Science fiction excels at creating alien worlds that nevertheless feel eerily connected to our own, delivering exciting and imaginative tales that subtly critique the real world that inspired them.
That’s not to say it’s easy to parallel sci-fi fantasies with nuanced sociopolitical commentary. In envisioning fictional landscapes that feel different than ours, many filmmakers end up sacrificing real-world meaning in exchange for intricate world-building — or make their parallels so central to the story that the fantasy suffers.
But one French animated classic is as charged with allegorical meaning as it is richly committed to a fully fleshed-out sci-fi world. Based on the 1957 novel Oms en série by French writer Stefan Wul, this film benefits immensely from the grand vision of director René Laloux, who set out to make an experimental animated sci-fi film for adults.
Made in collaboration with co-writer Roland Topor (also the production designer), Laloux’s work of dystopian fantasy is marvelously thought-through and thematically rich, ranking alongside genre classics like Akira, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner.
Fantastic Planet, now streaming on HBO Max, didn’t have access to a production budget anywhere near as sizable as the ones allotted to those aforementioned genre classics, but it nevertheless feels like a sprawling epic that could have launched a major franchise.
The story takes place in the distant future, on the planet Ygam, where gargantuan blue beings called Draags have transported and enslaved human beings stolen from Earth, referring to them as Oms. The lucky ones among these Oms are raised as pets by the Draags, with the rest of them — who either escaped captivity or were raised in the wilds of Ygam — live in fear of a semi-regular purge of Oms, carried out for reasons of population control.
Fantastic Planet focuses on Terr, an Om taken in as a pet by a humanoid Draag after his mother is killed. One day, a teenage Terr decides to escape with a Draag headset used to absorb new information, which gives the wild and oppressed Oms the knowledge they need to fight back.
If that premise sounds simple, that’s because Fantastic Planet is not interested in burying the greater meaning of its narrative beneath intricate plot mechanics. On the contrary, it wants to make sure to wear its message on its sleeve and be as clear about its intentions as possible, so you don't have to spend too much energy understanding what the film is trying to say and, in doing so, miss out on the incredibly ambitious and surreal visuals.
As the film opens, the camera pulls back from a human woman running across a field with her son to reveal two enormous blue-skinned aliens, teenagers with red eyes and fin-like ears, observing the woman like two kids watching a line of ants in the backyard. After that, we get a story full of surreal imagery, in which plants appear sentient, technology fuses metal and fungi in a dreamlike combination, new clothes are woven right onto bodies by mollusks that spew goo, and a desert covered in lines that spontaneously move and coil like intestines.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Roland Topor, who worked on the visual design of the film, also teamed up with one Alejandro Jodorowsky back when he was working as an illustrator to create the new surrealist movement of the 1960s. Every frame of Fantastic Planet oozes with hypnotic ambience that borders on an acid trip, though thankfully the film is more than just the sum of its pretty visuals.
It doesn't take very long to see clear parallels between the ways the technologically advanced yet morally corrupt Draags treat the Oms and the ways humans in our world treat those they deem inferior. Whether it's compared to the animal rights movement — how we treat pets as toys when we're young, before forgetting about them or even disposing of them as we grow older — or the civil rights struggle in the U.S., the French occupation of Algeria that ended just a decade before the film premiered or even apartheid in South Africa, Fantastic Planet's themes are universal. By Laloux’s design, the film is open-ended enough to fit plenty of narratives, but it’s still specific enough that each parallel can be explored below the broad strokes of its premise.
Whenever a science fiction story introduces a world that's not meant to be our own yet suffers from problems we can recognize in our real lives, it runs the risk of letting allegories overtake the world-building to the point of undermining its own message and themes. That's not the case with Fantastic Planet, a film that has a lot to teach us about our world, even as it introduces a new one you’ll want to lose yourself within. Nearly 50 years later, this experimental animated film still feels fresh and unique.
Fantastic Planet is now streaming on HBO Max.