Monday night, I went with my sister Charlie (aspiring artist) and my friend Doug (aspiring Jew) to a screening of classic French sci-fi animation at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater. As Charlie says—using a word generally reserved for Pink Floyd and that bizarre children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth—it was trippy.
The theater itself set the tone: lines of light decorated the walls and ceiling surrounding the screen, making it look for all the world like we were traveling at warp speed on the USS Enterprise. The playbill told us to expect the double feature to feature “chilling allegories,” Borges-esque phantasmagorics, enigmatic storylines filled with a “surreal taxonomy.” We should’ve guessed what would happen next, but Charlie and I were just three days out of Tuscaloosa—how could we have known the horror of a theater suddenly filling with hipsters? A surreal taxonomy indeed.
As determinedly bad haircuts and ironic screen print t-shirts enveloped us, Charlie, Doug, and I struggled for breath under the crushing weight of existential angst. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the show started.
First was La planete sauvage, or “Fantastic Planet,” a 72-minute hand-drawn animation from 1973. Here’s the basic story:
Somewhere out in the distant reaches of space, there is the planet of the Traags, a blue-skinned, fish-faced race of giants who keep as pets strange aliens from the planet Terra. These Oms (read hommes, the French word for men) are variously collared and coddled by Traag children, or, when they escape and form communities in the wild, eradicated with poison like vermin. They breed so quickly, after all. The Traags don’t breed at all on their planet, as far as the Oms can tell. They spend most of their time in Meditation, out-of-body experiences.
For all their seeming spiritual enlightenment and advanced technology, however, the Traags engage on a de-Oming campaign even after they find evidence that the Oms have advanced intelligence. The only solution, obviously, is for the Om to manufacture a rocket and fly on up to the Strange Planet, the Traags’ world’s moon that the Oms pray to.
At this point in the movie, both Doug and I independently developed the theory that the Strange Planet was going to be Earth, and that the Oms’ colonization of it would be our human origin story.
When the Oms touched down on La planete sauvage, they didn’t find the Garden of Eden. They found a bunch of headless giant stone statues doing a sex dance. For real. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. Apparently, this was how the Traags bred, by projecting their consciousnesses into the statues and making little blue babies by… waltzing with marble statues. Hey, to each his own.
So the Oms knew the big secret of the Traag, and they did what any oppressed people would do if placed in the same opportunity: they shattered the statues with really high-pitched sonic blasts. Threatened with the destruction of their entire race, the Traags stopped massacring Oms. Oh frabjous day! But there was no real reconciliation or peaceful coexistence—the Oms got themselves an artificial moon to live on, and everything worked out.
I don’t know about you, but the whole premise was incredibly dark. Every time I look at my cat now, I wonder if she’s self-aware and plotting the destruction of humankind with feline co-conspirators. Beyond that—Fantastic Planet say something disturbing not only about human nature: that we have to be pushed to the very brink before being forced to get along. It was mutually-assured destruction for the Oms and the Traags if either got out of line. Cold War allegory, much?
This semester, it was a running joke in my “War in American Culture” class that I interpreted everything we read as commentary on the dark tendencies of human nature. But really—with this storyline, the French title’s English cognate is just as appropriate as the translation: it’s a seriously Savage Planet.
But oms are oms—they adapted. It was a friggin’ weird landscape, with giant crystals growing over trees and tentacled birds cackling as they killed furry little animals for fun. The people were reduced to living in completely primitive communities out in the wild, reverting to leadership by a chief wizard and decision-making by combat to the death (if I were the wizard, it would be rock-paper-scissors all the way). But when given the opportunity to learn, steal, and utilize Traag technology, they took it. They were determined, and adaptable, flexible and unsinkable. It’s what people have been like since the beginning of human history. Om pride ftw!
Most interesting of all to me, though, was how the film succeeded in 71 minutes in what I’ve been failing at for years—converting my sister into a sci-fi-natic (yeah, I went there). Just a couple minutes in, Charlie leaned over and whispered to me, Do you like this? I gave a noncommittal shrug and locked my face into what I’ve been told is my default expression: what Doug termed “The Morales Disdainful Snarl.” Charlie beamed. I love it! she said. Oh, and when we got home, she tried to find the soundtrack online, then started reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion. Who knew.
Charlie loved Chronopolis too. I was just frustrated. It was the weirdest friggin’ thing I’ve seen in my entire life. And I’ve seen a community theater production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. There were Egyptian statues doing stop-motion claymation stuff and some spindly little rock-climber doing some folk dance with a sentient orange ball on a tight rope.
And even that’s too coherent an explanation. The program said Chronopolis (1982) is about an alien city of immortal beings who manufacture moments of time, but it could be another Cold War metaphor for all I could tell. Not even the hipsters knew (or pretended to know) what was going on—half the forty-odd person crowd left before the end of Chronopolis. It was some seriously weird shit. I won the DARE essay award for my school in 6th grade, but even I could sympathize with Doug when he muttered that he really regretted not getting high before watching this.
All I know is the French are friggin weird.