Fantastic Planet (1973)
Written by René Laloux and Roland Topor
Directed by René Laloux
One of the most challenging things in science fiction is appropriately conveying the alien-ness of another world. So often, writers lean into cliches or just create bland, uninteresting worlds. Think of the lifeless creatures from Independence Day or the generic Grays that populate so much of science fiction. It always stands out when a filmmaker makes me feel like I am experiencing a culture, a species, a world entirely unlike my own. I have to find a way in and try to make sense in the context of that species, not necessarily my own. Fantastic Planet definitely presents a world like that but does seem to lean into elements of human behavior to tell its allegory rather than go complete alien civilization.
Sometime in the far future, humans have been taken from Earth and brought to Ygam. This is the home to the Traags, blue humanoids that tower above the humans, which they have nicknamed Oms. Oms are either kept as housepets or seen as vermin plaguing the wilds of Ygam. An orphaned Om named Terr is taken in by Tiwa, the daughter of a Traag leader. She dresses up Terr and collars him so he can’t escape.
Meanwhile, the Om has found a short circuit in his control collar that has allowed Tiwa’s daily electronic lessons to filter into his mind too. Terr learns enough about the planet to get a fighting chance at survival and runs away, taking the teaching headset with him. He ends up running into a band of wild Oms and helps train them using the headset. Eventually, they form a plan to take some control back from the Traags by investigating the strange moon that orbits Ygam and is so vital to their masters.
Fantastic Planet doesn’t handhold the viewer while entering this world. You are thrown right in and have to piece together the factions and what is happening. It’s definitely possible but something that requires your attention. There are certain scenes, an implied drug trip shared between four Traags, that is never explained through exposition but seen through the eyes of Terr. He doesn’t fully understand what he sees, but contemporary humans can see what is implied through the visuals. The production designer was Roland Topor, a famous French author, illustrator, and performer. He creates a visually intriguing number of alien beasts to populate Ygam that behave in ways expected and unexpected.
The themes of Fantastic Planet aren’t anything highly revolutionary. It’s a metaphor that could be used for several causes. The treatment of Oms by Traags is reflective of the civil rights movement in the United States and of arguments made by animal rights advocates. There’s some exploration here of the effect of modernity, and the technology jumps society was and continues to experience on a larger scope. As we become more advanced, we become less empathic, which means certain living groups, humans, or animals become subjugated. Both interpretations of the picture have been commonly used, and the film is broad enough to encompass both.
When watching a French science fiction film, you’ll note they are often less interested in developing technology so much as the philosophical impact of human advancement. You see that here in Fantastic Planet as well as in La Jetee and Alphaville. And even then, it’s not really about the material effect, but more deeply psychological. In fact, all of these movies have this weird sense to me of something profoundly Jungian; even though they are about the future & aliens, they are hearkening to something incredibly primitive. As a viewer, I felt almost hypnotized at points of Fantastic Planet. I think the particular type of prog rock soundtrack and the strange visuals enthrall the viewer to the point of feeling a little disconnected.
Fantastic Planet has all the trappings of a cult classic, midnight movie. It’s brief enough that you won’t lose the audience during the 72-minute runtime; it’s meticulously designed and with a bizarre aesthetic, so the viewer is compelled to keep looking, and it taps into some primal elements of human existence. Having recently rewatched Akira, I would say that that animated film is better than Fantastic Planet, but that doesn’t mean this is a terrible picture. In many ways, Fantastic Planet is a beautiful experiment in animated aimed at grown-up audiences, using the medium to present images that would be highly difficult to pull off in live-action.