Some amazing films I come to the way of multiple suggestions from prolific and reliable sources, whether they be dear friends or noted critics. Other wonderful experiences with films come from picking up a previously unknown film as part of a package or at a flea market both that probably lifted their merchandise from questionable sources to begin with. I am fond of the results that come from both of these avenues of discover, however, there is a third set of discoveries that seem to be my personal favorite, those being the movies that I unearth during occasional bouts of insomnia or a general inability to sleep. Usually hoping to find something with an ambiance or simplicity that will lull me into drowsiness and eventually sleep, I end up finding works whose surreal leanings and captivating narratives challenge my pseudo sleep state to its very core. In the past movies of this vein have included the surprisingly poignant look at mental illness and online gaming through Ben-X, or jarringly, yet critically realized experimental films like Damned If You Don't. Last night I found myself facing the rare moment of lethargic awareness and was hesitant to commit to anything lengthy and decided that the cult classic French animated film Fantastic Planet would serve as my point of viewing, because I assumed that it would be easily paused should my weariness overcome me, however, I realized almost seconds into the film, with a shrill opening and freaky aesthetic, that Rene Laloux's animated statement on the nature of human existence, would be stealing the next hour of my possible sleep and I was completely fine with that outcome. Fantastic Planet, is as its name suggests very fantastical. In the animation style made known by Terry Gilliam and famous by The Beatles Yellow Submarine, Fantastic Planet takes on a bizarre quality, full of humanoid figures whose blank stares and robotic movements both captivating and disconcerting. The visuals alone could have been enough for me to completely embrace this work, but the fact that it makes very focused and astute statements about the existential being only add to its importance. Honestly, I am surprised that I did not find myself completely haunted by nightmares when the film finally, and abruptly ended, its exhaustive nature proving the perfect dose to my quest for rest that happened immediately.
Forbidden Planet begins with the frantic fleeing of an unnamed woman who darts back and forth with her child in hand as objects inexplicably fall from the sky blocking her path of escape, suddenly and very intensely blue fingers and hands begin flying towards her, eventually grabbing her and lifting her into the air and immediately dropping her. The pressure of the fall causing the woman to die as her young child looks on in a state of confusion. The blue beings are known as Traags and tower over the small humanoid creature that they refer to as Oms, and aside from existing in a tribe-like state, the Oms are primarily seen as playthings for the Traag children, who are not yet capable of existing in a state of constant meditation like the adults. One young Traag named Tiva decides to save the small child of the recently deceased woman Om, naming him Terr and teaching him the ways and world of the Traags. Terr, realizing the wealth of knowledge in front of him, laps up everything that Tiva has to teach, in the process becoming a sentient creature aware of the relationship he possesses as a creature in relation to the Traags. This leads to Terr fleeing in fear of his ultimate demise, bringing along with him a device used by the Traags in the hope that he can share the knowledge with other Om tribes living on the outskirts of the Traag fortress. Now possessing the information most dear to the Traags the Oms mount a revolt, led by Terr that results in the first death of a Traag at the hands of Oms. The Traags baffled by such a possible occurrence, up their "extermination" of the Oms in a stroke of genocide by poison gas. Terr and a handful of other Oms escape the ordeal. Eventually, with his expansive knowledge of Traag culture, Terr is able to take control of one of their devices, a laser that interferes in the Traags copulation thus breaking their hereditary line. The Traags are forced then to acknowledge the presence of the Oms as something far more than playthings, but as a group equal to them in power and resilience, despite their relatively diminutive stature. The film ends with a suggestion that the feuding between both groups has ended and that a peaceful coexistence has emerged between the Traags and Oms, one that is assumedly to last forever.
Fantastic Planet is one of those films whose true meaning, like its animation style is something familiar and identifiable, yet terribly intangible and clearly a simulacra of what a viewer would assume to be reality. Leave it to a French animator to create such a film. However, in its seemingly impossible nature, one can grasp multiple possibilities, ranging from realized statements on colonization and French guilt, to far reach introspective considerations on metaphysical identity as it relates to an insurmountable and endless universe. I realize that to attack this film from any direction is to ultimately rely on reading specific moments or interactions and to invariably ignore others, but it is truly rare for a piece of film theory or criticism to appropriate every single frame and interaction into the larger theory. As such, I want to touch upon the highly existential nature of this work, one that posits a world so left up to contingency, chance and an impossible control over things as to suggest that they are part of a game in which the Oms, an appropriate allusion to Hommes, the French term for humans. I have talked about game theory in the past on the blog as it relates to a work like The Cooler, wherein the casino setting doubles as a metaphor for a person being subject to contingency and chance, even in the most seemingly assured of situations. In Fantastic Planet this notion that a human is subjected to some game played by an unseen force, is placed in the metaphorical hands of the Traags who literally use Oms as their playthings. Of course, the question then becomes what meaning arises from Terr's discovery of the cogs at work. This is either a moment where he submits to the existential understanding that all is meaningless, aside from what he deems his own, in his case a quest for knowledge. Another possibility is that the film is intended to depict a push toward enlightenment after being stuck in an existential malaise, in this the dreary and haunting presence of the Traags double as that constant woe resulting from meaninglessness. Indeed, it is probably appropriate to read the work as a work about achieving enlightenment, at least in this case it makes the quite out of nowhere ending highly positive.
Key Scene: People who have read many of my blog posts know I am a sucker for openings that immediately establish the mood and precedent for a film. Fantastic Planet very much has such an opening and I promise you it will yank you into its world quickly.
Relatively cheap DVD's are available for this film, but since I intend to go region free with my bluray player in the upcoming months, I intend to get the French bluray that is available. Should you be in that market, I would suggest doing the same.