purpose of some of their advanced appliances is inscrutable to us, their culture is sadly recognizable in its smug superiority and its casual cruelty to those Traags deem inferior beings. Of course, their customs are curious: they inhale their food from a mustard-colored cloud in their living rooms, and for them, an act as simple as putting a collar on a pet turns into a full-blown rainbow strobe light show that would make a Pink Floyd concert promoter’s eyes turn green with envy. The key aspect of their society is meditation: “a baby Om is nothing compared to meditation,” explains a Traag daddy to his Om-obsessed little girl. Although sometimes meditation involves Traags sitting four abreast while black tentacles caress their bodies and cause them to melt, change color and morph into fractal shapes, mostly their eyes blank and they just bliss out as a miniature (i.e. roughly human sized) Traag simulacrum forms in a nearby soap bubble and drifts off into the sky. At times of mass meditation the skies of the fantastic planet are filled with flocks of bubbles floating upwards through the atmosphere, migrating to the satellite dubbed the “strange planet.” What they do when they get there is a trippy surprise that I won’t spoil in this space.
The Traags may be the dominant species of the fantastic planet, but they are not alone. The planetary biome truly features an ensemble cast of twisted flora and fauna. The most common domestic plant on the planet is a veiny rock that spouts bat-wing bushes, but once the Om hero Terr escapes his domestic captivity and heads into the wilderness he encounters a bewildering forest of strange vegetation, wild thickets of dense organic possibilities. Bushes drip white goo and shrubs lash like whips as the Oms trek across the waste looking for a homeland. One predatory animal/plant hybrid is composed of a fat face suspended in a bamboo cage; it snatches the flying creatures that land on the finger-like branches that grow from its nose and crushes them, flinging them to the ground with a cruel smile. The wild Oms adapt to this environment, learning to cope with predators like the flying anteater who scoops up people with its sticky tongue. In a gruesome scene, the primitive tribe uses claws tethered to ropes, which they fling like grappling hooks, to rips its wings to shreds so it falls to earth, then poke a hole in the carcass with a spear and shower in the plume of blood that spews forth. The resourceful Oms adapt other indigenous beasts to their own purposes: the tribal warlord wears a pink octopus-creature for a crown, and they fight ceremonial duels by tying man-sized blue worms with enormous sharp beaks to their torsos. Other than the Oms, everything on this planet is unearthly; you never know what weird surprise or surreal new landscape will heave into view when Terr crosses the next horizon.
Although the story of Fantastic Planet strains towards the epic, with the apocalyptic scenes of the Traags’ “de-omification” final solution (with giant flashlights hovering in the sky, it’s the trippiest evocation of genocide you’ll ever encounter), the tale is really only meant to service the setting. Although a complex love/torment dynamic forms between the immature Traag Tiwa and the orphaned Om Terr she adopts as a pet, the characters are generally stock: many important Oms aren’t even named. Roland Topor’s inspired drawings are the unquestioned stars of the movie. The planet’s visual topography lives up to the title’s original French adjective, sauvage (meaning “savage” or “wild”) as well as to the English fantastic (in the sense both of “full of fantasy” and “great”). The planet Topor and Laloux create is an amazing self-contained world; although economically sketched in a mere seventy minutes, it gives the appearance of a fully formed society and ecology. Like the art itself, the events that transpire on this planet sometimes seem ultra-real, and sometimes utterly unreal (like the tubular trees that drip balls of gas that tint the film’s frame gray). But, no matter what happens, it’s always consistent with Topor and Laloux’s vision: it always a part of their fantastic planet. And you don’t have to smoke a bowl to appreciate it.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… still provide[s] the giddy buzz of arty weirdness that has long made it an object of cult veneration… it’s not every stoner midnight movie that can stand a second viewing in the sober light of day.”–Gary Dauphin, The Village Voice (1999 re-release)
OFFICIAL SITE: Fantastic Planet at Masters of Cinema – The British distributors site contains an alternate trailer and an essay by Craig Keller
IMDB LINK: Fantastic Planet (1973)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
René Laloux, The Man Who Made La Planète Sauvage (The Fantastic Planet) – this mini-bio of Laloux from the World Animation Network contains lots of information about Fantastic Planet
Le planète sauvage – Le Palais des dessins animés – this French language page in an animation database collects even more links to Fantastic Planet pages and reviews (mostly in English), although many links are outdated
DVD INFO: Accent Cinema’s 2007 release (buy) is a very respectful edition and a big upgrade over the previous Anchor Bay version. You can watch the movie in its original French with subtitles or (if you must) in New World Picture’s English language dub (with Barry Bostwick as the narrator). The disc includes the American trailer; “Laloux Sauvage,” an informative featurette on director Rene Laloux; and (pointlessly) a music video from Sean Lennon with crude animation vaguely inspired by Fantastic Planet. The biggest gem of the special features is Laloux and Topor’s 1966 short Les Escargots, a ten-minute comedy about a giant snail invasion that was a stylistic warmup for the more elaborate animation of Fantastic Planet.
Europeans have the option to purchase Fantastic Planet on Blu-ray via the Masters of Cinema release (buy). This edition also includes Les Escargots along with Laloux’s other four shorts, meaning that this disc holds Laloux’s entire cinematic output except for the features Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1988). The “Laloux Sauvage” documentary also graces this collection, and it comes with the film’s complete soundtrack and a 56 page booklet. This is the greatest disc imaginable for fans of Laloux and Fantastic Planet who can play Blu-rays with Region B encoding.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Eric SG” [who later became known as Eric Gabbard] who described it as a “French animated headtrip with funky 70′s score and hallucinatory visuals.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)