Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Fantastic Planet

I met a rather interested character in a hostel in San Francisco recently. He was visiting the city for a few days from Stanford and started talking to me in the computer room, looking for some human conversation I think. A Phd student of applied physics, he also taught a music technology class and showed me his website for generating music through computer programming. I didn't understand it much, but he asked me about my area of study and had a surprising interest in Land Art and Andy Goldsworthy in particular. He also told me about this crazy little French animated movie, The Fantastic Planet and insisted we watch it together. Unfortunately the movie room was occupied, and we ended up going out to a bar instead, but a few weeks later I finally got around to watching it by myself, and now I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to see it with him, I would love to know what he had to say about it.

A bizarre, surrealist animated film, it was made in 1973 and directed by Rene Laloux, with animation by the writer and artist Roland Topor. The graphics are more akin to the painting than the animation tradition, with slow movement and sketchy lines, all the colours are subdues browns and the whole landscape is reminiscent of a surrealist Dali dreamscape. The imagery is very dream like, with large moving plants that devour each other and populated with a variety of threatening animals and anamorphic forms.
The story centers around a distopian future, reminiscent of planet of the apes, where human creatures called Oms are the playthings of the large Draags, blue creatures who are a hundred times the size and are an advanced species of meditating aliens.  They keep the Oms as pets, and regularly carry out mass exterminations of the wild Oms living in the forests. The plot follows the life of one Om, Terr, adopted when orphaned by a young female Draag named Tiwa. Tiwa's father is one of the ruling elite, and through Tiwa's daily lessons, Terr learns about the culture and history of the Draag planet. When he eventually escapes to join the wild Oms, he takes this knowledge with him to help build space ships for the Oms. With these ships, Terr travels to the Fantastic Planet, where he destroys the huge grey statues he finds there that allow the Draags to reproduce, thus threatening the whole race and simultaneously preventing a mass extermination of his own species.
The film was produced between France and Czechoslovakia and is an obvious allegory for the Soviet Occupation of Czechoslovakia. With the oppressed rising up to threaten the rule of their oppressors, it has resonances for any master/slave society, and can be read as an allegory for many different historical and political regimes as well as an influence on many more recent science fiction universes, from the Empire and Rebels in Star Wars, to the Naa'vi and soldiers in Avatar.
What is unusual in this portrayal of rulers and ruled, is the sympathetic portrayal of the Draags, particularly Tiwa, Terr's owner. In the beginning of the film we see her play with him like a pet, and we laugh at his antics along with her. Innocent of any wrongdoing, it is difficult to blame her for her treatment of him, as she does appear to be genuinely fond of him. The beginning of the film focuses on the civilization of the Draags, and we view the story from their perspective, it is only when Terr gains an education and becomes self-aware that the point of view shifts and we begin to sympathize with him.  When he escapes to join a colony of Oms in the wild, Tiwa disappears from the story, and we never learn her reaction or opinions to the following events. I found her to be a more sympathetic character than Terr, who plays the role of savior, uniting the warring Om clans to bring them salvation. A rather boring and predicable theme.
Strangely enough, the random scenes of large threatening plant life forms are more terrifying than the scenes of mass extermination of the Oms, possibly because the Oms are never given any personality or likeable qualities. The haunting atmosphere of this world is made all the more by the score by Alain Goraguer. It's experimentally trippy psychedelic sound fits the strange quirky animation and the weird slow pace of the narrative perfectly. The music and animation are the most fascinating parts of this film. I'm not a huge fan of science fiction other-worlds, and the story left me a little cold, particularly the abrupt ending, where the two warring species suddenly are able to live in perfect harmony with no hangover from their previous hierarchical society. I enjoyed it best when it abandoned all plot and focused instead on lengthy close ups of the beautiful painterly faces of the Oms, and the extended scenes of the planets flora and fauna.

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