Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

01 Feb 2013

(1973 Movie) Fantastic Planet (La planete sauvage) directed by: Rene Laloux

(Reaction) Fantastic Trip by: Jose Angelo Singson

Fantastic Planet/La Planet Sauvage is a French-Czech joint project of director Rene Laloux and the Jiri Trnka studio. It has received numerous praises for its surreal, psychedelic, and in many instances, deeply disturbing imagery. The film, apart from being a visual tour-de-force is also known for being an intelligent, unabashed commentary on many social themes. It is also a vocal anti-war sentiment, a reaction perhaps to the Cold War as the film was released in 1972.

The film satirizes the clash of cultures and classes through the use of two distinct species living on a planet and the resultant conflicts that stem from their inability to understand their differences. In the movie, beings known as Ohms/Oms live alongside another self-cognizant species called Draags.

Later on in the film it is revealed that Ohms are indeed Earth/Terran humans. How they got on planet Yon, the planet where the film takes place, is not explained. Ohms/humans occupy the very bottom of the planet's ecosystem. They are treated as nuisances to be periodically exterminated; occasionally treated as pets - complete with collars, water-dishes, food pellets and are decked out in garish costumes like toy dogs.

The Draags on the other hand are a truly alien species and the dominant, intelligent life form on the planet, at least at the beginning of the film. They are humanoid but several hundred times larger than the Ohms with blue skins, fin-like earlobes and protruding, expressionless, lidless red eyes. As a race they have attained marvelous heights of technological and social development which stands out as a stark contrast to their barbaric treatment of Ohms.

I find this especially disturbing as it is clear from the get-go that Ohms, despite their diminutive builds, are intelligent, self-aware beings as much as the Draags are. In the opening sequence of the movie we see a near-naked Ohm/human female carrying an infant Ohm/human. She is frantically trying to escape her Draag tormentors. Her tormentors turn out to be a trio of Draag children, toying with her, completely oblivious to how fragile an Ohm is compared to their race. In a moment of horrid cruelty she is flicked away unceremoniously like a piece of snot.

Though battered she tries to escape and the view suddenly zooms in and frames an utterly terrified pair of eyes. Even if it is an animated cel drawing the message is clear: these are not the eyes of a dumb, frightened animal; these are the eyes of a human... a human mother. Yes, she is frightened but ultimately more concerned for the life and safety of its child more than her own. Eventually the mother expires from her ordeal leaving an orphaned Ohm child. The child is eventually taken into the care of a kind - by Draag standards - Draag child.

This too is a social commentary: The immediate and recurrent danger the Ohms face from the callous, over-sized Draags casually toying with their lives as well as the constant threat of periodic eradication kept the Ohms from developing their culture.

Self-actualization was set aside in favor of more pressing, baser needs, chiefly that of survival. A line spoken by Han from Enter the Dragon perfectly crystallizes the thought I'd like to raise. He recites this monologue as he guides his guests through a museum collection of weapons and medieval torture devices: It is difficult to associate these horrors with the proud civilizations that created them: Sparta, Rome, the Knights of Europe, the Samurai... They worshipped strength, because it is strength that makes all other values possible. Nothing survives without it. Who knows what delicate wonders have died out of the world, for want of the strength to survive?

In a world where one is literally and figuratively nothing more than a speck, how does one argue that ought not to make right? Thinking along these lines who knows what sort of zenith say, the Mayan culture, might have achieved had the Conquistadors not come in?

Fantastic Planet is full of scenes of utter dehumanization of the Ohms/humans by the Draags. The sheer brutality, the casualness of that brutality and the frequency of it all are very jarring but necessary to show that despite amazing advancements in technology and outstanding social stability that the Draags have achieved it is still a feat to extend tolerance and understanding to one who has no capacity to pay it back; another cutting remark about the inhumanity and the callousness that pervades contemporary society.

Many scenes have also been drawn in such a way as to echo many of the atrocities that have made an indelible mark in human history. The use of poison gas for de-Ohm-ization is a chilling reminder of the gas chambers Hitler used for his murderous experiments.

It is difficult to sit through this scene and not wince. Even though it is a cartoon the choppy, abrupt movements of the hybrid cel and cutout animation all too morbidly mimics the choppy, abrupt movements of vintage 8mm film reels like the ones shown to World War II soldiers for their debriefing and it goes without saying that it is never easy to sit through 5 minutes worth of murder on a massive scale.

I am particularly struck by a scene in the de-Ohm-ization sequence as this hit a very personal cord. We see the Draag park administrators make use of several domesticated Ohms tied to a leash. They use the bound Ohms to spot escaping feral/free Ohms as the thick clouds of poisonous fog makes it difficult for the Draag hunters to spot escapees.

The Ohms on a leash reminded me of the makapili or the local invader-sympathizers during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. They, much like the leashed Ohms, wore masks to hide their identities as they carried out the despicable task of pointing out resistance fighters and rebel sympathizers. It is also interesting to note that during the close up shots of the leashed Ohms one can almost make out a strange pained expression beneath their masks. Perhaps they are unwilling participants of the hunt, merely taking part out of fear.

As Ohm society continued to develop the friction between the two species worsened. Eventually the interracial struggle came to an impasse. Both races now poised to ensure mutual destruction but neither willing to push the proverbial big red button.

Met with catastrophe, both races immediately open negotiations and peace follows based upon a premise of mutual benefit and non-aggression. In time an artificial satellite and political state called Terra, in honor of the Ohm ancestral planet is created and henceforth both cultures are free to progress in harmony.

Despite the overall bleakness of the themes and the imagery in the film it does end with a hopeful note. Both races could have very well blown each other into oblivion but they didn't. Instead they chose to live with each other; acknowledging that neither race had a monopoly on the right to exist. More importantly both races had decided that genocide could not possibly be a solution to anything as they stood more to gain from living with each other than from the complete eradication of each other.

Personally, I think that one of the most poignant questions that the film forces us to ask ourselves is this: must peace always come at gunpoint? Must peace come from the looming threat of mutually ensured annihilation?

This is a very harrowing question and one perhaps that history has answered a number of times with a resounding yes. It is frightening to think that perhaps the peace we enjoy and take for granted might not be based on the sincere desire to understand and accept but rather just a facsimile. It is unsettling to think that perhaps the peace we enjoy plays out under the sinister shadow of nuclear Armageddon that can be set of by the slightest provocation.

The film asks us to evaluate ourselves as a race, honestly, bluntly. We've progressed to the point where our technology can stamp out so many known diseases and yet maladies that can only be found in medical history books in first world world countries are still very real threats that people in developing nations still struggle with. We've stamped out cultures for the sake of progress.

Again, echoing Han's question: who knows what delicate wonders have died out of the world in the name of progress? How many nations up with usurious trade tariffs and live under the constant threat of economic asphyxiation? Can we really achieve peace away from the ominous specter of a thermonuclear standoff?

The film tries to answer this question but even the imagined solution is open-ended and produces more questions than answers. Even with the implied surety that mankind can achieve true, lasting peace without the need for veiled threats it still raises an eyebrow that peace can only truly come from social and/or racial homogeneity as the two races eventually part ways, the Draags on planet Yom and the Ohms on Terra. I find this terribly and sadly ironic that this was the solution that the races eventually came too as this was pretty much what both races had desired from the beginning, i.e. that one race would just one day disappear.

So the question remains: can we truly all get along with each other? Maybe. Perhaps. Only in time perhaps will we see if our humanity will catch up with our technology and perhaps only then can these questions truly be answered with any sort of clarity or finality.

Review:

Man, what a film. It is not hyperbole when I describe Fantastic Planet as being one of the most visually original and perhaps most faithful depiction of the science-fiction concept of an alien world in a movie that I have ever seen.

Where do I begin? Man. What were these guys smoking? The film is colored yet there is a distinct, almost sepia-like muted color scheme giving the audience an impression that they are watching moving woodblock prints rather than an animated film. Then there's the imagery. Most. Alien. Looking. World. Ever.

There is nothing about Yon that would remind you of Earth. Nothing. The distinctions between plant, animal, tool and object are blurred and blended so fully that one cannot make out anything from a casual glance. The landscape is littered with organic designs that seem to be inspired from deep-sea creatures, endoparasites and internal organs.

Everything from the food to the way the food is eaten is presented as far away from convention as absolutely possible. It took me awhile to realize that the Draags were eating in the scene where they take turns inhaling little bits of yellow matter from a huge lump of yellow matter in the center of a room. That's how alien the designs were. Then of course there is the matter of the designs as being deeply disturbing. The image of a cackling creature in a cage is indelibly burned into memory. It is difficult to explain why this is disturbing. Just trust me when I say it is. Watch the film and you'll see my point.

The story of the film is highly engaging as well. Social themes of equality, tolerance and empowerment is clearly presented and tackled in a way that doesn't rub off as preachy or inciting revolt. In terms of storytelling the film is also a very clear departure from typical American productions in that it is not character driven. The movie focuses on ideas and images, rather than on characterization. This in turn gives the story a cold, emotionless feel. Viewers follow Terr's amazing journey of development but never really get to know him. He is distant and driven from the get go. Even his fellow Ohms are alienated by his forward thinking and intense drive to free his race from the tyranny of the Draags.

My only major quibble about this otherwise brilliant film is the music. It is a pain to sit through the tinny, scratchy, canned, cheap, gonzo-porn sounding, 60's throwback guitar riffs that alternate with echoing, psychedelic electronica muzak that riddles the film.

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