Friday, 7 December 2007

Sci Fi Through Space/Time: La Planète Sauvage

As I've said in a previous post, screen sci fi has recently left me unsatisfied, rehashing the same ideas and stylistic tics, as well of repeatedly offering up lukewarm martial arts sequences as an extra crime against cinema. In an effort to renew my love of the genre, I've resolved to cast about in an effort to find something new and challenging, and I'm betting on looking away from contemporary American cinema. Of course, upon deciding that, Richard Kelly's notorious Southland Tales was released today, and if nothing else, it's certainly original (while being massively derivative. More on that in a little while).

In the meantime, to France in the 1970's! René Laloux' La Planète Sauvage, based on a novel by Stefan Wul, is a movie that's haunted me since I was a kid, even though I never saw it. I was an avid reader of the sci-fi magazine Starburst, and they ran a feature on Laloux' pre-production sketches for his final movie, Gandahar. The imagery for that movie was odd enough, but the few pictures from La Planète Sauvage were even more outside my sphere of reference. What the hell were these bleak hellscapes, sporadically dotted with organic shapes that resembled nothing on earth? Why did the Draags (the technologically superior race living on Ygam) look so peculiar, with the breasts and the dead eyes? Even the humans didn't look right. I was looking at things I couldn't possibly understand, and it creeped me out. Luckily I was not in a position to see that movie, so my easily baffled young mind was safe from the freaky Frenchness of those films.

It was only recently that I found out that the oddball DVD distributor Eureka had released it, and my reticence caused by my childhood fear was finally conquered, now that I had become so disillusioned by modern sci-fi movies, what with their simplistic Manichean conflicts and Campbellian hero dynamics. My dim memory of those disturbing images, and the incomprehensibility of this trailer, led me to believe I was in for an experience unlike any other.

And I was, to a certain extent. The setting (the planet Ygam, orbited by the moon of the title) is unique, filled with nightmarish flora and fauna, and populated by alien creatures of a civilization so advanced that their customs and technology are inexplicable. Laloux has great fun depicting these bizarre rituals of meditation and communication, as well as offering samples of the workings of the (un)natural world. Those are the most appealing sections of the film, even though I spent a lot of it squicked out. The sleazy 70s chicka-bow guitar soundtrack didn't help. God knows why I have such a visceral reaction to French prog rock mixed with images of squirming organic shapes. Did I have an early exposure to some bad 70s porn? Other than Barbarella, that is?

So far, so unlike contemporary sci-fi. However, through no fault of its own, La Planète Sauvage had a plot that has been reused again and again by other writers and filmmakers, stymieing me in my search for a wholly original movie. Humanity has lost its way to such an extent that it is in a primitive state, ready for mass abduction by the towering Draags, who take the humans to their home planet. I think I missed the reason for that, but the upshot it domesticated Oms (the name for humans in this movie; we're considered so separate from our current existence that we're given a new name) are kept as pets, and wild Oms live and forage in parks filled with surreal and hostile plants and animals. The pet Oms are kept on a futuristic leash, and Draag children use them as playthings. It sounds silly, but is quite chilling.

In a touch that was obviously very topical at the time the film was made, the Draags get high a lot and meditate, sending their minds out of their bodies to float around in the air. Just say non, Draag losers! This involves them putting their consciousnesses inside bubbles which float around, which seemed like yet another peculiar detail added merely to enhance the alien nature of the Draag culture, but turns out to be super-important later on.

Sadly, it's not all free love and tripping; they also like to exterminate Oms using machines that dispense what look like urinal cakes that emit a deadly gas, so the choice is servitude and no dignity, or trying not to get killed in a park but feeling free. They also have remote craft that project white circles on things (I have no idea how that works, but the Oms sure dread it), and best of all, spheres that roll around picking Oms up, like some kind of hellish space version of Katamari Damacy.

Eventually the Oms learn enough about the Draags to band together and escape Ygam, flying to the moon known as the Savage Planet, where they find the Draags' meditating consciousnesses have floated there to meet with other races from other planets, who have meditated as well. So I guess if this movie were to be made now, the allegory would be that meditation is the internet, and La Planète Sauvage is the personals section of Craigslist. In a mean touch, the Oms go nuts and destroy Alien Facebook, which shocks the Draags enough to change their ways, creating a new moon for the Oms to live on in peace. Awwwww!

While alien invasion is a common plot template for sci fi tales, as is human rebellion against oppression, the mixture of the two, alien conquest and subjugation of humanity, crops up less often. Our overlords are often ourselves at our worst, or the products of our ignorance and hubris. 1984, We, The Matrix, Brave New World, Alphaville, Zardoz, etc. etc. You know the drill. I'm sure that if I put my mind to it for a few hours I could come up with as many sci fi tales about human enslavement by alien overlords and our subsequent rebellion, and any hardcore sci fi fan would probably think me a fool for not coming up with a dozen right away, but seriously, they just don't come to mind as readily. I guess those tales don't resonate as much as the stories I've listed above (not counting Zardoz, which is despicable anti-penis, anti-Vortex, pro-death propaganda). The only thing that pops into my head right away is the superb Porno for Pyros single, Pets.

Children are innocent
A teenager's fucked up in the head
Adults are even more fucked up
And elderlies are like children

Will there be another race
To come along and take over for us?
Maybe martians could do
Better than we've done
We'll make great pets!

::hugs Perry Farrell:: This song kept running through my head all the way through La Planète Sauvage. I'm sure Laloux was attracted to the project to some extent by the perversity of the subject matter. I have no idea what his politics were (though he was interested in psychology), but I wondered if the movie was an allegory for the French presence in Algeria, but then I might be reading too much into things.

Most horrifying of all, during La Planète Sauvage, the film that kept coming to mind was the most unintentionally entertaining movie ever made, Battlefield Earth, especially as the Oms come to steal a teaching device and learn enough to get to an intellectual level where they can hurt their captors. In Battlefield Earth, the heroic Johnny Goodboy Tyler uses a brain training device (obviously the inspiration for Dr. Kawashima's popular DS game) to overthrow the evil kerbango-drinking Psychlo scumbag Terl, played by John Travolta and a large leather codpiece containing a spare copy of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. Again, no fault of Laloux and co., but my experience was sadly compromised by the memory of the other movie.

Even the most notable aspect of it, the resolution, was very similar to that of The Matrix Revolutions. This is no bad thing. Too many sci fi tales involving the subjugation of one race by another (or themselves) are resolved with the destruction of the enslavers. I'll admit to finding that satisfying from time to time; who isn't glad that the Rebels bring down the evil Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi? Still it's heartening to see a diplomatic resolution, even if it's backed by force; the Oms are only able to convince the Draags that they are more than dumb animals by interfering with their meditation rituals, and the humans in Matrix Revolutions only reach a détente with the Machines after much carnage and the sacrifice of Neo.

I feel terribly churlish criticising La Planète Sauvage for not being 100% original. It is, after all, at least visually unique (it's the only feature length movie filmed using cut-out animation. Even the cut-out South Park movie uses digital animation, heavily disguised as analogue), and is set on a world with a varied and imaginative ecosystem, atmospherically depicted.

It's more likely that my frustration with the film is a symptom of the growing sense that my quest for a truly original science fiction experience is a Quixotic one. I started off with La Planète Sauvage because I thought it would represent a highwater mark of quirky, visionary uniqueness, all the better to compare everything else to, but it still echoes other movies. Plus, it's based on a book; as a standalone work of art, it already falls short of my criteria.

I'm loath to call this self-imposed project a bust already, though. A truly original idea is an impossibility. There are always going to be influences and references. Even in a movie as pointedly different as this, even if Laloux has no intention of making connections to historical and cultural events or motifs, the audience might make them. Some lazy bloggers (not naming any names, of course) might even try to make a comment about France and Algeria that was inspired by a recent viewing of Gillo Pontecorvo's masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, hoping it would make him look like he knows something about French history that doesn't involve Waterloo or Trafalgar. Ahem.

Also, La Planète Sauvage has all the hallmarks of a subset of science fiction; tales of the subjugation of humanity, with all its attendant biblical resonance. This is a mark against it, but then even before we get into the whole "There are only seven stories to be told" thing, biblical tales tend to crop up a lot in sci fi, so it's bound to happen.

Actually, even then it might not count. Laloux's determination to eradicate all possible recognisable human cultural influence in order to create a plausibly unfamiliar alien world means that there are no direct visual cues to religion or politics within the movie, which saves it from that easy kind of reference. That insistence on peculiarity is one of its strengths. The Draags eat food by sucking on blobs of matter from a pulsating white globular thing in their domiciles, Even the fight scene in the middle of the movie is as bizarre as the rest, with weird mouthy aliens strapped to the Oms' chests and then forced to bite at the opponent. The first rule of Om Fight Club is you do not feed the bitey alien before you fight, apparently.

So, perhaps from now on, I should be focusing on being grateful for any experience which has any originality, whether it be narratively or stylistically. Maybe I should set myself some parameters, now that I've embarked on my journey. Praise the movies that do something new, that isn't just a rehashed space opera or a Matrix rip-off or a misunderstanding of what makes Philip K Dick's writing so appealing. While La Planète Sauvage tells a tale that has occurred in science fiction many times before and since, the execution is utterly unique, and creates a fascinating world that somehow remains plausible.

Maybe that's the best I can hope for, and though I wasn't sold on the movie entirely (the anti-septic storytelling and the disposable nature of the Oms means it's hard to relate, other than to be creeped out by the weirdness), there was enough unique content to still make this something of a success for my project, and certainly if you're interested in a different filmic experience, this is pretty much where it's at.

Next up, hopefully in the next few days, a movie that steals from dozens of pop culture artifacts and yet still erroneously considers itself unique; Richard Kelly's extraordinary movie-spoodge, Southland Tales, featuring a lipsynching Justin Timberlake, Nora Dunn tasering John Larroquette's balls, and yet another magnificent turn by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.


sjwoo said...

Never heard of this movie, but the second I saw the caps, I thought of Salvador Dali. And Yves Tanguy, too. And to a lesser degree, John Greenwood, who did the covers for Orbital. His cover of Snivilisation is one loopy piece of art.

Good scifi films certainly are hard to find nowadays. It's tough to come up with five decent movies in the last ten years. Dark City (1998) I liked. The Matrix (1999), The Iron Giant (1999)...lord, I think that's about it. Wait, I liked Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (2006), too. Which reminds me, I just found this out: The Owl in Daylight. Paul Giamatti's gonna play PKD! Looking forward to it big time.

Admiral Neck said...

I think I liked a lot more sci fi movies than you over the last few years, but that's on a lower, "Well, that was fun," level. The ones you have mentioned represent the best of the genre over recent years, though. I'd also add The Fountain, which works more as a sound/image project than as a sci fi movie (see also Danny Boyle's Sunshine).

Most original of all is Primer, which is like no other time travel movie before or after, but I will admit I have no idea what the hell happens in it after the 60 minute mark.

Oh, and I am very excited about The Owl in Daylight, especially as it is meant to be directed by Terry Gilliam, who worked on a superb Arena BBC documentary about PKD many years ago. I'm sure you can find it online somewhere. Giamatti is inspired casting; he's a fan for a start.

sjwoo said...

The Fountain was good, you're right, I'd add that to the list. Not Sunshine, though. Not when the last half an hour of the movie became 28 Days Later!

One of these days, I'll have to finish Primer. We watched the first half hour and couldn't get through it...