Knowing the Alien: René Laloux’s “Fantastic Planet”
A father and his daughter, while strolling through a field, come across a tiny orphaned creature. The poor thing’s mother has just been killed by a callous group of children and the girl takes pity on it, asking if she can keep it as a pet. After a lecture on responsibility, her father agrees to let her bring it home with them. The girl plays games with this little stray, chases it around the house, and even cradles it while she does her homework. Their bond seems only threatened by her animal’s disinclination to wear the costumes she picks out for it, as well as her father’s increasing doubts as to the suitability of this new animal. This is a scenario familiar from any number of “pet” narratives, but we are in the world of René Laloux’s cult classic Fantastic Planet (1973): the girl and her father are massive, blue-skinned members of the Draag species and their new pet is a baby human boy. Fantastic Planet follows this boy, Terr, through his childhood and into a rebellious adolescence. The girl, Tiva, telepathically absorbs her school lessons through a headset device, lessons in which she innocently allows Terr to participate. All the trivia a reluctant student may be expected to memorize (geography, biology, philosophy) acts as a primer in discontent for the young human. Laloux presents this information in disorientating chunks, a pleasantly realistic depiction of what it would really be like to be exposed to an alien world. Terr comes to resent his treatment as a pet, to yearn for a freedom he can only find outside this gilded cage. Humans (known to the Draag as “Om”) age far more rapidly than their giant keepers, setting the stage for strange conflicts between this boy and his owner. Not much more than a season passes for her, while Terr grows into a headstrong youth. Tiva’s father, one of the leaders of the Draag, shows more and more distrust of his daughter’s pet, and is inclined to see the Om as more a pest than anything else. Eventually, Terr sees his chance and takes it: he escapes the dubious comforts of Tiva’s care and flees into the wilderness beyond this Draag city. Beyond, he will find a rough-hewn tribe of free humans, as well as a world filled with bizarre and dangerous creatures. This community faces the possibility of genocide by way of pesticide, as many of the Draag wish to rid their planet of this nuisance species forever. The newest member of the Om society, however, may bring them their salvation in an unexpected form. The struggles of this tiny society, and the attempts the Draag make to squelch it, form the majority of this tale.Though such a brief summary may make Fantastic Planet sound like any number of dystopian/revolutionary movies, a number of factors converge to make this one unique in the history of Weird cinema. The animation, to begin with the most obvious component, is unlike anything an audience is likely to have seen before. Laloux used a cutout technique now made more familiar to American audiences by the series South Park; in Fantastic Planet, though, this process lends a dreamy cast to the story, and not simply a silly one. The sensation it gives is one of watching a bizarrely illustrated storybook coming to life. Humans, here, resemble gaunt, often haunted paper dolls, scrambling through a world too massive to take much notice of them. On this weird planet, humanity occupies a place not much higher than ants do in ours.Giant birds, insects and even plants threaten their existence. Watching tiny humans picked off, swallowed whole, or crushed by massive aliens disorients Laloux’s audience, reminding us that our own ecological niche, secure as it so often seems to be, is far more fragile than we’d like to think. In an environment abounding in surrealistic grotesques, the Om seem oddly out of place. The landscape itself resembles something like a collaboration between Jonathan Swift and Salvador Dali, somehow simultaneously stark and horrifically lush. Laloux, though, gives us a world more complex than a hellscape. The Draag, for instance, with their blue skin and wide red eyes, are ethereal beings, beautiful and not simple monstrosities. Crystal dew forms in the mornings and even temporarily encases a terrified Terr. We see animals trapping and devouring one another in surprising, often funny little vignettes. These visions, as well as others, may remind one of the works of the great Weird author Clark Ashton Smith. This “savage planet” (a more accurate translation of the film’s title) certainly would not have been out of place in his tales of the Earth in the far future. And the world beyond that occupied by the Draag? That moon to which the Om dream of escaping? Well, that proves to be even more mysterious…
Early on, Terr witnesses strange meditative practices somehow central to Draag society, in a sequence rendered in psychedelic imagery. The out-of-body trips these meditations send the aliens on mark them as a fascinating, spiritually complex species, a fact vital not only to the climax of the movie, but also as an indicator that they are more than the genocidal monsters they might otherwise appear to be. This spiritual component is no doubt one reason Fantastic Planet attained, and retains, a place in cult film history. After the mechanisms of the plot have been resolved, after the fate of these two species has been decided, the image of the Draag and their metaphysical journeys persists. Laloux, as well as Stefan Wul (author of the novel, Oms en série, upon which the film was based), clearly have more to say than “Fight the Power,” that simplistic motto of so many dystopian narratives. As has been mentioned, Terr absorbs weird knowledge from Tiva’s learning device. The function this serves is far more than a matter of simple, useful information. This knowledge helps him awaken to consciousness, to a reality not immediately perceptible from the confines of his comfy prison house. It is gnosis, divine wisdom which enables not only salvation, but also the ability to rise psychically above his place as an alternately beloved and pesky pet. It is, as several of the ancient Gnostic sects interpreted the story of Genesis, the fruit of knowledge which spells the end to innocence and which introduces the possibility of greater spiritual growth. It would be a spoiler to say anything more direct about this facet of the plot, but suffice it to say the Om find they must bring their struggle to another level if they are to win anything more than a temporary reprieve from the cruelties of the Draag.
Fantastic Planet was made during a time of cultural tumult. It is hard not to read any number of themes into this film, as it seems to invite so many. A post-colonial reading would not be far off the mark, as evidenced by the mixture of paternalism and sadism the Draag show the tiny Om. The peoples of Africa, Asia and the Middle East found they needed more than weapons to combat the weight of European hegemony, and the Western powers learned (and are still learning) a great deal about themselves from their colonial adventures. Counter-cultural identification with Fantastic Planet has also been persistent in the forty years since it was made, and may be an echo of institutional conflicts within both European and American societies at the time. The Om, with their wild, natural lifestyles and their dogged resistance to an industrial civilization determined to either tame or annihilate them, sometimes resemble the 60’s counter culture which was already, in 1973, collapsing beneath its own weight. The arms race which develops between the Om and the Draag may even be a gesture toward the Cold War, though it is hard to imagine either the Soviet Union or the United States in the position of the brutalized Om. Those mystical elements, both Gnostic and vaguely Eastern, encourage interpretations more internal, as well as ideological. An understanding deeper than that necessitated by strictly physical survival has proven vital down through history, a need to fulfill psycho-spiritual yearnings without which society can become a horrible simulation of itself. The clash between the cold, yet mystical Draag and the wild, vital Om may be meant to say something about a conflict deeply embedded within our own civilization.
However one interprets this film, this plasticity of meaning, far from being a detriment, is a strength the film possesses. Where many anti-authoritarian fantasies of its era have suffered with the passage of time, have come to seem too utopian or naïve, Fantastic Planet retains an essential weirdness which protects it from simplistic analysis. The bizarre set-pieces with which the film is filled are not easy to forget, nor are they easy to explain away as facile allegories. The film veers close to being a dream, at times, threatening to lose coherence and dissolve into mere sequences of phantasmagoria.Fantastic Planet does, however, speak some message, be it theological, political, internal, or even ecological. That it does so in such an alien tongue is only fitting in a tale about being lost in such a strange world.