Caligula (1979)

Picture this for a moment. You have Tinto Brass working with an illustrious cast led by Malcolm McDowell, working with a screenplay by Gore Vidal, high production values, it seemed as if this film had all the right ingredients that made a classic, or a close approximation of one, so what went wrong? Well somehow the founder of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione, became the film’s producer. While Tinto Brass wanted to make the film as a political satire, Guccione simply wanted an extravagant, high class porno, and because the producers didn’t let Brass edit the film at all, Guccione was free to put in as much unsimulated sex scenes as he wanted, completely disregarding Brass’ original vision.

I’m no prude, but needless to say, I can understand why Roger Ebert walked out on this film. It seems to have no worth other than as an extravagant cavalcade of degeneracy, devoid of the meaning that Tinto Brass had hoped to bestow upon it. Seriously, I’ve seen some messed up stuff in films, but this film, with its lurid, feverishly graphic sex scenes that you’d now find only in the some of the more hardcore online pornography, stretches it for two-and-a-half long hours. If Guccione attended something arousing then he’s surely failed. He bastardised what could have been a truly great film for nothing.

As for the plot, it’s essentially sex-crazed retelling of the rise and fall of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula, who ascended to the throne after the death of his predecessor Tiberius. The film details some of Caligula’s eccentricities, but isn’t exactly historically accurate. It’s historically accurate to some degree, but I don’t recall Roman historical accounts of a red wall with rotating blades beneath it that chopped the heads off of anyone buried up to their necks.

I assume this is the film from which people get their assumptions of “pagan Roman debauchery”, some of them using it to say “this is why Christianity is better”. Keep in mind this was a film produced by Penthouse, a magazine that specialised in smut. Certainly that’s what Bob Guccione wanted out of Caligula, and in fact, much of the sex scenes, which are often stretched beyond belief and often seem like they interrupt the plot anytime something interesting actually happens, were filmed by him, rather than Tinto Brass. If you’re impression of Roman history comes from here then I don’t really know what to tell you.

The acting is actually quite good, but it’s Malcolm McDowell whose fine acting talents truly carry the film. In keeping with the garish, over-the-top interpretation of Imperial Rome that he is cast in, McDowell raises the level of his performance to match the gaudiness of it all. It tends to result in him overacting, but with McDowell it’s quite riveting. His charged performance really stole the show and made the film at least more tolerable to watch.

Another plus side to the film is its tremendous production values. The whole film looks extravagant and gaudy, the film is given a booming classical music score. I suppose this was part of the producers’ attempt to give the film an extraordinarily opulent atmosphere, but thanks to the frequently overstretched hardcore sex scenes and spates of gore, the film’s atmosphere has more of a grotesque opulence. Maybe that was intentional. To be honest, I’m not sure what parts of the film were Brass’ ideas or Guccione’s ideas.

On the whole, Caligula was, to put it bluntly, an overblown failure, both in its artistic merits and as a commercial product. To my mind, this was something that could have been a similar historical masterpiece to Ken Russell’s The Devils, but sadly it got into the hands of a lecherous porn producer, and what you get is a bloated, overstretched film that attempted to offer up a titillating Roman fantasy but instead leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

  • Score: 59%
  • Grade: D

Billy Jack (1971)

Now Billy Jack is a rather interesting film, certainly an object of its time in terms of production and its general attitude. Made by Tom Laughlin at the tail end of the hippie era, Billy Jack seems to have been positioned as a countercultural action film, complete with the progressive values of the hippie movement which apparently Mr. Laughlin has to repeatedly shove down our throats at various points in the film. That said it’s not a bad film, in fact I’d say it was a fairly good action film. But I think the problem is that, not only was it a bit too long, but also that it got too bogged down in its own message, even as it runs counter to said message frequently.

The eponymous Billy Jack is a half-breed Navajo Indian, who is also a former Green Beret and a veteran of the then-ongoing Vietnam War who happens to be a master of hapkido martial arts. In the film, he keeps watch of Jean Roberts’ Freedom School, a progressive art school in Southwest America for runaway kids of all races. He defends the Native American kids from the prejudicial bullying of the townspeople, and after an incident in an ice cream parlour in which some Native American kids have flour poured on them, he goes berserk and has the authorities coming after him and the school.

My main problem is that the film is about ten or fifteen minutes too long and suffers from some awkward pacing. Another problem is how ham-fisted the message tends to be. If you’re like me and you’re not a progressive, you probably won’t like the film’s progressive politics, and one thing I noticed is that the hippies in the film always argue from emotion rather than logic, quite like the so-called progressives of today. You could call it strawmanning if you like, but then the film strawmans the “conservative” characters a lot.

In this film’s world, all conservatives are evil, jack-booted bigots and all progressives are righteous hippies just want to sing and dance. Never mind the fact that the film’s message of peace and love is contradicted by the amount of violence committed by the protagonist, which only seems to prove that the only way to truly enforce justice with a gun, and in a film where the main character seems to be for gun control.

As for characters, the acting isn’t too bad, but it’s rather weak. Tom Laughlin is actually not a bad action hero in the film, and better at that than he is a writer or director, but he’s no Clint Eastwood, and he’s desperately trying to be a Clint Eastwood style anti-hero and failing. That said, even if he’s not a great actor, he’s a pretty good fighter, and at certain parts of the film, he’s very good. The rest of the cast is less tolerable though, particularly the hippies.

On the whole, Billy Jack is a dated relic of its time. Not an unwatchable one though, it looks and sounds like a decent film. But it’s main flaw is that it can’t stop getting caught up in its own politicking, and given that it was made by a progressive, this is no surprise. Just as now, they are always concerned with putting politics into everything, and regardless of the message, it doesn’t exactly lead to a good film.

  • Score: 64%
  • Grade: C

Soylent Green (1973)

Films like Soylent Green tend to be interesting due to their out-there central premises, and this film seems to be a blend of detective mystery, dystopian sci-fi, and social commentary that’s characteristically of its time, this being the time when environmentalism starting becoming fashionable. I suppose it was only natural that we would see a film that grapples with overpopulation, and the film itself is something of a product of its time. That being said, it was certainly an interesting and entertaining film.

Set in the year 2022, some fifty years into the future, the film depicts an overpopulated, polluted world where natural resources are all but exhausted, and the climate has apparently become so warm that many animals can’t survive. Most food in this world is provided by the Soylent Corporation, which creates nutritious wafers that it claims are made from plankton. The story focuses on the life of NYPD detective Frank Thorn, who along with his partner Solomon is tasked with investigating the murder of Soylent board member William R. Simonson, who was allegedly also burglarised before his death. During the investigation, Frank finds that there are powerful men, including the governor, who want to end the investigation even if they have to kill him, and he eventually stumbles upon the company’s terrible secret.

Right off the bat I felt like there was some sort of environmentalist vibe coming from the film, which I guess was pretty much in vouge at the time. I don’t really mind that though. My real criticism is that the film is a bit slowly paced for a film of about 97 minutes in length. The film seems to meander on for a while without much happening, but when we get back on the case, all seems to be well and good. It seems to be one of those films that slowly gets better as it progresses until we reach the conclusion, which I think was a solid ending, even if it was cut a bit short.

The acting is quite good, and to be fair, there wasn’t really a bad performer in the entire film, although this is another one of those films where the characters have the misfortune of being outshone by a big lead, in this case Charlton Heston. That said, Edward G. Robinson gives a good performance as Heston’s crusty old sidekick, in what is sadly his last film. I do find it disappointing that we don’t have much exposition on the characters, but I can generally tolerate it here.

Even though I criticised the film earlier for its somewhat slow pacing, I can’t help but think that perhaps the point of it was to enhance the feeling of suspense. The film’s overall style was rather subtle, yet there was no real attempt to hide the film’s gloomy outlook. There were a lot of nice-looking set pieces, but sometimes I wonder if they were really necessarily. I don’t have a problem with them, it could simply be a way of fleshing out the futuristic world of the film.

On the whole it was certainly a good film, not without its flaws but still an interesting and intelligent sci-fi from back when sci-fi was smart.

  • Score: 70%
  • Grade: C

Sorcerer (1977)

For whatever reason I found myself interested in a 40-year-old thriller called Sorcerer, which turned out to be a remake of a European 1950’s thriller called The Wages of Fear. Whatever you want to call it, the film came out at perhaps an awkward time. It was released just a month after Star Wars came out, and became an instant phenomenon, and when that happened, films like this were left twisting in the wind, and thus Sorcerer, which was produced on twice the budget of Star Wars, failed to turn a profit, and was generally dismissed by critics. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s actually quite a good film. Not as good as I might have hoped, but still a good film.

The film’s story revolves around four men, each from different parts of the world, who are invariably forced to flee from their previous lives, assuming fake identities of course. They all end up meeting each other in the remote South American village of Porvenir, where they live in abject poverty and earn meagre wages. After a local oil well explodes, the men are hired by an American oil company to transport cargoes of nitroglycerin to the oil well using two trucks. If successful, they will be handsomely, but it’s a highly dangerous job and it’s likely that they might die.

With that in mind, why is the film called “Sorcerer”? Well, apparently one of the two trucks in the film is called “Sorcerer”, which I guess is a somewhat logical if silly reason to call the film Sorcerer. The other explanation comes from the film’s director William Friedkin, who links the title to one of the themes of the film. In his words, “the sorcerer is an evil wizard, and in this case the evil wizard is fate”. That’s quite a stretch, but it’s not uncommon for directors to have pretentious ways of rationalising batty artistic decisions. Friedkin isn’t the worst in that regard.

As for the story itself, the concept is actually quite good. It’s main focus is taking people of different backgrounds who hate each other, but not as much as having to work with them, keeping in mind that if they didn’t co-operate, they would surely die. This kind of story is guaranteed to have some drama and suspense. I also like how the film’s prologue shows you how the main characters got from where they were to where they are now.

That being said, my main issue is with the film’s rather slow pacing. Parts of the film end up being rather boring, but certainly not at the very end, and it does have some surprisingly explosive moments to keep you on your toes. The acting is very good, thanks to the casting of skilled actors such as Roy Scheider. With this film you can really get a sense of their emotions, and while no character is completely likeable, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that that’s pretty much the point. The film certainly succeeds in terms of its pessimistic atmosphere and its style. The film boasts a crisp look and sound, and benefits from skilful editing and tastefully professional shooting. Another highlight would be the film’s musical score, which comes courtesy of Tangerine Dream.

On the whole it was certainly an ambitious film, and quite a good one. In fact, William Friedkin wanted this film to be his legacy, but in a way he sort of had it, given that the film now enjoys cult film status. Ultimately the film’s chances of success were hindered mainly by the fact that it was 1977. If you didn’t go to see Star Wars, you went to see Smokey and the Bandit. Both were huge films that effectively murdered Friedkin’s Sorcerer in the box office, and there’s something symbolic about that. Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit symbolised the newly emerging blockbuster era, while Sorcerer was emblematic of the New Hollywood style of film-making. After 1977, the New Hollywood era would decline until its eventual demise in 1980, and the art of cinema would be the poorer for it. In a way, Sorcerer was the sacrifice on the altar of blockbuster cinema. Or perhaps I read into this sort of thing too much.

  • Score: 74%
  • Grade: C

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

The martial arts genre sounds like a fun action genre. Instead of surly Commando-type action heroes shooting with pistols or machine guns (which isn’t that bad if I’ll be totally honest), you’re treated to masterfully choreographed scenes of hand-to-hand combat. Kung-fu films tend to either awesome or ridiculous, or a hilarious combination of both. Five Deadly Venoms, meanwhile, falls into the the awesome category. Produced by the celebrated Shaw Brothers, the film is a classic hero versus villain scenario livened up with skilful choreography, with the ingredients of a finely made cult classic.

The film revolves around a young man named Yang Tieh, the last pupil of the dying master of the Poison Clan. The master dispatches him on a mission to find five other students who are masters of powerful martial arts styles, worrying that they are being used for evil ends, and to track down the master’s retired colleague Yun and warn him that his fortune may be stolen by his former pupils. Eventually, Yun is killed by the master’s former pupils, and Yang is left to fight the pupils who have used their skills for evil, and fighting alongside the only one who hasn’t.

It’s a nice and simple story with a straightforward narrative, and it works. You don’t really need a heavily drawn-out plot for this sort of film. This is something the Shaw Brothers seem to have known quite well, and that was part of their general business model back in the day. Everything you need to know plot-wise is very well explained at the beginning of the film, which is good because it meets that the action is all that matters. That said, there’s also a bit of backstabbing and suspense to spice up the narrative.

The acting isn’t great, at least in the English dub, but it’s alright despite the general cheesiness. I know action films aren’t generally praised for the acting, so I tend not to care about it in this regard. The characters themselves are pretty good, and in spite of the not so great acting, you generally get a wide range of emotions out of them (confidence, anger, fear, desire for revenge, etc.).

The film presents itself in a not too serious manner, which is ideal for this sort of film, but let’s not lose site of the most important aspect of the film – the fighting. The characters in the film are willing to fight at just the drop of the fight, and when that happens, you get treated to some stylish, high-speed fight choreography with almost superhuman fighting styles. The film isn’t all kung fu fighting though. There are scenes were the film briefly becomes a horror film, when one of the Poison Clan members kills people using gruesome techniques without leaving a mark. Despite how commonly people fight each other, thanks to scenes like these death is not a trivial matter in the film, and it’s actually satisfying to watch the fighters who used their skills for evil get their just deserts.

If I must recommend any kung fu film, it will have to be Five Deadly Venoms, arguably one of the greatest films of the genre. Of course, it doesn’t beat Enter the Dragon, but what does? This film is still a classic of the genre, and a prime example of how martial arts films should be made.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

The Omega Man (1971)

If you hated Will Smith’s badly paced and poisonously boring I Am Legend, then I can almost guarantee that you’ll find The Omega Man infinitely better. Both were based on a Richard Matheson novel whose name was lent to the former, but this is easily the most recognisable rendition, and probably the best. It’s probably not a very unique post-apocalyptic survival film, but it certainly seems like a step above other films of the genre in terms of its execution.

The film itself is set in the year 1977, in an alternate history in which biological warfare between China and Soviet Russia had already resulted in the spread of a plague that killed most of the world’s population, with most of the survivors being turned into deformed, nocturnal mutants who can’t stand the sunlight. In a now desolate Los Angeles, a band of mutants called “The Family” are proceeding to destroy all forms of technology, as they see science and technology as the causes of the war that lead to their mutation.

One man, a U.S. Army Colonel named Robert Neville, believes himself to be the last uninfected man on Earth, and has developed a serum that allows him to become immune to the disease. After he finds out that there are other survivors who have not been infected, he finds himself not only trying to fend off attempts on his life by deranged mutants, but also trying to help others avoid succumbing to the effects of the disease and save humanity.

The story essentially plays out like a frenetic action film for the most part, and it starts out quite strong, although I wish the film would have maintained the action-oriented approach more often, as I think the film was certainly made for that. I don’t necessarily mind the approach the film-makers took, though I found the ending to be something a disappointment.

The acting perhaps isn’t the best, but there are good moments. Though I would argue that without Charlton Heston in the lead role, the film itself would probably have been far less entertaining as it was. Here he channels the same kind of role he played in Planet of the Apes just three years earlier, and in a way the role of the desperate survivor seems to work well for an actor who is known for playing rugged, down to Earth heroes.

The production values for the film were certainly very good, and you can generally get the sense of the kind of desolation that pervades over the veritable ghost town wherein Robert Neville lives out the rest of his days in fear and desperation. The makeup effects on the rather ridiculous vampiric mutants were also pretty good, as they made the mutants look about as menacing as you might expect them to, which sort of makes up for the somewhat ridiculous concept.

On the whole, The Omega Man was an above average film, but not without its flaws, and I can’t help but feel that without Charlton Heston the film might not have been that great. Was it entertaining either way? I would say yes.

  • Score: 71%
  • Grade: C

Space is the Place (1974)

The 1970’s had some crazy films back in the day, so it’s no wonder why I’ve been focusing on films from that time all month, because I love 70’s cinema. Before the age of blockbuster cinema, you had films that were unburdened by committee thinking, works of pure artistic passion. This was the zeitgeist that fed the creation of some truly unique films. That said, not all 70’s films were created equal, and some films are rather jarring. Space is the Place is one of them, with a wildly surreal concept but somewhat lacklustre execution.

The film casts the famous jazz musician Sun Ra as a Pharaonic space-age jester/guru/philosopher, with his band the Arkestra following him around. Presumed lost for many years, he arrives in Oakland, California and spreads the word of his plans to take black people with him to outer space. Meanwhile, he duels with a mystical pimp named the Overseer with the future of the black race at stake.

All I can say is, well that was bizarre, though it did some thought process behind it, though I’d say that gets even weirder. Apparently the concept came from Sun Ra’s time as a lecturer in the University of California, Berkeley. He taught a course there called “The Black Man in the Cosmos” in 1971, and his lectures became the basis of the premise behind the film. At least we can confirm that bizarre courses have been a staple in universities for a while. The film itself is based in Afrofuturism, a cultural movement that melds sci-fi and fantasy with black-oriented social commentary, typically of the left-wing, social justice variety, and the rest of the film is surreal psychedelia.

My main problem with the film is that it sort of got carried away in its concept, and got itself mired in pacing and confusion. The plot itself seems like it could have been the plot of a short film, but there are musical interludes between parts of the film. The musical interludes aren’t bad, but they disrupt the flow of the film, along with butchering the narrative, which appears to be based in Afrocentric identitarianism.

The acting isn’t bad, and I think one of the film’s biggest strengths was the ability of Sun Ra to give himself presence in the film, albeit by making himself look godlike to the point of ridiculousness. The other characters aren’t bad, and the guy playing the Overseer does a fine job, but the rest of the cast tends to fall into the background, especially whenever Sun Ra shows up.

At the very least the film succeeds in the realm of style. The pharaonic aesthetic looks great on Sun Ra, and a number of the set pieces channel the style to good effect. The music played by Sun Ra’s band is also quite trippy, so even if the musical interludes do cut into the film’s narrative, the music itself compliments the film’s crazy atmosphere. All in all, it’s a fascinating film. Mediocre but certainly fascinating as a product of its time. Though more than anything else, it was basically an art project for Sun Ra, though its fans will undoubtedly remember it as a quintessential example of Afrofuturism.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C

Metalhead (2013)

Films that revolve around subcultures (particularly musical subcultures) tend to be either moderately watchable, or intolerably bad, and the main reason for it is that they end up getting bogged down in a lot of pandering, and often they do so in a way that seems alienating or off-putting to the uninitiated, and downright insulted to the already converted. This film, meanwhile, attempts at a meaningful, thoughtful portrayal of a metalhead, but in the end resorts to stereotypes all the same, and far from being a gripping, heartwarming drama, Metalhead comes across as a banal, pathetic cringe-fest.

The story revolves around a girl named Hera who, when she was eleven years old, had the misfortune of witnessing her older rocker brother Baldur die after falling off of and getting scalped by a tractor. She responded to the tragedy by immediately picking up her brother’s guitar and taking his clothes as her own, and years later, she and her parents still haven’t gotten over the incident. She begins acting out in various ways, like playing loud music wherever she has the given opportunity and generally being rude to everyone. When the priest tries to help her, she interprets it as a romantic relationship and when she realises it isn’t, she burns down a church and goes insane until she comes back, stops being a metalhead for a while until some Norwegian men form a band with her.

That’s pretty much the gist of the plot, and I may well have saved you 97 pointless minutes in divulging it to you. It’s not as if the writers had ill intentions. Grief and alienation make for ideal themes in dramatic works, but it’s just not executed very well, and the main problem is that the film feels like a feature-length tantrum on the part of the main character. The film lurches from being a melodramatic teen angst flick to becoming a preachy “pray the metalhead away” lecture. That to me seems to be the film’s message that being a metalhead is some sort of depressive phase that only teenagers go through, and that you can only be a normal person by getting out of it. I’m not even a metalhead and I think that it’s an utterly deplorable concept.

The main character is perhaps the biggest problem. The writers honestly want me to sympathise with her but I just can’t, and the reason why is because she’s just untenable as a character. She is literally the distorted caricature of a metalhead that parents used to have in their heads back in the 1990’s, complete with all the nasty behaviours that pearl clutchers might have accused metalheads of exhibiting back than, but worse than that, she seems like a character who has completely shackled herself to grief in a manner that isn’t remotely touching because it’s not realistic. It’s not as though the acting is terrible. Her acting is actually quite good, and the rest of the cast didn’t fare too badly either, but again, the whole narrative crumbles quickly.

I should at least commend the film for its visual style. It has a sort of sombre look and feel to it, which belies the shabbiness of the film itself. Of course the film tries to butter you up with all sorts of savoury metal tunes, but it honestly seems like window dressing. Oh, and this a film that ends by somehow managing to make Megadeth sound cringy, by having Hera’s mom do a corny dance to it.

This is one of those films where I have to wonder, how do critics love the film so much? Seriously, it seems like most professional critics do nothing other than give the film a blowjob, possibly because it somehow appeals to their moral sensibilities, but most likely because it’s the kind of banal, meandering melodrama that critics naturally gravitate towards. To me, this film will probably have more appeal with people who know screw all about metal, and I don’t think the sycophantic “critics” that worshipped this film even listened to a single metal song or album before that. I don’t know what planet they were on, or even if they were watching the same movie, but the reality is the Metalhead was a hollow mockery of the subculture that it is purported to cater to.

  • Score: 59%
  • Grade: D

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The general consensus is that A Clockwork Orange is a classic, one the landmark films of its time, and they’re right. While it can often be placed in the category of the 70’s-style futuristic sci-fi film, it was certainly more than that. It was a deep, thought-provoking vision of how British society might look if it were only a stone’s throw away from totalitarianism. In that sense, the message and meaning of A Clockwork Orange is quite clear.

The film’s story is told from the perspective of Alex deLarge, a teenage delinquent and gang leader who is principally interested in classical music, rape, and ultra-violence. He also treats his fellow “droogs” like thralls, rebuking them when they express their discontent. His criminal life plays out in the backdrop of a society where law and order seems to have vanished. All this changes after he is betrayed by his fellow thugs and caught by the police. Two years later he is subjected to the Ludovico technique, a controversial, experimental aversion therapy technique that gets him out of jail within two years, but the technique turns out to be too effective.

The story starts out as a slowly paced tour of anarchy, with Alex and his gang taking drugs and raping and beating their way through a now dystopian London, a city teetering towards societal collapse. In the years following Alex’s incarceration, after a new government is elected, the tone of the film changes, becoming colder and more sterile, perhaps befitting the now subdued Alex. In taking the perspective of a criminal, Kubrick frames the dystopian world in the context of his own narcissistic worldview. Some have said that this glamourises the film’s graphic violence (which is rather tame compared to what we have now), but said violence is an important part of the film’s message.

Malcolm McDowell, as one might expect, delivers a fine performance as the main character, with a very convincing Cockney accent. He also excels in portraying the contrasting states of Alex deLarge – both the unhinged criminal and the subdued mannequin are portrayed with precision and skill by Mr. McDowell. The cast in general delivers some very fine performances, including Patrick Magee, who plays the lefty writer who sees Alex as a political tool to use against the government, and Anthony Sharp as the sinister government minister who wants to use him to advance his political agenda.

The film was not just groundbreaking in terms of its narrative and themes, but also in terms of its style. The film opens simply with a block colour title, and the rest of the film is set in a dreary urban environment. The film’s score is composed almost principally with a Moog synthesiser, which along with some classical music compositions gave the film a part of its unique personality. On top of that, the first half of the film is littered with sexual imagery, by way of the bizarre sexual art that people in the future seem to have. Could this be a way of visually communicating the late stages of the society in which the film is set? Who knows.

All in all, it was a great film, providing a great deal of fuel for your intellectual curiosity if you want such a film. It has certainly aged better than many films from its time, a rarity amongst films that are so symbolic of the dazed and confused decade as this.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Among the great animated triumphs of the 1970’s sits René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, a film well known among animation aficionados as a classic of surreal animation. Indeed, it’s not so much a piece of film as much as it is a work of art, and I think it was a work that was ahead of its time. Back in 1973, there were only a handful of animated sci-fi features, let alone of the kind that were mature enough to deal with heavy subjects such as authoritarianism, captivity and revolution, bundled in with the kind of utopian themes that you usually find in sci-fi from that point in time.

In this film, humans from Earth have been captured by blue giants called the Draag (who call the humans “Oms”), and brought to their planet of Ygam as pets which they dress up in garish costumes. The Draags have a technologically and apparently spiritually advanced society, and they live much longer than humans, but reproduce less. Not all humans are domesticated. Some humans live out in the wilderness, and the ones that do are considered savages, which the Draags regularly exterminate as their form of pest control.

The story focuses on a human named Terr, who since his infancy was raised in captivity by a young Draag named Tiwa, the daughter of a Draag leader named Master Sinh. He learns a great deal of Draag knowledge while living with her, but when she starts to grow distant from him, he runs away and steals the headphones that transmit knowledge to her mind. With his knowledge, which he spreads to the undomesticated humans, he leads his fellows to rebel against their Draag oppressors.

I think my main criticism with the story is that the film is rather short, running at only 72 minutes. That’s not necessarily bad, but with 20 more minutes I think the film could have explored more territory, but that’s not to say the writers did a very good job in 72 minutes. After all it’s undoubtedly a strong story. The film basic premise is essentially a variation of the David and Goliath archetype (in a Planet of the Apes sort of fashion), and built around that is a sophisticated, wonderfully bizarre tale of an advanced, yet self-absorbed society in danger of bringing about its own ruin.

The voice acting was pretty good, and the characters were very well-formed, though I think a longer runtime may have been better for character development. The main protagonist, however, is the most well-done character in the movie, which is no surprise considering that you get to see him from infancy to adulthood (it should be noted that humans seem to age faster than their alien captors). In a way, his intelligence and resourcefulness represents the potential of mankind, the potential that certain people in power don’t want people to display, and I think that’s part of the film’s message, that we have the power to bring about a better world for ourselves, but we have to make those in power see that we are be taken seriously.

Of course, Fantastic Planet is absolutely a visual treat, with its highly detailed, hand-drawn art style evoking a distinctly antique feel. The art style is something of a mixture of Terry Gilliam, Max Ernst (arguably), Salvador Dali, and other surrealist artists, and the result is simply magnificent. I find that the film has a kind of illustrative style, and there’s a scene that vindicates my point in which you see a montage of what look like rough, conceptual style sketches. I would say that this is as much a film for art students and budding illustrators as it is for cineasts. The film also had a great, progressive rock style music score, courtesy of Alain Goraguer.

On the whole, Fantastic Planet was a great film that desperately needs more exposure. It presented a vision of animation vastly different from what we’re used to today, one that emphasised the artistic potential of the medium and pushed the boundaries of what animated works were capable of. Where are such ground-breaking animations nowadays? Much has changed in over 40 years, but the classics of animation still endure, setting an example of the direction that animation should take.

  • Score: 88%
  • Grade: A