When science fiction is at its best, it reflects the world and society of now through the lens of worlds and times far off. It’s a genre of allegory and allusion and other words that may or may not start with “all.” With animation, sci-fi can do anything it wants because it’s not hampered by the parameters of what a live crew of people can pull off. You can truly do anything. This perfect melding produced one of the most interesting and surreal sci-fi pictures of the 1970s, the French animated oddity Fantastic Planet.
Directed by animator René Laloux and production designed by Roland Topor, released in 1973, Fantastic Planet–or La Planète sauvage–is a beautiful mixture of art, theme, story, and symbolism. It was based on the 1957 novel Oms en série (translated: Oms Linked Together) by Stefan Wul and touches on topics such as racism, slavery, animal rights, revolution, learning to live in harmony, and war at large. It’s amazing that such a deep and complex story could be done using animated cut-outs–not unlike what Terry Gilliam did during his Monty Python days–and with a runtime of only 72 minutes.
The story takes place in the distant future–probably–on the planet Ygam. The giant humanoid Traag species have brought human beings which they call “Oms” (a play on the French word for men, Hommes) from Earth to study. They treat the Oms as animals, and since they are the same in relative size as we are to mice, it makes sense. The Traags are a highly advanced technological and spiritual society and keep Oms as pets, or just let them roam around in a strange wilderness, slaughtering many of them periodically to “control population.” The Traags have much longer lifespans but they reproduce very rarely, meaning the Oms soon outnumber the Traags greatly. VERY IMPORTANT TO THE STORY.
As the film begins, a mother Om is killed by three Traag children after much teasing and rough play. Its baby is left and one of the Traaglings, named Tiva, takes the little boy as her pet, naming him Terr (another allusion to Earth). While Tiva loves Terr, her scientist parents want to make sure the Om is under control and makes him wear a collar that can force Terr in various directions based on Tiva’s thoughts. She takes him everywhere, including to the Traag form of school in which knowledge is uploaded via headphones. Due to a defect in the collar, Terr is able to receive the knowledge that Tiva gets, making him smarter than any of the other Oms.
As Terr gets older, so too does Tiva, who loses interest in her pet. Before she can send him away, he flees in the night, stealing her headphones. He eventually runs into wild Oms who welcome him into their tribe and he, using the headphones, teaches them about Traag laws, technology, language, and rituals. They are eventually able to read that the park full of Oms is set to be leveled, and many are slaughtered in the process, though many including Terr escape. Meeting up with other tribes people, Terr and company begin building a rocket to try to flee Ygam to its moon, called “the Savage Planet,” which is where the Traag’s consciousness goes during meditation. While the Oms are no match for Traag purge machines, they may be able to affect the life and longevity of their blue abductors if they can sabotage the Savage Planet.
Though Fantastic Planet was made using stylized pictures animated like paper dolls, the viewer gets the sensation that they’re watching a historical documentary or something. It looks like we’re privy to what happened in another culture and following real wars that existed back then and there. It’s a strange feeling. Part of the movie is constructed like that, with narration of Terr in the future setting up the action, and large chunks of the narrative are only depicted visually with awesome ’70s rock music playing while we watch. You care about the plight of the Oms, but you’re also intrigued by the society and customs of the Traags, an all-too-human alien race.
The humans in the movie are all Anglo-looking, which was a deliberate choice, I believe, as the correlation to historical slavery and subsequent freedom is cemented. It also details how education levels the playing field between the two species and there’s even a shot at the end of a young Traag learning about the war and stroking a dog-like creature, insinuating that Oms stop being treated as animals. It doesn’t, necessarily, condemn the keeping of animals as pets, but it does say that any creature with intelligence should be treated like that.
The movie was given a theatrical release in America, presented by Roger Corman of all people, and it was a financial and critical success in Europe and elsewhere. However in the years following, Fantastic Planet has fallen into obscurity a bit, which is why it’s fantastic that Criterion has released a cleaned up and gorgeous 2K restoration. The colors pop so vibrantly that you’d swear you were watching a movie made in the last five years using older techniques. I love it when Criterion has put out animated films because you know you’re getting the best version of these independent productions.
The extras on the disc are also very informative and entertaining. These include two early short films by Laloux and Topor, Les temps morts (1965) and Les escargots (1966), which translate to “The Dead Times” and “The Snails,” respectively; Laloux sauvage, a 2009 documentary about Laloux’s work; an episode of the French program Italiques focusing on Topor’s designs and art direction; a 1973 interview with Topor; and more.
This is a movie I’ve always wanted to watch since I read about it in a book called 501 Sci-Fi Films to See Before You Die and several years later it’s more than lived up to its reputation. Give this movie a look if you have the inclination. Or even if you don’t. Schlock & Awe is all about edifying.
Images: Argos Films/Criterion