Ethereal Circle: On René Laloux’s “La Planète sauvage” (“Fantastic Planet”, 1973)

A shot from René Laloux’s La Planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet) of a Draag falling asleep next to an Om child.

There are some animated films that are not made for kids. In fact, some are not even made for most adults, and this may be one of them. So, let us not be mistaken that René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage) is, on all accounts, a savage and violent tale where humans (called Oms) are nothing more than tiny animals forced to bend to the whims of larger, more ‘sophisticated’ creatures, called Draags. Within this post-apocalyptic world, the Draags rule and humans at best are regarded as nothing more than pets and at worst, they are vicious vermin deserving of extermination.

Fantastic Planet opens with a frightened human (Om) mother running with her baby. She appears terrified, and in her attempt to find safety, she climbs up a hill, only to then be pushed down by some large, blue hand. Once more, she attempts to climb, and is pushed down again. Still clutching her baby, the hand then flicks her several feet away. Suddenly, the blue fingers lift and drop her, wherein the force of the fall inevitably kills her. ‘What a shame. We can’t play with it anymore,’ says a group of three Draag children. Following that, a young Draag child and her Draag leader father approach the scene. The Draag child (Tiwa) asks if she can keep the orphaned baby Om as a pet. ‘Why is he crying, father?’ she asks. ‘He must be scared. Or hungry,’ her father replies. He allows her to keep the baby Om, but instructs, ‘You must take care of that animal.’

This opening scene, coupled with the odd, animated style, sets this film apart from any other sci-fi tale. Tiwa decides to name the baby Om Terr, after her father refers to him as a ‘terror.’ (Initially she wants to name the Om after herself but her father objects, instructing that Tiwa is no name for an Om. Rather, ‘Frisky’ would be better.) Tiwa places a collar on Terr to keep him from running away. She dresses him like a doll and at times he even rebels by biting her. Tiwa tells Terr that she loves him, despite at times being cruel without realizing it. (As example, in one scene, she has Terr run under a cloud that dumps rain and even electrocutes him.)

The Draags are indeed an advanced species, as they regularly engage in meditation as well as lessons on science, history, and society. (Tiwa has a headband that she uses for such lessons.) Reluctantly, the Draags recognize the possibility that the Oms might have once lived as a civilized society, but many don’t believe it. In La Planète sauvage, humans are regarded as nothing more than pests. So, what does that say about how we (audience members) treat animals? Or even how we treat those fellow humans we deem ‘beneath’ us? At best, a Draag might adopt an Om as a pet, but at worst, they will ‘de-Om’ their homes with toxic gas. And while this film most definitely carries political undertones, it is a good example of how politics, if rendered well, can succeed within a work of art.

Throughout Fantastic Planet, we witness the Draags undergoing strange meditations and rituals—their bodies morph into shapes, and their minds float above into some ethereal circle. That we won’t understand all that is going on is part of the film’s strength, as how often do our cats or dogs understand what we do? Why do we put on excess layers we call clothes? Why do we get inside a silver box that drops water onto us each day, only to then remove it with a cloth? Are we really much more advanced than they? What makes one species ‘higher’ than another? Cognitive function? Power? Size? Ambition?

Eventually, Terr escapes with Tiwa’s instructional headband, only to then find the savage Oms living in the woods. They laugh at his attire, and mock him for being a ‘domesticated’ Om. ‘You’re not very bright,’ a young female Om tells Terr, as she cuts off his collar. ‘But you have a collar,’ Terr objects. ‘It’s fake—it’s meant to fool the Draags.’ Terr, (an obvious play off Terra—for earth or terror) having been a domesticated Om, knows much about Draag rituals, in addition to their writing. He is therefore able to relay his knowledge to the savage Oms (which is derivative of the French word for man—Homme).

The animation utilizes little motion within the frames. Mouths move with the voices, as the surroundings remain stagnant. The soundtrack also adds to a psychedelic appeal, making the film feel otherworldly within its otherwise still shots. As a creative work, this film is highly inventive and clever in its approach. As example, we don’t quite know what the Draags are. Are they merely evolved serpents or sea mammals? Or are they closer to reptiles? Within, there are animals we cannot name nor recognize, thus rendering the landscape into something primitive, despite occurring years into the future.

In one scene, two Draags are passing a sidewalk. The Oms remain hidden, off to the side, but the Draags remark that they are able to smell them. ‘Domesticated Oms are ok, but savage oms are dirty, they smell, and they steal. They reproduce at an alarming rate.’ (One human year is equivalent to one Draag week, which would make a baby Om conceived and born within five and a half days in Draag time.) When the Oms fight back after the Draag steps on them with the intention of killing, the Draag dies. Then, upon the news of this Draag’s death, their society feels victimized.

I ask you reader, what does this scene sound like? Note the racial undertones and how this scene offers a much more powerful a statement on racism over some poorly written rendering that states the obvious, ‘racism is bad.’ In Fantastic Planet, this is already implied. Good and evil are merely a matter of perspective, and we see both sides—Draag and Om. Would you want to live as someone’s pet? Domesticated Oms are ok, but savage Oms are not, i.e., those who are not like us and those we cannot control.

Some critics have noted the abruptness in the ending and I would agree. Ultimately, the two species are forced to live in a sort of harmony, so to speak, once the Oms uncover the mystery behind the Draag rituals. Much of what goes on is not explained and nor does it need to be, as we audience members remain on the outside. Odd creatures pose as trees only to toss whatever species lands upon them. Oms get sucked up by an anteater type species, and in one particular scene, a young creature hatches from an egg, only to be licked and devoured by another.

Once again I want to ask the important question, ‘What makes one species ‘higher’ than another? Cognitive function? Power? Size? Ambition?’ Or rather, perhaps I should inquire why some people develop biases over another? Why do some thrive on social climbing and shallow recognition, and then punish those who do not wish for either? Or what of those who don’t wish to remain pushed down into some small, delegated box? What of them? Who decides our worth or where we land when we fall into history? Perhaps no one species is so special after all. Give us enough time and ego, and circumstance will inevitably lurk from above with its seemingly playful, blue hand and drop us into place.

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