In January of 1968, Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak reformist, came to power in the Czech Republic. Dubcek made lofty promises of less government censorship, easier international travel, a decentralized government and overall, more individual freedoms for Czechs and Slovaks alike. Of course, almost none of these promises came to fruition, at least not during Dubcek’s brief reign. In August of that year, Russia, unhappy with the liberal shape things were taking, invaded the CSSR with hundreds of thousands of troops, forcing Dubcek out of power. They did not try to talk with Dubcek. They muscled him out with a brute force that killed at least 108 innocent Czechs and Slovaks. This was known as the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. The communist party regained control, and the Russian military extended their stay all the way to 1990.
This is a helpful bit of knowledge to gain before settling in for a viewing of Fantastic Planet, a joint French-Czech production from 1973. More on that later.
While the animation is seriously wacky, done in a style reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s trippy Monty Python interstitial animated shorts, the narrative is very straightforward. The film takes place on the fictional planet Ygam, home to a species of highly evolved aliens known as Traags. The Traags are a seemingly peaceful bunch, with the study and practice of meditation acting as a pillar of their society. During meditation, the souls of Traags escape from their bodies and drift off into the ether, trapped inside protective bubbles. That actually happens. Their consciousness floats away in bubbles. You should really watch this.
However, as we venture deeper into the film, we start to get the feeling that the Traags aren’t exactly the kindest folk. While they’re civil to one another, they have quite a tenuous relationship with the Oms. Oms are miniature humans, about the size of your average field mouse. They, too, live on Ygam. To the Traags, however, the Oms are akin to rats, seen as dirty, useless things.
Oms are divided into two categories: domestic Oms or Oms kept as pets, mostly looked after by adolescent Traags, and savage Oms, or Oms living in the deserted wilds of nether Ygam.
As the Om population grows, a tribunal council of Traags meets to discuss how to dispose of the budding miniature creatures. They call for a de-Omization, a sort of genocide they'd performed in the past when they felt the Om population was encroaching upon their utopia. A secret attack is unleashed on the savage Oms, who have little defense. Some Oms manage to escape, but the damage is done.
And this is where we get to the heart of the film.
Rene Laloux and Roland Topor, the film’s creators are telling us what we don’t want to hear: there is no such thing is utopia. There is no ideal. There is simply what is laid before us, and it’d be best if we just learned to deal with it.
Too often over the course of humanity, powerful governmental groups have sought after a utopian society, leaving corpses in their wake. The Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide. The United States of America’s continuing crusade to Democratize the world. All of these conflicts are based around the idea that there is only one way: our way. We are a race obsessed with finding the right religion, the right political party with which to align ourselves. We are infatuated with groups and sects and cliques and communities, but we rarely have tolerance for those groups and communities outside of our comfortable bubbles. There’s never any room for outliers, for people who believe in an alternative god, or have off-kilter political views.
And, why? That’s a question I can’t answer with any sort of intelligence, but I’d like to believe it’s because we’re afraid of being wrong. We’re afraid that the choices we’ve made may not be right and if we’re wrong, our idyllic world will crumble in front of our faces, that everything we’ve ever stood for is a sham. That’s certainly what the Traags seem to be afraid of.
Fantastic Planet is a movie about communication, and the lack thereof. Early on, you realize that though the Oms and Traags have their differences, they speak the exact same language. Why not have a conversation? Why not sit down and discuss how things could be more harmonious? While watching, I was screaming “Just talk it out, guys!” And that’s exactly the point.
It is rare that a nation will ever peacefully talk to another nation in hopes of finding a middle ground. Or, even, on a smaller scale, it’s rare that people will ever sit down with others of a vastly different perspective and try to hash out differences. When Dubcek promised reform, he was swiftly squashed by the Russians. They never tried to speak with him; they just muscled their way in and took over, too scared to compromise. Their rule could not and would not be challenged, even if not everyone was happy with the communist way.
When Barack Obama announced he'd like to, at some point, actually sit down with Kim Jong-Il and have a conversation, conservatives mocked him and called him an idiot. Why? What's the harm with communicating? Where is there danger in gaining perspective? Why is everyone so hell-bent on being right all the time?
Yes, it's an easy tack to take: can't we all just get along? Still, that's what this film is about. It's asking: why do we never talk about things? Why do we always make assumptions? Why don't we just drop the bullshit and tell each other what we really want and strive to coexist? It may not be perfect, but it's better that way. That, friends, is the closest we’ll ever get to Utopia.
This is a powerful film. It is beautifully crafted and it reminds us that humans have got a long, long way to go.