In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week, we look at one of the few animated films we get to cover, from a country that up until that point only had made a handful of animated films, that being the surreal sci-fi epic, Fantastic Planet!
If you go into any second hand bookstore, or any Oxfam Books, dare I say, even a Waterstones, and you go to the science fiction section, you can find a book with a certain plot, probably by Robert A. Heinlein. That being, humanity is no longer the dominant species, one member of the species is kept in captivity giving him an elevated knowledge of the world around him because of the superior alien tech, and also an elevated knowledge of the society in which he is entrapped, so that when he eventually escapes into a group of renegade rebel humans he can be a key component driving the plot forward as the society is overthrown. If you have seen literally one dystopia film or read one dystopian book, you can see at least one of these plot beats in something you’ve consumed. It’s so ubiquitous it was pastiched in the second fucking episode, the first after the pilot, of Rick and Morty. This is not a bad thing, I hold true that these self cannibalising genres are a good thing and much richer hunting grounds for interesting filmmaking and artistic construction than genres that aren’t like this. I remember explaining my theory to my University lecturer, who’s had books published on slasher fiction, talking about my love for George A. Romero’s and Brian de Palma’s films, that as long as you fulfil certain audience expectations in horror you have a lot of freedom to experiment and do whatever you want, and that’s where the really exhilarating and interesting shit lies.
So what does any of this have to do with Fantastic Planet? Well, I hope I can elucidate.
Fantastic Planet is a 1973 French animated science fiction film directed by René Laloux, it takes place in an alien world where humans are dominated by giant blue humanoids called Traags, they are bald, very inexpressive although very deeply felt, and they don’t close their eyes, eyelids just fade onto their eyes. Our film opens with a barely dressed mother carrying her baby, stopped by some mysterious hand right out of one of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations slapping her away every time she tries to run. This is out of context, we don’t know anything about the aliens. It feels in that way like this strange Pythonesque absurdist tract that would lead into some surrealist joke. It is only when we pan out that we see it’s a group of child Traags playing like young children using magnifying glasses to burn ants. Here we realise this is a deeply harrowing loss of dignity and autonomy for an existing human. Eventually she dies and they take in her baby child as a pet, here’s our main character, Terr. It is through his eyes growing up that we explore this strange world.
This fantastical planet is very well explored, and unique, and memorable. Through the stunning stop motion which uses card cut outs that were contemporary to Gilliam, innovating the style, the world has a striking granularity and texture. It feels like everything is beautifully rendered in individual hand drawn drawings that makes it feel like it comes from this nostalgic, fictional childhood filled with hand drawn Christmas cards of robins, only adding to its strange, surreal, dreamy, alien aesthetic. The world itself is perfectly alien. They already have the tools that can implant knowledge directly into your brain. They have this strange practice of meditation where they seem to leave their bodies. At one point, the baby Terr walks in on a group ad adults meditating and what we see is this Dalí style, surrealist melting of bodies and strange transfiguration into this mess of wiry sinews and colourful melting that is truly stunning. This creation of the world is superbly done and with buckets of provocative imagination and irony. This is aided by a fascinating, complex, and captivating jazz fusion score by Alain Goraguer that blends aspects of jazz, funk, and psychedelic music to create something that reflects the weirdness of the world perfectly.
One way that they keep reinforcing the alien nature of this world is by the use of scale. Whereas someone like Guillermo del Toro in Pacific Rim knows exactly what to do to make the monsters look big to our perspective on the ground as people, in Fantastic Planet, Laloux treats the aliens as the default proportions. The humans always look small, even amongst each other. Whereas Guillermo del Toro or Micheal Bay will make something look big by showing partials in frame from the perspective of a human who occupies what we might call a default scale, in Fantastic Planet, what we get are groups of humans with lots of headroom in frame going on with many other humans entirely fit in frame in the background. It makes everyone look small. This is important because it hits this almost Lovecraftian tone. Instead of humans being terrified at their insignificance in the face of an unknown evil, it creates this very emotionally detached perspective that it realises and fleshes out very well, and makes us take their perspective, and shows us how insignificant humans are to them.
What this means is that when there’s real brutality, it’s all the more brutal. When it’s humans being picked off like insignificant ants by some alien anteater, you’re forced to think about what it would be like for a person to be digested by an anteater like that. When humans are exterminated like cockroaches by chemical agents it evokes genocidal imagery, and makes you think about humans as cockroaches and what it would be like if cockroaches were more sentient. When a baby child is dolled up, looking actually made up by an alien it is pathetic and frightening and makes you feel so deeply vulnerable.
This morning, before watching this movie, I watched a short film that Laloux directed that really tied all the themes of Fantastic Planet together for me. It was called The Snails. The plot is surreal as expected but straightforward. A man discovers he can only keep his crops crowing if he cries on them. A herd of snails find them and upon gorging on his crops, become Godzilla sized and wreck the nearby village to the point of ultimate destruction. The snails slowly die off and the city rebuilds. The farmer starts growing carrots instead of lettuce, and from over the hill what does he see? A group of giant rabbits. Now, for me, both this story, and the story of Fantastic Planet have a strong environmentalist metaphor. In The Snails it’s far more obvious but comparing the two works only brings it out more strongly in Fantastic Planet. In Fantastic Planet you are forced to think about what it would be like if what we do to nature was visited upon us, and although technical innovation is celebrated, tech only becomes good by stealing it from the oppressors, it is only by working in peace together that the two races in Fantastic Planet coexist. In this way the message is to respect nature and the world around you and work together, understand we cannot own and dominate and exploit it and expunge the elements we don’t like. Basically, fuck gardens. Both films also show a turning of the tables on humans delivering this message.
So what does this all have to do with what I started off this piece saying about genre films? Really, Fantastic Planet is the perfect example of the point I was trying to make because the plot is incredibly generic, you have seen it one hundred times, but while the plot is a key part of the construction it is not and never was meant to be the appeal of the movie. It is simply the coat hanger on which to hang the beautiful world building, themes, and imagery. It is the perfect example of where the style is the substance, because it’s all delivered visually, and it’s delivered well and clearly. Fantastic Planet gives you the bare minimum elements you’d expect from a science fiction picture, and having established its genre credentials and found that market as a science fiction film, it is then allowed to do so, so much more.