Saturday, June 28, 2008

Review of Gandahar (Light Years)

Working on the last two science-fiction projects (Stealing Oscars Robin Hood Style and Ranking Sci-Fi by Year) has rejuvenated my interest in the genre. Collating recommendations and sifting through other websites, lists and reference books has given me about 200 titles to track down. I’ve already discovered some real treats in areas I’m pretty weak on such as early 1950’s SF (“This Island Earth” showcases some impressive special effects while “The Man from Planet X” proved, yet again, the amusing resourcefulness of Edgar G. Ulmer) and New Zealand SF (both “The Quiet Earth” and “The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey” deserve wider audiences).

Then there’s Rene Laloux, sort of a rediscovery for me. Back in college, Katie and I worked at a campus library. I was particularly fond of putting the vast film collection into Library of Congress Classification order (yup, I’m that much of a nerd). Katie kept an eye on the movies getting checked in and out. Between the two of us, we picked up a lot of movie recommendations just by listening to eccentric patrons and handling several hundred VHS and DVDs each day. That’s how Laloux’s “Fantastic Planet” (aka The Savage Planet) found its way into my VCR. An animated cult SF French-Czech collaboration?! It was exactly the type of thing that made monotonous shelving duty worthwhile.

Truth be told, Laloux’s film didn’t have overwhelming appeal for me. My experience with animation was limited (and this still pretty much holds) to Disney, Pixar and post-1980 anime. “Fantastic Planet” was made in Europe in 1973 and took its influences from traditions I was entirely unaware of. I was bowled over by the creativity, but didn’t engage with the visual style, which I took to be awkward and primitive. When all was said and done, I really liked the film, but I want to see it again with the benefit of greater experience.

Studying up on SF last week, I learned that Laloux had created two other animated SF features: “Gandahar” (aka Light Years) and “Time Masters” (a French-Hungarian collaboration that I’ve not yet seen). I bought a copy of “Gandahar” with mid-level expectations and ended up being rather impressed.

“Gandahar” (1988) features an overflowing plot, cramming in enough ideas to fill half a dozen films. The English version has been substantially recut (by Harvey Weinstein), rewritten (by Isaac Asimov) and rescored. The result is a mixture of major achievements and minor flaws in a ratio that makes me more than a little curious about the original.

It begins with a mysterious laser attack on the peaceful paradise civilization of Gandahar. At the capital city, Jasper, a matriarchal council appoints Sylvain to investigate. Early on in his journey he is captured by a subterranean tribe of twisted mutants (with some really creative combinations of limbs and facial features) whom Sylvain initially mistakes as The Enemy. In truth they are the discarded embarrassments of Gandahar’s genetic experimentation. Though they have been cast from Eden and forgotten by their creators, they are menaced by the same new foe and offer to help Sylvain.

Sylvain soon discovers that a race of metal automatons is marching into Gandahar, firing lasers from their fingers that instantly petrify victims. They transfer the resulting statues into eggs and ship them through a glowing pink portal at a seaside fortress. Sylvain and a svelte female ally sneak aboard a boat and travel to the center of the ocean where I giant brain (the size of an island and voiced by Christopher Plummer) named Metaphorphis lurks. While acknowledging that he feels some connection with the “men of metal,” Metamorphis claims that he did not create them or order their attack. Indeed, they have come through the door of time from a thousand years in the future. A skeptical Sylvain agrees to be put into stasis at the bottom of the sea for the duration so that he can emerge in the distant future, learn the truth and fulfill the prophecy of saving his civilization a millennium after its destruction.

“Gandahar” is based on Jean-Pierre Andrevon’s novel “The Machine-Men Versus Gandahar” and features more than just an exciting SF adventure tale. What really impressed me is the world-building, particularly the rich exoticness of the Gandahar civilization. Almost all of their needs are accomplished by bioengineered solutions, for instance, genetically modifying birds to be image-transmitting scouts, breeding enormous crabs as protectors and training strange beasts as planes. Even Sylvian’s “gun” fires fast-growing seeds that thrust roots and thorns through their targets. Many of the otherworldly flora and fauna are not fully explained, enhancing the sense of a wider universe outside the narrative.

I’ve seen the concept of a bioengineering-based civilization used in novels (Harry Harrison’s “West of Eden” series) and videogames (the Zerg in Starcraft), but it’s typically too esoteric and difficult to film for movies. Laloux’s visionary adaptation brings the idea to life in a very fluid and provocative style that often reaches the point of beauty. The cultural implication are also interesting: one character comments that if they had developed mechanical power they’d be more fit to defend themselves, but Gandahar’s leader asserts that there is a moral high ground in finding only organic methods. That idea, never fully developed, is contradicted by the expulsion of the mutant “accidents” and some revelations about the source of the metal men.

I don’t want to overestimate the social conscience and metaphoric layers in “Gandahar,” because while it is a fairly intelligent and thoughtful film, it falls short of the depth and allegory in “Fantastic Planet.” I wish there was more time spent on social structures (the mutants, presumably, would have very complicated medical and labor policies) and less time spent on the quest of the lone hero, but others would probably find greater detail to be overly dry and expository.

The hero-quest mentality is at the center of my biggest complaint about the film, namely the character design. 1980’s entertainment saw an extreme comeback for hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity (perhaps a backlash to feminism), notable in the rise of action hero stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Films like “Heavy Metal” (1981) and “Fire and Ice” (1983) set the prototypes for the archetypical animated 1980’s heroes: courageous simpletons with sculpted torsos, mythologized mandates to kill in the name of unambiguous good and long-legged, ample-breasted love-interests and/or villains.

“Gandahar” is guilty of most of these clichés, though occasional attempts are made to temper them. The mutants, for instance, follow a plot arc that gives an unusually positive message relative to the lingering traces of body worship and ubermensch philosophy that often make me uncomfortable with this type of adventure. Gandahar’s matriarchal government and ubiquitous upper-body nudity are more questionable, feeling a little bit more like repackaged male fantasies (towering valkyries, uninhibited natives, etc.) than genuine attempts at depicting a society free from our own biases.

On a more superficial level, the choice to color upper lip and not lower lips makes everyone look like they have icky mustaches.

Poor character design, especially when it alienates the viewer from relating to characters, can have a disproportionately large impact on an animated film. My usual mantra of “stay open-minded” has led me to appreciate unusual styles like the retro denizens of “Metropolis” (2001) and the Parisian caricatures of “The Triplets of Belleville.” Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the character design (like the celebrity star system in live-action films) makes or breaks animation in commercial release more often than all the other artwork involved.

“Gandahar’s” painted cast isn’t fatally ugly, but they fall into the uncanny valley and rarely muster enough personality or wit to distinguish themselves. Disney, Pixar and many animes have mastered the art of character creation (not just their appearance, but the voice, movements, expressivity and persona) and ridden their formulas to commercial success. I often find their work overly familiar, but I can’t deny the edge it gives them over films like “Titan A.E.” and “Polar Express.”

I’m undeniably more concerned with the visual elements of most films than the auditory, so I find myself unwilling to pronounce the film “butchered” by the English dub and rerecorded soundtrack. Such big names as Christopher Plummer, Glenn Close, Penn and Teller, and Brigitte Fonda added voice talent, generally doing a passable job (Plummer, as usual, is the standout). I’d love to hear the original Gabriel Yared score, but I couldn’t help enjoying the rousing 80’s grandiosity of the American release.

“Gandahar” should be a requisite curio for any SF or animation collector, with enough imagination pumped into the story and setting to excuse the lackluster characters. It walks the line between action-adventure and mindbender, ultimately lunging towards the former when I’d prefer the latter, but capable of satisfying both sides.

Walrus Rating: 7.5


Mad Dog said...

Interesting choice of film. I believe I actually saw a bit of Fantastic Planet years ago on TV (it had the giant creepy blue people, right?) and turned it off because A)I had no idea what was going on and B)Everyone was fatally ugly.

And my dad had this CD soundtrack collection of sci-fi films when I was a kid, and guess what my favorite track was? Light Years.

You weren't kidding about there being enough plot for 10 movies. My eyes crossed at least five times trying to read the synopsis. I worry that being TOO convoluted will turn me off.

And you forgot a few other staples of 1980s action hero movies: Reagan's Republican philosophy and oodles of homoeroticsm. I feel the genre peaked in the movie Commando.

FilmWalrus said...

It makes me wonder if the Light Years music you heard was the original or US rescore. And yeah, that was almost certainly "Fantastic Planet" with the blue people.

Don't worry about the plot complexity. You'll have no trouble following it in the actual film. I would guess you'd really enjoy it.

We could make a plump list of what was wrong with the 80's, but would we ever really turn our backs on it?

Mad Dog said...

You will never, ever see me complain about Reaganomics and homoeroticism being in action movies.

Mawgojzeta said...

Excellent review. This is one movie that I would love to see remade (by someone competent). I believe it could be visually stunning. The world it takes place in is so unique and marvelous. If the makers stayed true to the vision of René Laloux, I think it could be made with live actors or animated.

Seema Misra said...

I doubt if matriarchal government is any male's fantasy ... considering the patriarchal world we live in .

FilmWalrus said...


Yeah, I guess I phrased that kind of funny. What I meant was that the matriarchy of Gandahar was clearing illustrated by men. The politicians look like statuesque supermodels.

That said, the male characters are all ridiculously proportioned too. I guess the problem is more the body image idealization more than the gender politics it implies.

Anonymous said...

You won't hear me complaining about the 80s. Back then, being a geek actually meant something. And the 80s style music is unbeatable by anything today. The music in the English dub of Light Years reminded me of old school 80s cartoons (shades of Shuki Levy). People today really need to quit their bashing on synthesizer music.

As far as not spending too much time on worldbuilding, that's the beauty of it. They left something to the imagination instead of handing everything to us on a silver platter.

I saw this movie before I knew who Penn and Teller was so I wasn't to distracted by the casting.

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