Twenty-five years after it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, Rene Laloux's animated oddity Fantastic Planet is humming back into theaters, a theremin-toned time capsule from the trippier precincts of toontown and science fiction. If you've never caught it during a cable-TV binge, it should still provide the giddy buzz of arty weirdness that has long made it an object of cult veneration, a sci-fi starter drug that turned many a budding fan on to Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky flicks, and old-school Heavy Metal comics.
Based on a novel by Czech fantasist Stefan Wul, Planet opens on an unselfconsciously ominous note: a ragged woman clutching a baby runs through a thorny wilderness, sharp Yellow Submarineish squiggles and spikes raining onto her path. The cause of her trouble is soon revealed when a giant blue hand appears, casually flicking her about until her small body lies in a broken heap. The hand belongs to a child of the Draag race, hundred-foot-tall, azure-skinned, and blank-eyed beings who brought the little Oms (a play on hommes, i.e., us) to their home planet centuries ago, alternately keeping them as pets and decrying them as fast-breeding vermin. The Draags don't think the Oms are very intelligent but they do learn tricks and fit into dollhouses, so a kindly Draag girl named Tiwa takes the orphaned baby in. She names him Terr and he grows to learn the ways of the Draags, eventually escaping to a "wild" Om community and becoming a cockroach-sized freedom fighter.
French director Laloux enlisted the services of Czech animators for Planet, and their spare but vivid images reflect period psychedelia and the globular, hypnotically repetitive fancies of Pop Art. The film tosses off sci-fi flourishes like rocket ships and cybernetic teaching devices, but its heart is in the psychological and druggily inexplicable, as in the repeated Draag meditations where their souls (or something) are transferred to spheres which casually float to their moon. Although the visuals are worth the ticket alone, Fantastic Planet also crackles with emotional and political resonance: Terr's status as plaything is as viscerally humiliating as the Draag's "de-Om- inization" gassings of wild humans are matter-of-factly genocidal. Fantastic Planet is fairly transparent in its allusions to the bureaucratic horrors unfolding behind the Iron Curtain in 1973, but credit Laloux and his team for a vision that's outlasted the particular conditions that informed it. It's not every fancifully encoded cautionary tale that can survive the demise of its historical villains, and it's not every stoner midnight movie that can stand a second viewing in the sober light of day.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.