Cult films seem to depict two worlds: a heightened, askew version of reality as we know it, and a bizarre reality that is barely recognizable. Of the former, previous entries like True Stories or personal favorite The Burbs seem to fall into that category, while the latter refers to otherworldly madness like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Meet The Hollowheads, and the film under consideration today, 1973’s Fantastic Planet.
This animated science fiction film, directed by Rene Leloux, is indeed otherworldly, taking place on a strange planet where blue humanoid giants live in a surreal, technologically advanced world where human beings are kept as pets by children but are otherwise seen as an invasive species to be exterminated like a rat infestation.
In the scale of this world, these blue creatures are giants in comparison to the humans, who can fit in the palm of one of these aliens’ hands. And here’s where the film gets tricky: it’s depicting a world that has no reference point for the viewer to grasp.
The scale of these unknown beings – who are all bald, light blue, have gill-like ears, and wear clothes that reveal the female’s breasts – is only revealed when they are contrasted by the humans’ small size in comparison, and they come across as both uncannily human and frighteningly alien at the same time.
The culture of this alien species (the Draags) is similarly incomprehensible: while they have binary gender arrangements and mate and have children, the arrangement of their society is difficult to understand. The children learn by some sort of electronic device that uses a form of telepathy to educate them, and the adults seem to indulge in psychotropic substances in group settings that allow them to warp and meld their bodies into each other; on other occasions, they telepathically leave their bodies to congregate with other beings.
Expository materials detail that the humans–known as Oms (a play on the French word for man, homme)–had been brought back to their planet Ygam. As mentioned, while kept as pets, they are also seen as vermin that reproduce at a rapid rate (in relation to the Draags, who live long lives and reproduce much more seldom).
We are introduced to these beings through the eyes of our protagonist, a human being that’s kept as a pet by a child of one of the Draag leaders after his mother is tortured to death by three Draag children. Tiva, his owner, names him Terr, and we watch as Terr grows up as a pet of one of these (to us) aliens. He’s kept under control with a collar that allows her to control his movements, dragging him back towards her by some invisible force.
But this same collar also brings him knowledge, as it allows him to receive the same instructional feed that Tiva gets for her education. Eventually he grows into a young man and escapes her possession, along with her educational device.
Once among other humans in the wilderness, Terr begins to educate them with the device, where they learn to read the Draag language. After finding out the Draags plan on exterminating them, the humans escape, but not before killing two Draags in the process, which draws outrage from the Draags.
As a mass extermination of the humans begins, Terr and a group of humans escape to one of the satellite planets that the Draags meditate to travel to, using large statues to interact with beings from other planets, an act that also helps sustain their lives. The humans destroy some of the statues, which brings the Draags to negotiate a peace with the humans.
It’s a metaphorical and bizarre film, and one well worth watching. Its unique character design and surreal visuals by illustrator Roland Topor have made it a favorite among cult audiences, while its far-out early 70’s jazz instrumental soundtrack has gathered its own secondary audience.
After years of going in and out of print, sometimes making copies a collector’s item, in 2016 Criterion put out a definitive edition of Fantastic Planet on blu-ray and DVD.
A counterculture classic with a political message, Fantastic Planet is a stone-cold cult classic with a world worth discovering.
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