by Ashley Naftule
“Stopover in a Quiet Town” isn’t my favorite episode of “The Twilight Zone”, but it is the one I can’t stop thinking about. It’s a simple premise: a married couple get drunk at a party. On the drive home, a shadow swoops down on their car. They wake up in an unfamiliar town. All they can remember about the night before was the party and the shadow. They explore the town and can’t find another living soul in it. Even more disconcerting is the fact that everything seems to be fake: the grass is papier-mache, the food in the fridge is plastic, and the squirrels living in the fake trees are stuffed. The only sounds they hear, aside from their own, is the sound of a child laughing in the distance.
They hop on a train to escape the town, only for the train to circle back and deposit them at the same station. As they walk away from the station, the shadow returns and the truth of their situation is revealed: they’ve been abducted by aliens to serve as their giant child’s plaything. The empty town is a model village, and they’re just tiny pets entirely at the mercy of a child that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty. The episode ends with them running in terror through the village, trapped on an alien planet with no possibility of escape. Even by “Twilight Zone” standards, this is a BLEAK ending. I still wonder about their fates: how long before the child gets bored with them? What happens to them then? Does the child even know how or what to feed them? Just the idea of being at the mercy of something else, some superior lifeform that doesn’t even recognize you as being alive in the same way it is, is bone-chilling.
I couldn’t help but think of “Stopover in a Quiet Town” while watching Rene Laloux’s trippy “Fantastic Planet.” Made in 1973, it’s a film that employs beautiful (yet disquieting) paper cut-out animation to tell its story. It’s a style of animation familiar to anyone who’s seen Terry Gilliam’s work with Monty Python, but Laloux uses it to create an unnerving, alien atmosphere. The stiffness of movement makes the characters almost seem toy-like, restrained by their lack of full articulation. Alain Goraguer’s bizarre score, a blurting & swirling mix of hypnotic jazz-funk, adds to the “head film” atmosphere.
“Fantastic Planet” is set on an alien planet, presumably far off in the future. Our world is only mentioned in passing as a place where “wild Oms” are acquired. Oms are human beings, long since stripped of their technology. On this alien world, Oms are either savages, living in the wild in camps and warring with each other; or they are pets, playthings for the children of the ruling Draags.
The film begins with an Om mother and her child, crossing paths with Draag kids in the wild. The curious Draags flick the mother down a hill like she was a ladybug crawling on their knee. After picking up and dropping her, killing her accidentally, one of them adopts the baby as her pet. Dressing up the baby in crazy, Moebius-esque costumes, she names him Terr and carries him around with her everywhere like he was a puppy.
The rest of the plot is typical stuff: the child Om grows older and educates himself; a Prometheus figure, he escapes into the wild and shares the knowledge he stole from the Draags with his own kind; they resist him at first, and then eventually embrace him when he saves them from Draag exterminators; and then the Draags and Oms briefly battle each other until agreeing to an uneasy peace.
What keeps “Fantastic Planet” from becoming rote and by-the-numbers is its incredibly alien atmosphere and world-building. From the clothes that the Draags and Oms wear down to the profoundly strange plant life and creatures that dwell on the planet’s surface, “Fantastic Planet” looks like nothing else. This isn’t the kind of sci-fi that is content to slap some forehead ridges or pointy ears on a human being and call them an alien; this is sci-fi that is genuinely otherworldly in design and conception.
One of the things that’s so refreshing about the film is its refusal to explain the weird customs and behaviors of its characters. We don’t get any idea what the Draags are doing when they meditate in their bubbles until the end of the movie, and even then its not entirely clear what’s going on. The Om’s battle each other in duels by strapping razor-sharp blue creatures to their chests that look like a mix between a mole and a swordfish. Even their mating rituals are odd, as the wild Om’s ingest food that makes them glow luminously as they run through the forest, looking for a place to “frolic.”
Time and again, we are shown baffling creatures and devices and behaviors and given little to no context on what they are supposed to be. It gives “Fantastic Planet” an almost documentary feel, albeit one without a scholarly narrator giving us a heads-up on what the fuck is going on. We’re fully immersed in this strange world, as bewildered as Terr is.
In some ways, “Fantastic Planet” is the film equivalent of Luigi Serafini’s “Codex Seraphinianus”. Published in 1981, the Codex is an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world. Written in an indecipherable made-up language, the book is full of surreal and unusual images (most of which are impossible to make sense of without any context or explanation). The book is a catalog of mindfucks, offering you no help in solving its mysteries.
Part of the reason why I bring up the Codex is that the art style of the film is reminiscent of it. While the humans have a “classic” style that makes them look like 18th-century illustrations of “noble savages”, the aliens and wild beasts preying on them would look right at home in the pages of the Codex. They also wouldn’t look out of place in a Moebius comic or a piece of art by Wayne Barlowe.
It’s also interesting to consider the Surrealistic roots of “Fantastic Planet.” Laloux’s creative partner for the film was the writer & artist Roland Topor. Topor is a fascinating figure in his own right: his novel “The Tenant” became a Roman Polanski film; he cofounded the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal; he drew the drawings for the magic lantern scene in Fellini’s “Casanova”; had a cameo in Dusan Makavejev’s riotous “Sweet Movie”; and even played the role of Renfield in Herzog’s “Nosferatu.” It’s not hard to see where the bizarre imagery of “Fantastic Planet” came from when you look at Topor’s detailed and unusual drawings in his “Dessins Panique” book.
From Topor’s “Dessins Panique”
All this talk of Surrealism and alien encyclopedias aside, let’s make one thing clear about “Fantastic Planet”: watching it isn’t the film equivalent of eating Brussels sprouts. Sure, there’s lot of things to unpack about its meaning and artwork, but that wouldn’t mean much if the film itself was a chore to sit through.
While there are a few slow Draag council scenes to endure, the film actually packs a lot of activity and interesting curveballs in its 72-minute run time. Barely five minutes go by without something utterly bewildering flying or crawling into the frame. And while the characters aren’t given a lot of depth, we spend enough time with Terr to feel invested in his fate and to worry about him and his mate when the Draags start rolling exterminator balls into the Om camps.
Full of delightful WTF moments and stunning animation, “Fantastic Planet” makes for a great midnight movie, the kind that stays with you and haunts you afterward. Like a shadow passing over your car, it grabs you and whisks you away into its own premade world.