René Laloux’s 1973 animated sci-fi parable Fantastic Planet may be the strangest film to ever nab the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. And it has surprisingly strong competition for that title, as both Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Oldboy took home Cannes’ silver medal in subsequent years. So, if it isn’t quite the weirdest, it’s definitely the dorkiest, because the only thing dorkier than a Monty Python movie is a movie adapted from a paperback sci-fi novel containing more fantastical entities than a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual illustrated by Roger Dean. If any of the references in that last sentence made you smile or nod in approval, then Fantastic Planet should be at the top of your watchlist. In what is hopefully a small step towards adding more animated works to their catalog, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection have just released a restored version of the film, which is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in traditional animation or psychedelic art.
Adapted from a 1957 novel by French dentist-turned-writer Stefan Wul (who also wrote the source material for Laloux’s next feature, Time Masters), Fantastic Planet is a pure exercise in sci-fi pulp. The story takes place on Ygam, a semi-barren yellow planet inhabited by the Draags, a race of blue-skinned, red-eyed humanoid giants whose existence seemingly revolves around ritual meditation, mind-melding and exterminating Oms. What are Oms, you ask? That’s the name given to humans in this story; some are domesticated and live as the pets of Draag children, most live in the wild in perpetual fear of being killed. In fact, the film opens with the death of a woman, poked and prodded and flicked around until she collapses. Her infant son (Eric Baugin), who narrates the film as a grown man, is adopted by a young Draag named Tiva (Jennifer Drake). Though she means well, Tiva treats her Om, who she has named Terr, like dirt, putting him in a painful homing collar, dressing him up in embarrassing clothes and putting him in Om-on-Om cockfights. Grown up and fed up, Terr (now voiced by Jean Valmont) escapes, taking with him a headband used by the Draags to permanently etch information into their brains, and ultimately joins a colony of wild Oms to plan an uprising.
The film does have a revolutionary streak, one that would continue over the course of Laloux’s full-length career. All three of his features involve some manner of monolithic totalitarian entity to be fought; Fantastic Planet has the Draags, Time Masters has the faceless angel-men of Planet Gamma 10, Gandahar has the Men of Metal. All of these baddies are oppressive alien hive minds, and all ultimately bested by the twin daggers of knowledge and organization. Here, Terr gets nowhere until he harnesses the power of the Draag headband, and the Oms get nowhere until they team up with a rival tribe. Though this isn’t before Terr is put into another cockfight by and against his own people, a sign of the oppressive structures of of the Draags being replicated among the Oms.
But Fantastic Planet isn’t really a politically complex film, just as most sci-fi allegories of this particular stripe aren’t. They tend to have 1:1 real-world transpositions, often scrubbed of subtlety or nuance: these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, shit’s messed up, but ultimately we prevail. Such is the nature of pulp. Though its story elements are often rote, they are almost endearingly so, consisting of generic oppressor/oppressed analogues and French puns: “Om” rhymes with “hommes,” or humankind, and “Terr” rhymes with “Terre,” or Earth. The Draags don’t appear to have a pun linked to their name, unless we count them being a drag, man. They embody the archetype of the advanced alien civilization, powerful but unfeeling, developed in mind and spirit but devoid of the craftiness, resilience and heart that make humans the scrappy underdog in these stories. But the star of the show isn’t the narrative or the politics, but the art direction.
Co-writer/illustrator Roland Topor, a French polymath who wrote The Tenant’s source novel and acted in Herzog’s Nosferatu, conceived the film’s wild, otherworldly imagery. The result is a veritable Codex Serephinianus, a cutout compendium of surreal beasts ranging from creepy-looking but friendly cleft-lipped dust mites that spin clothing directly onto your body, to a demonic vulture/goat hybrid whose head is all horn and whose tongue looks like a cross between a sea cucumber and a condom. The plants and topography all have a strange organic quality to them; shrubs look like follicles, trees grow giant claws, plains resemble musculature. Even the cave the Oms sleep in looks like an ear canal. Every inch of this film’s mise-en-scène is a triumph of the imagination. Tying the whole thing together is Alain Goraguer’s score, drenched in wah pedal, recorder, clavinet and other 70s space-jazz accoutrements. The film isn’t dialogue-heavy, giving Goraguer and his band plenty of room to stretch out and move the narrative along. There’s even room for some sexy Dick Parry-esque sax lines and a classic waltz towards the end of the film’s lithe 72-minute runtime. As a whole, Fantastic Planet works both as fascinating relic and singular cinematic experience, thick with psychedelic riches for the eyes and ears.
Derek Godin (@derek_g) is a freelance writer from Montreal, Quebec. He is the co-founder and co-editor of Dim the House Lights, a graduate of Concordia University’s MA Film Studies program and a two-time WWE Intercontinental Champion (only two of these are true).