Throwback Thursday: Fantastic Planet Is a Space Opera Unlike Any Other

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

The Twin Cities’ largest-run convention, CONvergence, is six months away. I know it seems ages from now, however the main theme for this year is space opera, and what better way to gear up for it than to take a look at some of the films that could be classified as space opera.

If you are rigid with the definition, like David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer in The Space Opera Renaissance (2006), it means “colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.” Considering this definition, few films fall into this category (such as Star Wars, Flash Gordon, and Dune), however if you are a bit more liberal there are definitions out there that can fit almost anything. Urban Dictionary states that, “The term is largely self explanatory in that a space opera is a drama that is simply put in the context of science fiction. Although it can be ‘hard’ science fiction, space operas typically focus on the characters to a point where the actual setting (space obviously, but more specifically, a technological future) is largely unimportant.” Even more open ended is the Google definition: “a novel, movie, or television program set in outer space, typically of a simplistic and melodramatic nature.”

With such wide-ranging definitions, I’m going to fall somewhere in the middle, so these weekly Throwback Thursday columns will focus on an eclectic mix of what I would call space opera. I will be trying to stay away from terrestrial Earth–based sci-fi and instead look at what’s out “there.” Today, let’s look at the 1973 animated French/Czech film Fantastic Planet.

Japanese promotional poster for Fantastic Planet.

Japanese theatrical poster for Fantastic Planet.

The film follows an Om (translated as man) who has been raised by towering Draags on the planet Ygam. Oms were brought to this world as pets, and the film is vague about when this occurs, but it is assumed this is sometime in the distant future. Terr is an Om and also the pet of a Draag child, Tiva, and as she grows older he listens in on her education and develops the ability for reading, writing, and high-level thought. When she starts to neglect him, he escapes and meets wild Oms who he convinces to rebel against the Draags. This culminates in a war between the two species, with a somewhat hopeful resolution.

Dead Draags and Oms after a battle.

It’s almost like a sci-fi version of Gulliver’s Travels.

Those folks who are used to Disney animation might be thrown off by the cutout stop-motion style of animation, but the technique and colors give the film a very surreal feel. I’m not going to promote the use of mind-altering drugs, but this film would definitely be trippy if you did partake. There’s a serious focus on meditation, as the Draags use this to leave their bodies, travel to distant planets, and even interact with each other, whereas the humans have to use their knowledge to build starships. When the Oms are finally able to leave Ygam, this puts them in direct conflict with the Draags in a story eerily reminiscent of the Cold War, where neither side will attack because of mutually assured destruction. It’s understandable this was on the creators’ minds, with this film coming out in the ’70s.

Two Oms fighting each other.

This is how the Oms settle disputes.

Running at a brisk 71 minutes, Fantastic Planet covers a lot of ground in a short time, however this is not a fast-moving film. It takes its time setting up mood and does so deliberately. It really wants to question “what if?” What if all humans were slaves? How do we determine our worth when not given opportunities? Are there better ways to look at the world? For the Draags, this is a utopian society, but ask the Oms if they are happy. There’s always a dystopian side to things, and this film dwells on them. In a pretty gruesome scene early on in the film, we see how Terr becomes an orphan and is taken in by Tiva. Some folks could rationalize it by “kids being kids,” but the creators are trying to show us that there should be morality involved.

Three Draags observing a couple Oms.

On repeated viewings, this scene gets darker and darker.

In my mind, this qualifies as a space opera because it takes place on foreign planets and there are aliens, war, and different technology. It’s definitely an outlier, though, and the animation and plot progression might not be for everyone. The costumes, or lack thereof, might also affect how much you can enjoy the film, but as a non-Hollywood sci-fi film, it definitely holds its place in history, and there’s quite a lot to like. If you’re into adult-oriented science fiction, this will hold your attention and give you some interesting talking points.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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