Some motion pictures create a compelling alien world so convincingly that their auras linger long after the viewing of them. Rene Laloux’s Franco-Czech production FANTASTIC PLANET (1973) is one of those special films, wonderfully and hypnotically so. Its sounds and images burrow their way quietly into our subconscious, remaining forever entwined with the multitude of dream objects, memories, fears, and fantasies that compose our vast mental landscape.
The visual landscape of the film itself, designed and drawn by artist and co-writer Roland Topor, recalls some mysterious internal realm, occupying a space somewhere between Hieronymus Bosch and Terry Gilliam. The quietly groovy funk jazz soundtrack –by Alain Goraguer, whose resume includes projects with Serge Gainsbourg and Boris Vian– is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s soundtrack work from this era, complete with unidentifiable otherworldly noises, and is often allowed center stage due to the film’s sparse screenplay.
Indeed, the scarcity of the human voice is central to the mesmerizing pull of the movie, as is the mostly static nature of the camerawork, which combine to give FANTASTIC PLANET the relaxed, deadpan gravity of a nature documentary.
In true documentary style, we are privileged to witness a number of weird rituals and weirder creatures in their natural habitat, a strangely calming and grounding strategy that balances the revolutionary aspect of the story being told. Although the film is based on Stefan Wul’s 1957 French science fiction novel “Oms en Serie” (Oms Linked Together), Laloux wisely chose the title FANTASTIC PLANET for his adaptation. It is the curious and fascinating planet Ygam itself, along with its native flora and fauna, and its mysterious moon, that are as much the film’s subject as its narrative of slavery, rebellion, and reconciliation that takes place in this bizarre setting.
A balance must be struck between the needs of the race of tiny Oms, a transliteration of the French “hommes,” or “men,” and the larger Traags, blue-skinned humanoids who keep domesticated Oms as pets while striving to exterminate the packs of wild Oms that have forged an independent existence out in the wilds. Terr, a domesticated Om who escapes captivity and discovers the wild Oms on the outskirts of the city, becomes the catalyst for unprecedented revolution and change on Ygam, but not without conflict and bloodshed.
This is an old story to be sure, but one enlivened by the singular twists of imagination, presentation, and overall sensation. It is both timeless and intimately tied to its time and place in history, with its comparatively innocent depiction of alien life and eroticism. FANTASTIC PLANET is a work of political science fiction as close in spirit to Fred Wolf’s 1971 animated adaptation of Harry Nilsson’s story THE POINT as it is to any more obviously similar material.
A magical moment: Young Terr, the domesticated Om, is out for a walk with his Traag owner, the young girl Tiwa. In the silent morning there becomes audible the sound of tinkling glass. It is the formation of clumps of crystals growing up from the ground to surround any stationery object, including even little Terr if he stands still long enough. Upon discovering the crystals can be made to shatter with the sound of a simple whistle, Terr continues his walk, whistling intermittently as crystal formations burst and crumble all around him. Beautiful and strangely familiar, this scene unfolds without a word being spoken. Who among us can’t recognize the uniquely simple, satisfying thrill of stepping on thin sheets of ice after a winter storm to see them split and crack beneath our feet?
FANTASTIC PLANET is loaded with such unexpected moments of vivid imagination that are somehow resonant to us here in our overly recognizable world, and such is the scope of its subtle genius, triumphantly unique yet never off-putting. A precursor to a whole spectrum of phenomena that includes the illustrated fantasy magazine “Heavy Metal” and the work of maverick filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki, FANTASTIC PLANET exists in its own bubble as much as a Traag’s consciousness during his meditation ritual, drifting lugubriously toward its final destination and mysterious resolution.