Gandahar (aka Light Years) first published by Film4
Summary: René Laloux’s third and final feature is a time-travelling science fantasy with a lot of brain to match its bizarreness.
Review: If René Laloux will always be best known for his feature debut Fantastic Planet (1973), his final feature Gandahar (1988) – also known as Light Years1Gandahar was acquired for American distribution by Harvey Weinstein, who had it redubbed into English, retitled Light Years, and then, without contributing a single frame to the film, arrogated the director’s credit to himself over Laloux. – merits similar recognition. Combining the imaginative science fantasy visions of his first film with the time-travelling paradoxes of his disappointing middle feature Les Maîtres du Temps (1982), it presents a world both thoroughly alien and strangely familiar – a place whose extraordinary problems subtly mirror our own.
At first glimpse, the planet Gandahar appears to be a harmonious Eden. Ruled by a council of women, its citizens use music rather than hooks to catch fish, and collect fallen fruit from the ground. Natural order is preferred to technical solutions, and even the nation’s weapons are organic rather than mechanical. So when news reaches Gandahar’s capital Jasper that entire populations of coastal villages are being mysteriously turned to stone, the agent Syl (voiced by Pierre-Marie Escourrou) is sent on an urgent reconnaissance mission.
Syl quickly realises that there is serious trouble in paradise. His journey will bring him to a hidden race of Gandahar’s experimental discards known as the Deformed, all misplaced limbs and enigmatic utterances; an unstoppable army of metal men bent on exterminating the Gandaharians; and a gigantic free-floating brain named Métamorphe (Georges Wilson) who both admits and denies his responsibility for the deadly invasion. Soon, at Métamorphe’s request, Syl will embark on a new assignment, only this time not to spy, but to assassinate – and he has only a millennium to fulfil it.
“In a thousand years, Gandahar was destroyed and all of its people killed. A thousand years ago, it will be saved and the inevitable avoided.” So goes the ‘double prophecy, doubly obscure’ that has been preserved by the Deformed, who have accordingly developed their own peculiar way of speaking, using only past and future tenses to the exclusion of the present. In keeping both with this and with a Moebean plot that collapses ordinary notions of chronology, Gandahar is itself a lost gem of the past that was way ahead of its time, obliquely exploring the long-term troubles stored up by ecological imbalance and genetic alteration before these topics had yet become global concerns.
Only Hayao Miyazaki‘s fantasy anime Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1984), with its vaguely similar environmental interests, might qualify as something of a cinematic prescursor to Gandahar, although Laloux’s film has also taken inspiration from The Time Machine (1960) for its planet’s speciated hierarchy, and from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Dark Star (1974) for the evolving personality (and moving last words) of Métamorphe. For the most part, however, Gandahar is sui generis – a genuine space oddity that provokes bafflement and awe in equal measure.
Based on the 1969 novel Metal Men Against Gandahar by Jean-Pierre Andrevon, Gandahar shares with Laloux’s other features a flatness of character that is more than made up for by the eye-goggling beauty of his images and the hyperactive power of his ideas. Each time the narrative seems to be settling into the more conventional heroics of Star Wars, some new mind-bending puzzle is thrown up to return the film to its more cerebral plane. No coincidence, then, that one of the principal personae here is a giant, ever-expanding brain – for Laloux is more concerned with the capacity (and limits) of the human imagination than with bland space opera.
Coupled to the film’s high concepts is a sprawling visual palette. Here exotically sensual landscapes are filled with a bestiary of otherworldly flora and fauna, all rendered with consummate attention to detail. It is the perfect laboratory setting for Laloux to experiment with his ideas on utopia, tyranny and self-destruction, making Gandahar as much an aesthetic as an intellectual pleasure.
Verdict: René Laloux’s animated time-skewing utopian fantasy is unapologetically strange, aesthetically arresting and deeply cerebral
© Anton Bitel
- 1Gandahar was acquired for American distribution by Harvey Weinstein, who had it redubbed into English, retitled Light Years, and then, without contributing a single frame to the film, arrogated the director’s credit to himself over Laloux.