The Criterion Collection Review | Fantastic Planet
There is a strange, dreamlike placidity that hangs – like a silent, terrifying fog – over René Laloux’s 1973 animated sci-fi classic Fantastic Planet, available on a new Criterion Blu-ray on Tuesday June 21st. It’s an eerie film, gently overflowing with imagination and full-blown, psychedelic, midnight movie imagery. The images, based on drawings by illustrator Roland Topor and animated by the Czech production studio Jiří Trnka, look like a deliberately impossible midpoint between the whimsy Dr. Seuss and the Hell of Hieronymus Bosch. This is a movie so striking, so strange, that it will certainly shake any modern casual science fiction fan out of their aesthetic complacency. Fantastic Planet should serve to remind us that sci-fi, as a genre, can – and perhaps should more often – be used to explore the boundless depths of aesthetic possibility.
Fantastic Planet (a.k.a. La Planéte Sauvage) takes place in a distant, distant future on a planet called Ygam, which is populated by eyelid-less blue humanoids called Traags. Traags live in peace and have devoted their lives to meditation. When Traags meditate, their bodies vanish into floating spheres, and they drift calmly through their planet’s ineffable landscape. And what a landscape. The fauna on display is beyond understanding, and the cruel weirdness of Ygam is something out of a dream. The only thing I can confidently compare Fantastic Planet to is the Codex Seraphinianus, a 1981 parallel universe encyclopedia written in an alien language. Or maybe a Yes album cover.
The Traags own tiny creatures called Oms as pets. Oms – after the French word “hommes” – are actually human beings who have been taken from Earth at some point in the past, and who have been living as, essentially, rats on Ygam. The narrator of the film is an Om named Terr (Jean Valmont) who is raised into young adulthood by a teen Draag (Draags are incredibly long-lived), and who will eventually flee his mistress, find a tribe of feral Oms living in a park, and use a Traag education device to enlighten his fellow humans.
The overall surrealist tone is compounded by the funky soundtrack by Alain Goraguer, whose buzzy guitars and soothing synths keep the viewer wrapped in a comforting cloud of jazzy unease.
There are, instantly, several political and classist allegories that can be drawn from the plot, most notably the notion of having to intelligently interact and communicate with a class or a people you previously assumed to have no voice. Plug in whatever oppressed minority you like. Some have even said that Fantastic Planet is a conjecture as to what will happen when animals suddenly begin evolving in humans’ midst. Personally, I like to see it as metaphor for the battle between the rich and the poor.
Fantastic Planet was released in early 1970s – before Star Wars got its greasy fingerprints on everything – when cinematic science fiction was in a dark, aggressively cerebral place. Filmed sci-fi was, at this point, far more in line with sci-fi literature: i.e. Interested in intellectual extremes and philosophical conjecture. Not to mention chock full of unique, odd, off-putting creatures, planets, and technologies. But, unlike a lot of the cinematic drama of the time, sci-fi tended toward the optimistic, and Fantastic Planet, despite its violence throughout, ends on a note of hope and peace.
In the modern epoch, science fiction has become the go-to genre of the biggest of blockbusters, and modern movie audiences are regularly treated to a veritable glut of CGI-constructed laser guns, super humans, and imaginative technologies. Few modern sci-fi films, however, even feint in the direction of surreality, cerebral analysis, or political allegory. Such films are, of course, out there (Ex Machina immediately comes to mind), but I think the era where a full-length animated feature of this much outright weirdness and overwhelming aesthetic power has long passed. As such, we must savor Fantastic Planet as the counterculture-ready artistic experiment it is. In many ways, Fantastic Planet may be one of the purest sci-fi films of its decade.
The Criterion Blu-ray features a gorgeously cleaned-up image, and, most importantly, features a new, cleaned-up subtitle translation. This is a market improvement over the old VHS and DVD editions of the film, which would sometimes be simultaneously dubbed and subtitled, often with slightly different translations. This is the version of the film you want.
Top Image: Argos Films
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.