Heavy Metal Man
French filmmaker Rene Laloux began his professional career working in a psychiatric hospital. It was there that he developed an interest in film making and worked on short film projects with some of the patients. The notoriety the work attained soon brought Laloux into contact with adherents and founders of the school of art known as The Panic Movement, including writer Roland Topor and director/artist Alejandro Jodorowsky. Laloux and Topor collaborated on a number of short film projects before taking on the ambitious Fantastic Planet feature film. After the success of that film, Laloux began talking with artists Moebius and Phillippe Caza about doing an adaptation of Jean-Pierre Andravon’s novel Les Hommes-machines contre Gandahar. Unfortunately, schedules and funding never meshed, and so the project didn’t gel. When Moebius and Laloux worked together on Les Maitres du Temps, talk of Gandahar continued but still nothing came together. It wasn’t until 1988 that Laloux got an offer that made the film possible. That offer came from North Korea.
Gandahar was the last of Laloux’s three feature films, all of which can be seen in a way to be part of a trilogy despite not having connected stories. All of them — La Planete Sauvage, Les Maitres du Temps, and Gandahar — deal with similar themes of oppression, free will, and time travel. Each of them showcases a unique but similarly surreal artwork. And each of them approaches science fiction in a poetic way, where imagination and the fantastic is more important than scientific plausibility. Of the three, La Planete Sauvage is the best known and most critically praised. Les Maitres du Temps had its day in the sun, thanks in no small part to the fact that its English language script was authored by none other than Isaac Asimov; to say nothing of the fact that Moebius was the film’s art director. And Gandahar — well, poor ol’ Gandahar is probably the most epic in scope but also the least known of the trio. It’s still an example of what science fiction can be when it unfetters itself from convention and concentrates on trying to bring you something thought-provoking and strange, if also just a little bit corny.
We begin on a typically idyllic planet where all the plants are pink and weird and all the people are sexy, blue, and naked. They spend care-free days playing the flute and collecting giant berries. — the usual utopian Eloi sort of nonsense. Just when it looks like this flutey little berry pickin’ trip is going to get wild, everyone gets blasted with glowing pink lasers that turn them into stone. Apparently, this has been happening all over the planet, Gandahar, and it’s up to the ruling body to figure out what the heck is going on. To accomplish that, the planet’s benevolent, wing-headed matriarch, Ambisextra (subtlety is not always applicable to Gandahar), dispatches lithe young warrior Sylvain (voiced by Pierre-Marie Escourrou — a Zombie Lake alumnus!) who proves why this is a matriarchal society, since the first thing he does is fall asleep while cruising around the sky on his sweet chrome robo-pteranodon and crash.
He’s rescued by a tribe of mutants. They are outcasts from Gandahar’s so-called perfect world, yet they harbor no ill will toward the privileged Sylvain, even inviting him back to their giant cave where you’ll notice that most of the men are mutated in ways that make them have feet growing out of their eye sockets and whatnot, where as most of the women are mutated in a way that gives them a couple of extra breasts. Sylvain also discovers that the mutants are possessed of a sort of psychic foresight that has, in the typically convoluted language of Prophecy, told them that a thousand years ago Gandahar was destroyed, and a thousand years from now it will be saved from that destruction. Or was it the other way around? Yeah, the other way around. Goddamn prophecies. Whatever the case, the mutants may not be the perfect blue supermodels the rest of the planet is, but that hasn’t spared them the wrath of whatever is turning people to stone. Sylvain and his new mutant buddy head off to the big Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind lookin’ forest to continue the quest. And once again, Sylvain proves maybe in a society of highly-competent, statuesque Amazonian women, maybe they should not have left the fate of the world in the hands of a bumbling Ziggy Stardust cosplayer.
Sylvain and his chum happen upon a grove full of Gandaharians who have been turned to stone, and they do so right as the things responsible for the attacks arrive to collect the fruits of their labor. It turns out people are being turned to stones by an army of metal men — robots with glowing red eyes and finger lasers. Sylvain unwisely chooses to engage them in a shoot-out, and as he is hopelessly outnumbered, he’s quickly bested and himself turned to stone. Ah, but the statue status is only temporary. Sylvain wakes up inside a container, accompanied by a comely blue jungle lass. Immediately they fall in love, because what else can you do when you wake up next to a busty blue naked person inside a giant pink egg?
A fortuitous dinosaur attack (Sylvain relies on more luck and coincidence than James Bond) allows Sylvain and his companion, Airelle (Catherine Chevallier, Barbarella), to escape from the metal men and come up with a slightly better plan of attack than the “stumble upon something and get your ass kicked” system on which Sylvain has been relying. Once again, it takes a woman. They follow the metal men and their cargo of stone Gandaharians first to a weird sort of citadel, then to a submarine, and eventually to what looks like a gigantic baboon’s ass in the ocean. It’s actually a giant brain, the source it would seem of the metal men and the creature for whom they are attacking and collecting the native population. With no one more competent on hand, Sylvain and Airelle infiltrate the brain’s base and, surprisingly, are promptly detected and captured by pink lights and tentacles.
Inside the brain, things are not what Sylvain assumed they would be. It turns out the brain, Metamorphe (Georges Wilson), is mortified by what the metal men are doing in its name. Yet being a giant brain in the middle of the ocean, it lacks the ability to stop them. To make matters worse, it also can’t stop them because it’s the one sending and commanding them. Eh? Finally, the visions of the mutants make sense to Sylvain. The metal men are attacking from the future, traveling back through a time portal and under the control of future Metamorphe, where the mega-mind has gone batshit crazy and requires the raw fuel of Gandaharians to survive. In the future, this is a problem since all the Gandaharians were wiped out in the past by the metal men from the future. Got it?
Anyway, current-time Metamorphe doesn’t want to die just yet, but it definitely wants its mad future-self destroyed. If Sylvain travels forward in time a thousand years, he can kill future Metamorphe, thereby preventing the destruction of the present by things from the destroyed future. Since the time portal is heavily guarded, Metamorphe puts Sylvain into hibernation for a thousand years. The young man awakens long after his world has been destroyed by the metal men, but of course the world is still full of familiar Gandaharians and even his mutant buddies, since they are all being carried forward from the past. Oh, time travel! You always make it so fun.
Gandahar does a lot of things right, but it also does a few key things wrong — and the chief thing it does wrong is be a co-production with North Korea. For some reason, it strikes me that the movie’s message about lifting the yoke of an oppressive military dictatorship is somewhat undercut by having been animated in an oppressive military dictatorship. The problem was that, despite the popularity of things like Metal Hurlant, and despite the fact that animation is an ideal medium for the vast imagination of science fiction (especially in the days before CG), sci-fi animation — or anime, as they call it in France — was basically a one man show, that one man being Rene Laloux. And by 1988, he was having a devil of a time finding ways to fund his visions. Even the sudden popularity of Japanese animation — or anime, as they call it in France — wasn’t enough to get Laloux the money he needed to achieve the scope of Gandahar. He was stuck looking for ways to cut costs, and one of those ways was to get the thing animated in a country where labor was somewhat on the…inexpensive…side.
Laloux and the French team ran into a number of issues working with the North Korean animators. For starters, there were the breasts. Like Fantastic Planet, Gandahar contains plenty of naked flesh, blue though it may be. It wasn’t so much the nudity itself that caused the Koreans to pause. It was the big breasts. The animators, sequestered as they were in their workers’ paradise, couldn’t really grasp the concept of women’s breasts being the size of basketballs. Actually, they probably had a point. Anyway, legend has it that Laloux and the Frenchmen brought the animators dirty magazines from The Decadent West to prove that there were indeed women with big breasts.
The entire Gandahar nudity thing is a bit of a paradox, though a pretty typical one for male-drive science fiction. I have nothing against the bare flesh, and it makes sense within the context of the film that many of the citizens of Gandahar would have simply evolved beyond the desire to wear clothing. That’s cool, man. I support the naturists of Gandahar. But note that it’s pretty much only the women who go topless. Sylvain, for his part, despite being a fine young thing, keeps his clothes on throughout most of the film. The spin you can put on it is that Gandahar is a matriarchal society, one in which the covering of the female breast makes no more or less sense than the covering of the male chest. The women are not oppressed, objectified, or abused, and so the entire concept of having to cover parts of themselves out of shame is alien to them. Philosophically that makes perfect sense, but it’s disingenuous not to suggest that the women also like to go topless because Rene Laloux really enjoyed the sight of naked women.
The North Koreans also had problems with the concept of varied art styles. Art director Philippe Caza wanted to incorporate a number of different styles to realize the world of Gandahar, but the animators really only understood a single art style. Once again, the French had to bring examples of what they meant and struggle through language, cultural, and political differences to get what they wanted. It didn’t always work, but the end result is visually gorgeous even if the animation itself is cheap and stiff. It has the surrealism of Fantastic Planet but rendered in a more traditional animation style than that film’s paper doll look. It has the eye-candy colorfulness of Les Maitres du Temps but on a much grander scale.
If Gandahar‘s gender politics swing from “female empowering” to “hee hee boobies,” it’s message about oppression and the sins of the past is more consistent though also undermined by being a partnership with North Korea. It’s unlikely that most of the people on the North Korean end of the production knew the message of Gandahar. In the end, the true heroes of the film are the malformed undesirables, the shunned cast-offs of what we eventually learn was a vigorous program of eugenics to achieve a planet full of beautiful blue people and Sylvain, who for some reason is just a white guy. We also learn that Metamorphe itself was a product of Gandaharian tinkering, abandoned and left to rot out in the middle of the ocean, thus making the people of the planet responsible for their own eventual demise.
On their own, the perfect Gandaharians are ineffectual against the metal men. Even Sylvain is a lukewarm hero at best, and despite the fact that the mutants’ own seers name Sylvain the Chosen One, the malformed emerge as the true deliverers of the Gandaharians. It’s only when the two populations integrate that they’re able to mount any sort of successful resistance against the metal men. Even then, the population pays a terrible price for their bigotry and lack of vision. These eventual outcomes, the transformation of the “present day” Gandaharians into the raw material to create the metal men of the future, stems directly from their willingness to cull “the unusual” and the different from their heard in the name of fostering a Utopian society. And that’s what makes the association with North Korea so painfully ironic. Very few totalitarian regimes begin with the express goal of brutally oppressing their population. Instead, they are founded on the notion that they are creating a more perfect civilization. But they quickly learn that their sway over people is tenuous. Human nature is simply too diverse and unpredictable, and so they take the first step of trying to suppress just a bit of that nature. A few more rules, a few more cracked skulls. Better that a few suffer to deliver paradise to everyone else. But then the few continue to grow, and suddenly a glorious workers’ revolution devolves into a totalitarian state where the masses are beaten down, paranoia spreads, and suddenly your Utopia is doing things like the Stalinist purges or Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
As history has taught us, and as Gandahar expresses, the temptation of totalitarianism, even in the pursuit of lofty goals, is substantial. Good intentions can pave the way to disaster when people forsake thoughts and appearances that do not jibe with what has been defined as perfect. From their vantage point in “the present,” the Gandaharians can’t comprehend the cost of their society. But the quest for some arbitrarily agreed-upon aesthetic perfection that led them to ostracize the malformed is the same tendency that eventually finds its ghoulish culmination in the transformation of the Gandaharians into faceless, thoughtless, identical automatons. Laloux tackled the same issue (though it was not the whole point of that movie) in Les Maitres du Temps, when the heroes encounter a blob that abhors difference. Like crazed future Metamorphe, it seeks to transform everyone into identical automotons. The metal men in Gandahar, and the faceless white angels in Les Maitres du Temps. Outside of Laloux’s work, you can still find the occasional sci-fi film willing to tackle the idea that eliminating this freedom or that “for our own good” is a very slippery slope.