Your faithful blogger has a burr in his saddle when it comes to movie culture. There will be this wonderful, creative, original movie that comes out, and sure people appreciate it. But when it comes time to talk about that same movie, it gets two reactions, usually combined:
- It’s like an LSD trip!
- It’s all a dream!
I hate that. That is the sound of a profound work meeting a tiny mind which is incapable of grasping a corner of it. It is the equivalent of going to see the Mona Lisa and reacting with “I’d tap that!” It’s like viewing the Sistine Chapel to gaze at the ceiling and going “It’s very colorful!” It’s like being shown Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, open to any page, and reacting like…
Take note: People who go around comparing everything to dropping acid, “whoa, it’s a trip,” have never dropped acid in their lives and in fact the hardest drug they’ve encountered was the funky not-quite-prescription ones they flinched out of mom’s purse. You have my permission to call them out.
People who are normally fairly in possession of their faculties will still turn into slack-jawed philistines at the first mention of a movie like Fantastic Planet. Which should be considered an anime, even though it was of French-Czech origin. The British distributor’s site even contends that this film was an influence on Studio Ghibli. Meanwhile, director Masaaki Yuasa cited this film as the influence for his flabbergasting directorial debut Mind Game. So today we’re going to treat it like an anime. We’re also going to make an effort to like, dude, actually UNDERSTAND this movie, while I condescendingly explain it to everybody. Is that so hard?
Background for Fantastic Planet (1973)
First off, not many people mention that Fantastic Planet is based on the novel Oms en Série (roughly “Oms linked together”) by Stefan Wul, a French sci-fi author most active through the 1950s. This novel was published by French publisher Fleuve Noir, as part of their “Anticipation” label. Being science fiction, this is a French way of saying “the future.” As most sci-fi tends to do (indeed, as constructed to do), the Fleuve Noir Anticipation novels were a vehicle for examining the human condition through the lens of the fantasy and futurist. This series was aimed at addressing concerns of the future stemming from the French Fourth Republic.
So: In case you haven’t noticed, Fantastic Planet grapples with political issues.
Stefan Wul managed to crack off about a dozen novels in his career, but the adaptations of his science fiction works are his biggest claim to fame. His day job was that of a dental surgeon, of all things.
Getting back to the film, Czechoslovakia only enters into its production for the animation itself, done at Jiří Trnka Studios. Czechoslovakia is actually a hotbed of animation talent, with a thriving animated arts scene going back a century as of this writing. If you like the eye candy served up in Fantastic Planet, there’s more where that came from.
Our point, here, is that in all but the drawing, Fantastic Planet should be considered a French film. It is adapted by a French director from a French author and its political themes have roots in French schools of thought. With that said, the Czech animation style in places is very much avant-garde. What with being produced in the early ’70s, it gives a nod to the psychedelic art movement too. But even this has a purpose, because it’s trying to depict aliens living on an alien world.
See, your average filmed sci-fi is happy enough to find a weird rock on Earth to be a film location, and call that another planet:
Animators share no such constraint. Their budget is the same no matter what they draw, so they’re free to doodle whatever wildly imaginative landscape they like.
It’s rare that even animators go to such lengths to make their alien worlds seem this truly alien. Fantastic Planet is bursting with extraterrestrial flora and fauna in every frame. This movie has an unmistakable style all its own, never duplicated nor even imitated anywhere else.
And then Roger Corman came along and said, “Blue boobies! Dude, trippy!” He is responsible for the American distribution, without which this already obscure movie would be a thousand times less famous.
Revolutionary Allegory in Fantastic Planet
In brief, the story is about these giant (to us) blue aliens called “Draags,” a technologically advanced society with a far-spun spirituality. They’ve apparently gone galaxy-hopping and adopted humans (called “Oms”) along the way, as literal pets and playthings. To the Draags, humans are just animals, incapable of rational thought or feelings.
One Draag girl, Tiwa, adopts a young male Om named “Terr.” She fits Terr with a collar that controls his movement. As Tiwa attends school, she takes Terr along, who eavesdrops on the lessons. Terr later escapes to band up with wild Oms living in parks on the Draag planet. Teaching to other Oms the knowledge he has absorbed, he eventually leads a revolt against the oppressive Draag society.
Here’s Retro Nerd Girl with a very worthy review that doesn’t descend into philistine pandering:
If this is giving you a familiar feeling, you’re probably thinking of the franchise Planet of the Apes, which is based on French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des Singes. And you’d be correct in making that guess, because likewise, the apes in that world dismiss humans as dumb animals and the enslaved humans have to prove their sentience and revolt to throw off their oppression.
Both stories deal with themes of slavery, society controlled by a different intelligence, all of humanity degraded to the same status we unfortunately assign races we perceive as “lesser,” and so on. The Draags in Fantastic Planet are peeved to no end with the escaped wild Oms, which they treat as vermin to be exterminated. Which they do, using gas, an obvious parallel with our own historic genocide attempts. Despite this, Oms breed at a fast rate (horny humans, you know), so we get scenes of the Draags in a political counsel discussing what to do with them.
Misconceptions today include the assumption that Fantastic Planet‘s allegory is pointing to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which happened right when they were first sitting down to make this movie. But the source novel was printed in 1957, at the tail end of the Fourth French Republic. In fact, the most likely conflict author Stefan Wul might have had in mind was the way France treated Algeria, famously brought to an end by the French-Algerian War – with sympathies on the Algerian side!
Nevertheless, you can take any human right crisis and translate it into Draag and Om. The script is as old as history. Honestly, who’s to say if the events between Russia and Czechoslovakia didn’t help give energy to this production?
Real Monsters Have Depth
Now, let’s compare this to how oppressive tribes are normally portrayed in this sort of movie. There’s a zillion and one movies out there where an alien species antagonizing humans is portrayed as little more than grunting, dumb beasts themselves. Battlefield Earth, They Live, Independence Day, The War of the Worlds. The aliens are just “evil for the sake of evil,” while paradoxically possessing all this advanced technology and also being dumb, squawking grunts.
“Ack! Ack ack!”
The Draags, by contrast, sound just like humans, particularly humans justifying their gross racism. Our introduction to Draags is several children toying with an Om until they KILL it, and then shrugging it off as a trivial consequence. They act exactly like human children poking at an anthill during recess. They are completely innocent, doing as they have been taught.
Furthermore, once we see some more of Draag society and get to their advanced technology and mind-blowing meditation rituals, we can’t completely rule out that they may be right about us. They really are frightfully advanced beyond anything we can currently conceive.
So this movie had a very important job. Instead of merely saying “racism is bad,” it tries to show how racism happens in the first place, how it is perpetuated over generations until it’s so ingrained that nobody even realizes it.
Now About That Psychedelic Aspect
It cannot be denied that the styling of this film seems to be at least throwing a bone to the hippies. Over at my other gig, 366 Weird Movies’ Greg Smalley notes that even if the film wasn’t taking its motif from acid culture, it damned sure got adopted by it. What helps this along is the weirdly fetishistic and yet defiantly non-gratuitous use of nudity. Humans casually wander around naked or half-dressed, but that’s excusable considering the wild ones have to scavenge for scraps of fabric. But the Draags go to the point of cutting out portholes in their jumpsuits for their breasts, and yet do not seem to attach any erotic significance to this style.
It goes more towards showing how alien this society is, while also being one more argument for Draags being such an advanced species, so they aren’t triggered by a booby getting some air.
Still, the artwork, especially when it shows natural life on the Draag home world, shows influences gathered from anything between Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dali, and Yellow Submarine. Then throw in the progressive rock soundtrack courtesy of Alain Goraguer, which adds yet another jolting layer of weirdness to the experience.
But we can also see that this film might just be a revolutionary action call carefully disguised in flower child clothing. Any country under Soviet control at the time dealt with heavy censorship. As we’ve mentioned before in a completely different context, Civil Rights problems plus censorship is part of what motivates us to turn to science fiction in the first place. It’s how you dodge censors. Oh, I’m not allowed to write a story condemning this government’s treatment of this ethnic group? Fine, it’s about aliens. Uh, yeah, and a shallow cash-in to the psychedelic set. Gotta give those potheads something to watch, you know, their dollars spend the same…
That’s my theory. Maybe it’s wrong. But at least it’s better than “Duuuude what were they smokiiiing!” Just respect the artists enough to take a work seriously, that’s all I ask.