Don’t Be a Draag! René Laloux’s ‘Fantastic Planet’ (1973)

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I still remember feeling mesmerized by the trailer for Fantastic Planet as it played late at night on television. Even as a mere ten-year-old boy, I sensed something special in the images of blue red-eyed people with fins for ears and the caveman-like beings that populated a landscape that reminded me of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. What were those vicious creatures that those two men were fighting with? What was this movie really about? I wanted to see!

What I don’t recall is when I finally got to see the Franco-Czech production. However, when I did it was like seeing the pages of Metal Hurlant or listening to Tangerine Dream for the first time. A previously unknown and, I thought, very European world opened up and I eagerly dove in to look around. What I saw, more specifically, was a world, Ygam, in which the Draag dominated a race of tiny Om. Ostensibly an advanced society, the Draag are an androgynous race who place much value on meditation and learning, complete with a highly developed technology. Yet, they treat the Om alternately as pets and pests, revealing a dark side to their otherwise philosophical nature.

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Fantastic Planet, more to the point, is told through the voice of Terr, an Om whose mother was killed by Tiwa, a Draag girl who was carelessly playing with the mother and child. After taking the infant Om and making him a pet, complete with a collar with which she could control him at will, the story moves slowly—perhaps meditatively is the more generous term—through the years, until Terr becomes a young man. As Tiwa grows into young womanhood, she has lost interest.  No longer a little girl, her childhood pet is less interesting than the new knowledge she is gaining as part of her education.

When Terr escapes, he takes a headset that Tiwa had been using to acquire her learning, which will later become a valuable resource for the Om he encounters. Wary of his connection with the Draag, Terr is forced to prove himself to his new community, which lives in fear and loathing of the Draag. However, because of the access that Terr has provided the Om to Draag knowledge, through Tiwa’s headset, the Om learn to their dismay that the Draag are planning to exterminate them. Ultimately, Fantastic Planet is about Terr’s leadership role in the Om rebellion, as they fight to save themselves, eventually finding a way to bring the Draag to their knees and sue for peace.

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As an allegory, Fantastic Planet avails itself to a variety of interpretations. Because of its release date, December 1, 1973, some have seen the Om-Draag rivalry in terms of the Cold War.  Others may find the movie to be about oppressed peoples everywhere, who are tormented by a supposedly sophisticated civilization.  Still others may find the Om-Draag relationship to be two halves of the same person, symbolizing the wild and civilized parts of the human psyche. At least when I was kid, the story of Terr and the travails of the Om under Draag control was a source of escape, not symbolism, no more meaningful than watching Don Chaffey’s One Million Years BC (1966) or Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972). More than allegories, movies like Fantastic Planet stimulated the expansion of my imaginative world, in which the mundane gave way to the extraordinary, forever altering my sense of the possible.

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