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Gandahar

Born as I was in the early days of the 1970s, I am by law required to identify myself as part of the Star Wars generation. And to some degree I suppose that’s accurate. I’m not going to try and retcon myself into some cool iconoclast who hated Star Wars when he was five years old. I loved it. Saw it in the theaters, saw it at the drive-in, saw it more times than I care to count at my friend’s house when it finally came out on VHS. But Star Wars was not the sole reflection of my science fiction tastes. I started in on sci-fi at a very young age, exposed pre-concrete-memories to a lot of trippy hippy sci-fi freaks — the benefits of growing up with parents who were still in college. Neither of my parents were full-on hippies. My mom was a bookworm with hippy tendencies but too much anger, and my dad was basically one of those easy-going jock stoner types with a taste for Uriah Heep. So I was around a lot of college weirdos, some of whom helped invent stuff like Dungeons & Dragons, and some of whom played football or were on the swim team back from that strange era when even athletes had long hair and Fu Manchu mustaches and lava lamps. I was a kid obsessed with comic books superheroes, robots, ray guns, and Ultraman. I “read” a lot of old sci-fi comics as well, or read them as much as any three-year-old can, which is to say I looked at them and drooled. But I guess the crazy covers and artwork were the sort of colorful eye-candy to me that Teletubbies or Yo Gabba are to modern children. All things considered, I prefer my version.

This is going to be a long and winding road folks, full of memories that are only vaguely related to the film about which I’m actually supposed to be talking, so pour yourself a bourbon and relax.


The 1960s saw the emergence of a science fiction “new wave,” a host of fans, authors, and film makers who were taking the loosely defined genre far beyond where it had been before. By that decade, the concept of science fiction fandom as an organized population was really beginning to emerge. Fans of science fiction were becoming creators of science fiction, and the psychedelic imagery and anti-authoritarian sentiments of the counter culture were increasingly pervasive in new works of science fiction. As the ’60s became the 1970s, the science fiction new wave mingled with yet another new crop of fans and creators, resulting in the sprawling, often surreal style of science fiction that was my earliest exposure to the genre. While I was too young to actually grasp much of what was being said and done, the aesthetic of that era buried itself into my childhood subconscious, emerging years later to color my tastes and influences. Those early years were ones of impressions more than remembrances, if that makes sense. I recall a general sort of ambiance and style, but very little in the way of details. When I was old enough, I began deciphering and revisiting those impressions, and I was finally able to start exploring my obsession with the more outre, bizarre, and phantasmagorical examples of science fiction.


By the time Star Wars rolled around, I already had a firm footing in the more speculative side of science fiction. So while Star Wars dazzled me, it didn’t lure me away from slower, more idea-driven science fiction. I still loved movies like Silent Running. And hell, I’m pretty sure I actually like Logan’s Run more than Star Wars — but that could have a lot to do with Jenny Agutter’s diaphanous mini-tunic, the first sighting of which is one of the key moments in my becoming a man. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with my mom at this big bookstore near Louisville called Hawley-Cooke Booksellers. It was like a Barnes & Noble size bookstore back before anyone had ever heard of Barnes & Noble, and I would camp out there in either the science fiction section or the magazine racks, both of which were vast. One day, as I was flipping through the latest issue of Starlog or Omni or something, I happen to glance up and see the cover of a magazine a little bit higher up on the shelves. It was an illustration of a topless woman in a slinky loincloth, doing what I’ve since come to refer to as “the wizard finger.” She was standing next to a sabertooth tiger and above her was a fantastic space scene. The magazine was called Heavy Metal, and I knew than and there that I had to have it.


There was just one problem: the boobs. By 1979, budding gadabout that I was, I’d already developed a healthy appreciation for nudity, but I also knew that convincing anyone that a magazine cover like that could contain anything within that was appropriate for a seven-year-old would be problematic. Why to merely get caught glancing at it would no doubt bring down the wrath of old biddies and disappointed store clerks with well-trimmed beards and wire-rimmed glasses. To say nothing of what my mother might say (by 1979, her freewheelin’ days of being a hippy intellectual were long behind her). But it was obvious from that cover that this taboo Heavy Metal contained untold wonders meant specifically for me and me alone. And so it was that I devised a technique that would serve me and countless other shifty-eyed children for years. I glanced around to make sure the coast was clear and no one was watching. When the chance came, I stood on my tip-toes propped up on the first tier of the magazine shelves, and grabbed the issue of Heavy Metal, quickly sliding it inside a copy of a different magazine. Shaking with the pressure of having committed such a crime — I was pretty sure you could go to jail for it — I stumbled off to a more remote corner of the sprawling store and, with it disguised by another more innocent magazine, opened my first issue of Heavy Metal.


Back to the early 1970s for a moment. Actually, let’s turn the clock back even further. In 1959, two French comics writers, Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and two artists, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hebrard, founded a comics magazine called Pilote. It featured stories from across the spectrum of typical pulp genres, including science fiction. The magazine’s initial popularity was built upon the foundation of a series called Asterix le Gaulois, being the story of a village of Gauls resisting Roman occupation. The magazine’s content expanded over the years, and in 1967, it launched one of its most successful science fiction series, writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres’ Valerian et Laureline. This was the era of truly fantastic European comic book adventures, with creations like Barbarella, Modesty Blaise, and Diabolik tearing up the pages while, in America, we were still saddled with the overly cheery and goofball comics that resulted from the fallout of the Comics Code Authority. Eventually though, some of Pilote‘s stable of young sci-fi authors and artists felt that the magazine was too restrictive, and that the stories they wanted to tell were too dark or adult in nature to fit within the pages of the largely kid-friendly (by European standards) publication. Pilote made some attempts to change with the times, but it was never enough of a leap forward to keep this group satisfied. And so in 1974, contributors Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Philippe Druillet, and a guy named Jean Giraud but better known simply as Moebius, left Pilote and founded the publishing house Les Humanoides Associes. In 1975, they published their first book — a sci-fi and fantasy comic magazine called Metal Hurlant.


Metal Hurlant allowed the authors and artists to explore whatever extreme tickled their fancy, which meant frequent nudity and irreverent material. It gained a substantial readership and became an incubator for many of the great science fiction comic artists and writers, including not just co-founder Moebius, but also Alejandro Jodorowsky (best known as the film maker behind El Topo, Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre) and Enki Bilal, whose Nikopol series served as the basis for the ambitious but ultimately disappointing sci-fi film Immortel AD VITAM. Shortly after Metal Hurlant‘s launch, the publisher of The National Lampoon in the United States — then considered on the very cutting edge of published comedy and satire — was looking for new material to add to the portfolio. In the slush pile of hopefuls was a copy of Metal Hurlant that attracted more attention than the other submissions. While in France looking to license a French language version of The National Lampoon, publisher Len Mogel met with the minds behind Les Humanoides Associes. The result of the meeting was the licensing of Metal Hurlant for distribution in the United States, under the translated title Heavy Metal.


Beneath the obvious shock aspects — which may have only been shocking by American moral standards (sexuality and nudity, be it tasteful or juvenile, is still more unforgivable than violence in this country) — Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal really plumbed the farthest reaches of the imagination of the creators’ and their ability to dream up bizarre alien worlds and societies. Sometimes they were silly. Frequently they were childish. But every now and then they were also absolutely wondrous. Unfettered by the budgetary restrictions one would face trying to create vast and psychedelic alien landscapes in film, comic artists could really go batshit insane. Over the years, when opportunity allowed, I would sneak whatever peeks I could at Heavy Metal, both for the expansive imagination as well as, admittedly, the cheap titillation. It wasn’t until I was sixteen and able to venture out on my own that I bought my first issue — Fall 1988, featuring among other things my first exposure to the artwork of Italian erotica cartoonist Guido Crepax. That was a stressful purchase, let me tell you. What if the clerk, a dour looking older woman, knew what I was trying to buy? What if she happen to flip through it directly to something like the illustration of Crepax’ Valentina nude and straddling a chair? With trembling hand I decided to go for it, consequences be damned, and when my purchase went through without a hitch I sprinted with glee to my car, vowing to start buying all sorts of dirty stuff.


Around that same time, I was ingesting a steady diet of Night Flight, the late-night weekend compilation show that used to air on The USA Network and about which I’ve told countless stories on this site and elsewhere. Usually, though, it’s a framework for the day I discovered punk rock thanks to their fondness for Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains videos, but also because part of the programming was to air a feature film or two, and that’s when I saw Another State of Mind — a documentary about punk bands Youth Brigade, Social Distortion, and to a slightly lesser extent, Minor Threat. But that was hardly the only favor the all-night-long programming block offered me. They played experimental shorts and weird feature length films. One night, near the tail-end of their seemingly endless (which was welcome) night of putting bizarre stuff on the television screen in our basement, I caught the animated French science fiction film Fantastic Planet. It was a mind-bender of a movie, obvious even in my semi-rural informational vacuum as a product of the same school of freaky sci-fi thought that birthed Heavy Metal. I was absolutely mesmerized by the film, the combination of late hour and lack of sleep making it even more amazing to me. I wouldn’t feel that way about a film again until, decades later and during my first few weeks living in New York, I stumbled across a four in the morning airing of Adieu, Galaxy Express on the Cartoon Network. Not having the research capabilities (read: Google) at my fingertips then that I do now, I didn’t know anything about Fantastic Planet beyond what I could read in its credits, and that was restricted mostly to knowing that it was directed by a guy named Rene Laloux and drawn by someone named Roland Topor. I didn’t know a thing about either of them at the time.


What I did know was that Fantastic Planet was exactly the sort of science fiction I craved. It perfectly captured the astounding strangeness of some of the best Heavy Metal had to offer — even though it actually predated the founding of the magazine by a couple years. It was tapping into the same zeitgeist. In time, I discovered that director Rene Laloux had worked with Moebius himself in 1981 on a film called Les Maitres du Temps. Like Fantastic Planet, it was a very Heavy Metal style of science fiction, only without all the nakedness. And then, just around the same time I was finally tapping into all this, I read an article about Laloux’s most recent film, 1988’s Gandahar, which I knew by reference as Light Years — and hooray! Finally my verbose preamble about Heavy Metal is tied directly into the film I’m going to review.


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 — and 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 similar 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. In some regards, its comparative obscurity is perhaps warranted. But for me, 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 not 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, spending their 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, suddenly 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 (voiced by Anny Duperey), dispatches lithe young warrior Sylvain (voiced by Pierre-Marie Escourrou — holy crap! A Zombie Lake alumnus!) — who perhaps 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 deformed mutants, 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 home 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 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. So 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 he wasn’t the best choice. In a society of seemingly 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 choses 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. After a while, 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 woman inside a giant pink egg?


A fortuitous dinosaur attack — Sylvain relies on more luck and coincidence than James Bond — allows him and his companion, Airelle (Catherine Chevallier, one of the little twin girls in 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” route on which Sylvain has been relying. Once again, I guess 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 Metamorphe in the future, 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. Together, they must all — no, scratch that. It’s really just Sylvain and the mutants who lead an uprising against the metal men. Oh, time travel! You always make it so fun.


Gandahar does a lot of things right for my tastes, 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 CGI), 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 truly achieve the scope of a project like Gandahar. So he was stuck looking for ways to cut costs, and one of those ways was to get the thing animated in, err, well…let’s say a country where labor was somewhat on the…inexpensive…side.


To address the production from a purely technical standpoint, Laloux and the French team ran into a number of issues working with the North Korean animators. For starters, there were the boobs. 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 melon-size 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 actually brought the animators dirty magazines from The Decadent West to prove that there were indeed women with bigguns. The entire nudity thing is a bit of a paradox for me. I have nothing against the 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 simply alien to them. Philosophically that makes perfect sense, but it’s disengenous not to suggest that the women also like to go topless because Laloux just really enjoys 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 somewhat cheap and stiff looking. It has the surrealism of Fantastic Planet but rendered in a more traditional animation style than that film’s sketched, paper doll look. It has the eye-candy colorfulness of Les Maitres du Temps but on a much grander scale. South Koreas was emerging as the place to go to get your animation done if you were Japan or the United States, so I guess I can understand why their brothers and sisters to the north would want to prove themselves just as adept. Kim Il-sung was already being rendered in South Korean cartoons (made by a Chinese guy, for the Australian TV market) as a goofball general ready to sell the world out to martini-drinking green space aliens. It’s unlikely that most of the people on the North Korean end of the production knew the message of the film, but purely in terms of an accomplishment of animation, I think it’s a success. Not a stunning success — it has to be measured not just against Joseph Lai’s crap South Korean animation, but also against its contemporaries from Japan. But it’s an admirable effort, ambitious and worthwhile and certainly no worse than what you’d expect from a low-budget animated film from either the U.S. or Japan.


If Gandahar‘s gender politics swing schizophrenically from “female empowering” to “hee hee boobies,” it’s message about oppression and the sins of the past is more consistent — though also undermined somewhat by being a partnership with North Korea. In the end, the true heroes of Gandahar 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 fact is that the malformed emerge as the true deliverers of the Gandaharians, and it’s only when the two populations integrate that they’re able to mount any sort of successful resistence 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 little 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. Joss Whedon’s Serenity is the most obvious example — and it’s not surprising that it (and the Firefly series) is one of my favorite sci-fi films. And since we’re on the subject of naked blue people fighting militaristic automatons, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Laloux’s animated feature might have had at least some influence on the equally heavy-handed James cameron film Avatar.


Gandahar met with some success in France (I doubt anyone in North Korea other than baby Kim Jung-il ever saw the finished product), so American producer Harvey Weinstein decided to do what he did and continues to do best — be a total dick with the movie. He bought the rights, recut the entire thing, gave it a new score (not a hip hop one though, like he loved to do with Jackie Chan movies), awarded himself a directorial credit, then made sure almost no one could see the movie in the United States. It was released briefly under the title Light Years, but it didn’t do much business. To this day, Gandahar remains MIA in the United States, where Fantastic Planet has enough of a cult following that Gandahar could probably be at least a modest success on home video. Laloux himself has said that he didn’t really mind the changes Weinstein made, but for many the changes aren’t the issue so much as the fact that Weinstein continues to sit on the title without releasing it on DVD. Luckily, there’s the Internet and the rest of the world, so you can buy it there.


Because I didn’t see it under the same young, sleep-deprived conditions as Fantastic Planet, Gandahar doesn’t resonate with me in quite the same way. But I still love it. In the tiny field of adult-oriented science fiction animation, it’s impressive on its own merits, and not just because there are so few works against which to measure it. As with his first film, Laloux creates a stange and wonderful atmosphere, made even stranger by the film’s musical score. The themes are sometimes heavy-handed, but I have no real issues with that. I miss message science fiction, especially when it’s made with the sort of hopeful earnestness of Laloux’s work. I’m not a complete grouch about the fact that modern science fiction is actually just the action film with some fake technology and cargo pants thrown into the design. I’ve enjoyed plenty of films of that nature. But I’d love to see truly speculative science fiction find a niche again. Gandahar isn’t without its action scenes. There are laser shoot-outs, a revolt, and the big war of Jaspar (I should note that the capitol building of Jaspar is a towering woman surrounded by what look suspiciously like penises) where the Gandaharians make their stand against the metal men by using their vast arsenal of giant crabs, seed bombs, and thorn bushes. But the action scenes are not why you come to a movie like this. You come partially for the otherworldly artwork and atmosphere, but you also come to watch the movie work its way through a host of themes and philosophical questions.

Unfortunately, this was the last feature film Rene Laloux ever made. By the 1990s, the trippy, surreal style of science fiction that had birthed him, Moebius, and Metal Hurlant was out of fashion even more than it had previously been. In 2004, Laloux passed away after suffering a heart attack. His work influenced many people, and his contributions to both science fiction and the promotion of Japanese anime outside of Japan were substantial. It’s hard to look at some of Hayao Miyazaki’s work and not see the influence of Laloux. My favorite of Miyazaki’s films, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind would have fit perfectly into Laloux’s universe both thematically and artistically, albeit with much better animation. And it’s likely that Miyazaki would see in Rene Laloux a kindred spirit who shared many of the same beliefs: the importance of nature, co-existence with our fellow humans (or non-humans), and the value of independent thinking. Gandahar isn’t a great classic of science fiction, but I do think it is a minor classic. Not as challenging or bizarre as Fantastic Planet, but still a film every sci-fi fan should see, even if ultimately you don’t care for it as much as I did.

Release Year: 1988 | Country: France | Starring: Pierre-Marie Escourrou, Catherine Chevallier, Georges Wilson, Anny Duperey, Jean-Pierre Ducos, Christine Paris, Zaira Benbabis, Claude Degliame, Olivier Cruveiller, Jean-Pierre Jorris, Dominique Maurin, Jean-Jacques Scheffer, Jean Saudray, Frederic Witta, Philippe Noel, Philippe Duclos, Joel Barbouth, Michel Charrel, Roland Lacoste | Screenplay: Raphael Cluzel, Rene Laloux | Director: Rene Laloux | Music: Gabriel Yared

12 thoughts on “Gandahar”

  1. Excellent review man. Bloody marvelous. I, of course, found a VHS copy of this under my parent’s bed sometime in the very early 90s and experienced a muted version of same reaction you had to La Planète Sauvage. And while you’re entierly correct about Weinstein being a dick, I’ll give him this: he’s the dick who got Christopher Plummer to voice English-language Metamorphe. With Orson Welles dead at the time, I honestly can’t think of a better choice. And Plummer wouldn’t find a better role for himself until 1991.

  2. True. Weinstein’s dickishness has more to do with his love of buying movies for the sole purpose of not releasing them. I just don’t get it. I’ve yet to see the US version, but I might start poking around for it.

    I would have cast Brian Blessed as the voice of Metamorphe

  3. Wow. I remember this. I had an old VHS copy of “Light Years” somewhere when I was a kid. I wasn’t into Heavy Metal, so that was my first exposure to cartoon boobies. It was…enlightening for a ten-year-old.

    I’m curious now as to what changes were made when it went from “Gandahar” to “Light Years,” apart from the all-star American voice cast.

  4. May have been one of only a few dozen/hundred folks who caught this during the theatrical run in ’88 as “Light Years” and recall being seriously underwhelmed, though being a anime fanboy at the time probably didn’t help. Just remember thinking that it looked like a pricier effort from Filmation Studios, and the sheer amount of female nudity kind of got boring after a while. Would love to see how it looks on a revisit

  5. Thanks for the wonderful essay. I especially enjoyed the intro to the review. I’m a bit older than you, but also have fond memories of 70s dystopian sci-fi, cable showings of Fantastic Planet, Night Flight, and back issues of Heavy Metal magazine. I’ve still never seen either of Laloux’s later two films — a situation I really need to rectify.

  6. All of his films are worth tracking down, though currently I think only Fantastic Planet has a domestic US release. All three were released on DVD int he Uk though, and for my tastes,a re worth the price of importing.

  7. I was a big fan of Night Flight in the early 90’s. It played syndicated on a local Seattle station. Oddly enough, I didn’t see all of Fantastic Planet until I lived in South Korea (so there’s almost another connection).

  8. My friend has a bar called Barbarella and he played Fantastic Planet one time when I was there.

  9. Great review, and I loved all the reminisceing. Personally I feel that, while Fantastic Planet may look more ahead of its time, features a planet that is if anythign even more bizarre than Gandahar, and have a much better soundtrack, Gandahar is just a more interesting and challenging story. Still haven’t seen Time Masters…got to get on that! Gandahar is probably one of the weirdest science fiction films that i know of, though…

  10. I purchased a copy of Light Years about 10 years ago from a video store. When the movie got to the part where Sylvane meets the Deformed and they began their strange manner of past/future tense speech, i.e. “I was/will be your friend”, I was blown away with the realization that I had read this story as a teenager in the 70’s, but had completely forgotten about it. I had owned the paperback, The Metal Men of Gandahar ( I think that was the title ) but could not remember the author. As the movie played I knew this was a correct memory since I had never seen the film before but knew the story and what would happen next before it played. A little research gave me the French author, Andrevon, and told me that Asimov had written the screenplay for Light Years. But I know I read an English paperback version of this story. I have searched for years trying to find a copy of this novel without success. If anyone has any leads, or can just verify my memory so I can know I’m not losing my mind, I would appreciate it.

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