Bonjour. Nous ne visitons pas ici dans l’ordre strictment chronologique. Ni d’un ordre strictment programmatique. Je n’ai pas étudié en francais depuis les années nonante. Et je n’ai jamais parlé francais tres bien à l’époque, à moins que on parle de les choses dans l’ecole. Mon lexique n’a pas grande, et j’ai oublié beaucoup des lois de la conjugaison. C’est la vie.
Allons-y all the same. Between the article title and the near-gibberish of that last paragraph, you may have guessed that I want to talk about something French this week. You may recall that among the movies that were released to the US Box Office over Captain Power‘s Christmas break, there was this one animated film that ticked one of my dormant childhood neurons. That movie was Light Years. Light Years was a Weinstein-brothers produced English-language translation of the French film Gandahar: Les Anées Lumière. Our old pal Isaac Asimov, taking some time off from creating Probe, did the translation.
Gandahar was itself an adaptation of the novel Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar by Jean-Pierre Andrevon. He’s apparently a fairly prolific French science fiction author, but his fame seems to be pretty regional since I can barely find anything at all about him in English. I’m fairly sure Gandahar was a series, since it looks like he also produced Les portes de Gandahar (The Doors of Gandahar), Gandahar et l’oiseau-monde (Gandahar and the Bird World), Cap sur Gandahar (The Conquest of Gandahar), Les Rebelles de Gandahar (The Rebels of Gandahar) and L’Exilé de Gandahar (Exile of Gandahar) but I can’t even be sure some of those aren’t just alternate titles of the same book.
I’ve talked before about the underlying tradition of “realism” in American cinema. There’s a preference for showing worlds that are like our world, at least insofar as the worlds behave like a world. There may be outlandish plots from mad scientists, or ancient artifacts with magical powers, or a basic ignorance of Hanlon’s Razor, or even superheroes, but people still get up in the morning, things still fall when dropped, causality only goes in one direction (Even if there’s time travel, time travel can be “unwound” to produce a linear sort of meta-time where causality flows in only one direction; the same sidereal moment might occur several times, but one of those times is explicitly “first” and one “last”), and cats don’t spontaneously turn into delicious chocolate pudding. American cinema has been at least a little uncomfortable with breaking from this at least as far back as The Wizard of Oz, where they tacked on an “All Just a Dream” ending because, I swear I am not making this up, they imagined that modern 1930s audiences were far too sophisticated and intelligent to accept a movie set in a fantastical world with living scarecrows and melting witches (Yes. In the book, Oz is absolutely, unquestionably 100% real. And the shoes were silver. Read a book.). It’s not a rock-solid taboo or anything, but being properly psychedelic normally locks you in to the arthouse circuit, and even then, well, to give you an idea, when William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was adapted to film by David Cronenberg, one of the big complaints about it was that they changed it so that it made way too much sense.
But cinematic tropes and traditions are themselves products of a particular time and place, and not all times and places are the same. Popular US culture has always been haunted by the specter of puritanism, but on top of that, the US has that whole “melting pot” thing going on. And I think those work together to disincline major American media-makers from wandering off into surrealism. Once you start digging below the world of surface meanings, below the common shared part of reality that we can all agree on — the whole “sun goes up in the morning” and “things fall when dropped” business — reality starts to become a lot more subjective, and a lot more a function of time, place and culture. Which works well enough when you’re somewhere like England, and 90% of your population has a shared cultural heritage that stretches back to when the Saxons displaced the Britons, but on this side of the pond, the only shared culture we have that, honestly speaking, stretches back before the civil war settled the question of whether or not we cared to actually be one shared culture is… One we tried our best to exterminate. So we tend to stick close to the surface, to the bits of reality we can all agree on, filing off the rough edges and desperately trying not to think about the fact that we’re anything other than one big happy family that’s totally not made up of a bunch of people who spent most of history trying to kill each other. Some would call this “catering to the lowest denominator”, but if you want to feel better about yourself, you could say, “trying to be as inclusive and inviting as possible” (With an awful lot of failing to be as inclusive and inviting as possible mixed in there. Often, ironically, because we’re trying so damned hard to not notice the differences between groups of people with radically different life experiences). Our culture makes itself deliberately banal because a mixture of puritanism, idealism and capitalism that desperately wants to be all things to all people all at once.
At the risk of playing down the fact that many other cultures manage to handle pluralism perfectly well, this just isn’t as much of an issue for, say, the British, or the French, or the Germans, or… Pretty much anyone else. And accordingly, you see a much greater willingness to look “under the surface” in their popular cultures. Some of the most influential early films were made by the German Expressionist school, with its sharp lines and weird geometries, where buildings might lean on each other, or objects in the foreground might cast impossibly long painted shadows at weird angles. Back in the ’90s, I saw a staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (or What You Will) done in an homage to German expressionism and it was almost a kind of religious experience. I didn’t understand it at the time, this sense of being in a space clearly made by humans, clearly made for humans, but also clearly a broken world where human shapes didn’t belong.
Meanwhile, in France, surrealists were… Well, really, they were trying invent LSD a few decades early. Surrealism is a school of art that rejects the idea that human thought is really based on logic and reason and other kinds of Aristotelian bullshit. People like to use the phrase “dream logic” when talking about surrealism, but I hope that’s less misleading in French, because I think that while it’s technically true, it leads you astray. Surrealism is actually an awful lot like phenomenology, in that they’re both interested in the question of what’s actually going on when you experience something. Namely, the nature of the separation between the thing you perceive and act of perception — as René Magritte would put it in one surrealist painting, ceci n’est pas une pipe.
I find surrealism very hard to talk about, particularly in film. I just don’t have the lexicon for it. For me, there’s a line between good surrealism and just plain incomprehensible nonsense, but it’s still something you can at times kind of luck into. This is one of the reasons I can take joy in watching really bad movies and TV shows: sufficiently advanced incompetence can be indistinguishable from surrealism. When you have something like, say, The Roller Blade Seven or Phase IV, or Zardoz, it can be hard to tell if the thing you’re watching is brilliant, insane, both, or neither. And this is just a personal thing, but where I draw the line is: if you can work out what the hell just happened without consulting the cliff notes, you’ve got a contender for good surrealism. I’m not talking necessarily about the why of what happened; just the what. I may not have a chance in hell of sorting out why or how Avenant and the Beast switch bodies when a statue of Artemis shoots them at the end of La Belle et la Bête, but I can tell you that’s what happened. I have no fucking idea what happens at the end of Phase IV, so that one goes off the rails. (I actually do know, because I read the book. But I submit that there is no honest way that from the film alone you could work out what that acid trip of an ending was).
The plot of Light Years is only a little bit surreal. It’s got some time travel in it, but it barely matters at all. I’ve seen capsule summaries that describe the central conceit as a time paradox, but it’s just not: causality only goes in one direction, and the only reason time travel matters at all is that we meet the same character at two points in its life. The whole time travel aspect is undercut by the fact that the characters to whom it’s most relevant have the gift of prophesy. Which means that they can foresee events the future events that have come back in time. Carry the two, divide both sides by X, and what you get is that they have the power to see… the present. No, the thing about Light Years that’s just nuts is the animation.
Again, I’m at a loss for vocabulary, but in the ’80s, there were basically two dominant styles of US animation. At the one end, you had cartoons in a style which is so stereotypical that people usually just call it “cartoony”. The style of your Tex Averys and your Chuck Joneses. Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, that sort of thing. Caricatures of real objects, with their proportions distorted — hypercephalic anthropomorphic animals with big eyes pulling giant mallets out of hyperspace. At the other end of the spectrum, you had folks like Don Bluth, a sort of stylized realism. Use of motion capture. Classic Disney feature-length stuff. I’d also put most of the Filmation stuff in here too — it’s clearly going for the same basic approach to how things are proportioned and juxtaposed even if they’re not putting in the same effort. It kinda pains me to lump Filmation in with Don Bluth, but I just don’t think exploring the distinction is going to be very helpful for this ramble. As we got into the nineties, you’d see a greater diversity of styles, elements of Anime creeping in, as well as the sort of very frenetic, high-chaos and often ultra-grotesque stuff that characterizes things like Duckman or Ren and Stimpy. But back in the days of my youth, you basically had two choices: the sort of cute-uncanny style that’s most associated with Warner Bros., or the sort of simplified quasi-realistic style that’s associated with Disney.
That’s not to say there weren’t outliers. There was Ralph Bakshi, for instance, who seemed to be in kind of the same vein as Don Bluth half the time, and then suddenly he’d whip out something completely apeshit like animating a sequence by tracing over live-action or Nekron 99. What makes Bakshi’s films so unsettling to me is that he’s one of the few animated film makers who actually blends the quasi-realistic style with “cartoony” elements. What I mean is, you might have something fantastical — the dragon, say, in Sleeping Beauty, or heck, Optimus Prime, but they’re still drawn as if they were real things that could be in, if not the real world, at least a real world. You can imagine what Optimus Prime would look like if he were real — a big, roughly human-shaped robot. But what would Bugs Bunny look like in the real world? A rabbit? A man in a rabbit suit? Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam suggest that the answer is, even if he were somehow transposed into the real world, Bugs Bunny himself would still be a cartoon. That’s why we call it “cartoony”: that he is a cartoon is intrinsic to Bugs’s essentia in a way that being animated isn’t essential to He-Man (as Garry Goddard demonstrated a month or so before Captain Power premiered), Princess Aurora, or Frodo Baggins. When a character of the first kind and a character of the second kind meet, it’s nearly always some kind of subversion or gimmick — it’s something that’s deliberately wrong. Which is why it’s so weird to have a character like Necron 99 in Wizards, where the humans are shaped like humans, and the faeries are shaped like humans with wings, but then there’s this sort of sock-monkey-looking robot assassin with disproportionately long legs.
Well, I say unusual. And then places that aren’t the US go and do it all the time. Take a look at something like Yellow Submarine, or Heavy Metal. Or Fantastic Planet. Fantastic Planet. We’ve almost caught up with ourselves now, because Fantastic Planet is the brainchild of René Laloux, who also directed Gandahar.
And the animation in Gandahar is, as I’ve been working at saying, real freaking weird. The people are detailed and realistic and look like people… Except that some of them have three breasts or wings growing out of their heads or superfluous arms or suchlike. What’s so uncanny about it is that, for all my talk of surrealism and expressionism and cartoonism, if I were to actually assign an art style for the character design, I’d kinda have to begrudgingly go with “realism”. There is a Vienna School of Fantastical Realism which on paper sounds like a good fit for the art style of Gandahar, but the examples I’ve looked at don’t really look the same. It’s kind of like… I don’t know. Imagine if Ralph Bakshi had done Yellow Submarine. I’ve mentioned Yellow Submarine twice now, because even though the two don’t look anything alike, they both approach, in different ways, the same kind of uncanny juxtaposition.
But where Yellow Submarine‘s animation is sort of minimal, Gandahar‘s is lush. Everything moves kind of weirdly slow. Like there are too many frames of animation, the way you sometimes get in flash games. Or Prince of Persia. The original Prince of Persia, the 1989 one, where everything feels just a little floaty because it’s rotoscoped and it’s using every frame it’s got to cram in little details of motion. Most traditional animation is shot “on twos”, two frames of film for every frame of animation. Maybe this is shot on ones. Or maybe it’s still shot on twos but the tweening (Drawing interpolated frames to transition between keyframes, which show the beginning and end of a single discrete motion. Usually done with computers today, but traditionally done by an assistant animator, who is called an “inbetweener”, but never a “tweener” because I’m pretty sure that’s a euphemism for vagina.) was done on the assumption that it was going to be shot on ones. Whatever the North Korean animation house did, the result is that every motion feels just slightly slow and floaty, almost like it’s underwater.Isaac Asimov's translation for the American version, Light Years, begins with a quote from Isaac Asimov, which seems to me like cheating.
We speak of Time and Mind, which do not easily yield to categories. We separate past and future and find that Time is an amalgam of both. We separate good and evil and find that Mind is an amalgam of both. To understand, we must grasp the whole. -- Isaac AsimovIn fact, as far as I can tell, he wrote that specifically for the introduction of this movie. It's not an epigraph: it's a blurb. I mean, what the hell? As we hold on the quote, it slowly changes, line by line, from blue to white. There is no narration. So... Is the color change telling us when to say the words? Are we watching some kind of weird karaoke-movie hybrid?
The movie proper begins with a starfield, voiced-over by our hero, Sylvin Lanvère, or rather “Sylvain”, le chevalier premier de Gandahar, who gives us a five minute head-start on the catchphrase of the movie by telling us that his journey began with the riddle, “In a thousand years, Gandahar was destroyed. A thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved, and what can’t be avoided will be,” a riddle so cunning that you have probably already worked it out. I’ve flipped through the novel in the original French, but if the pronouncement appears there, my French isn’t good enough to recognize it. Especially since in the original, it’s ten-thousand years rather than a thousand.
Much like what I was able to make out from the book, the movie opens with a languid sequence whose main purpose is to convey that Gandahar (“Le royaume, ancré sur la face australe de Tridan, vaste planète à l’axe vertical et à la translation lente,” which is to say “A kingdom where it’s basically always autumn”) is a kind of slow-paced easy-going place where folks just kind of hang around having a good time, making boats out of huge leaves, shepherding large tardigrade-faced snail-like creatures, and nursing little insect pets that grow on trees. Not even making that up. A nude woman sits down in front of a plant, it grows her a little kind of puppy-dog sort of bug critter, and she takes it to her breast and nurses it, prompting me to wonder exactly how I got my parents to let me watch this back in 1988, because, seriously, about 75% of the minor and background characters in this movie are women, and only one of them wears a shirt.
The book namechecks some other nearby planets and kingdoms to say that they didn’t think much of Gandahar’s decadence, but the Gandaharians, like Honey Badger, don’t care. You can tell that they’re a peaceful, unscientific culture because they are a matriarchy, and Andrevon’s a golden-age style Sci Fi writer, and you show me a golden age sci-fi writer who isn’t a raging gender essentialist. Under the peaceful reign of their beloved and wing-headed queen — I am not making this name up — “Myrne Ambisextra”, art and toplessness flourishes, while science and fighting are all but unknown. But as shepherds pet their deer-armadillo things and topless women stack beets, their peaceful world is shattered by an as-yet-unseen attacker (whose identity will shock you unless you see the title of the book in the opening credits) whose pew-pew sound effects turn peaceful Gandaharians to stone. Kinda like getting bonked by the green apples when the Blue Meanies invaded Pepperland. Yeah, another Yellow Submarine reference. Weird, isn’t it?
Gandahar’s capital is the City of Jasper, which is a big castle shaped like a naked lady because of course it is. Queen Ambisextra and her chief scientific adviser, Omega Santa, discuss the recent murders of their creepy one-eyed “mirror birds”. Omega Santa bemoans their continuing failure to explore scientific options for strategic defense in favor of telepathic-one-eyed-bird-based surveillance, because he is a man, and men are like that, all into science and war and stuff instead of art and nature and all that girly stuff (The matriarchy will don some Warrior Woman outfits later, but still, this movie is playing its gender essentialism painfully straight, with the only two speaking men in Gandahar being the Only Scientist and the Head Knight). Ambisextra’s high council of bald topless women asserts their preference for biological rather than technological solutions, and, over her objections, orders the queen’s son (I don’t think he’s ever directly identified as her son in the dialogue of the movie. It’s explicit in the book, and it’s certainly indicated on-screen from the tone of her objections that he’s personally dear to her.), Sylvain, to investigate the unknown enemy.
He sets out on a flying manta ray in the general direction of the last attack, leading to a montage whose main point seems to be, “Look how weird this place is!” for so long that Sylvain gets bored and falls asleep at the wheel, waking up just in time to shoot a kind of pterodactyl-looking thing in the mouth with a pellet gun that makes it grow thorns. Because surrealism!
The crash of his injured manta ray, and his subsequent slow-motion ejection and languid somersault through the air are witnessed by a four-armed dude on a nearby rock, and a bunch of greenish-brown dudes with the wrong number of limbs and/or faces emerge from the ground, recognize Sylvain as Gandaharian, and take him to their leader, a five minute walk, because plot is pretty much secondary in this movie to giving us a chance to see how weird everything is, like the other mutants with their superfluous mouths or heads at the ends of their arms or unusually large ears, which are all clearly meant to convey that these are a race of horrific mutations, banished from polite Gandaharian society. Which would have a lot more impact if Queen Ambisextra didn’t have a big freaking pair of wings growing out of her head.
Sylvain takes this all in stride too, so I don’t know. I think this movie ramped up the weird too fast. Their leader, Quatto, is awfully polite, all things considered, even after Sylvain accuses him of being “The Enemy”. He identifies his people as “The Deformed”. In the book, I think they call themselves the “Dur de Durs”, which, based on my best reading of a french-to-french dictionary, seems to be a euphemism for “free and independent spirit”, so maybe “outsiders” would be a better translation?
We get some weird cuts to Sylvain having a snack, and some mutants milking stalactites while Quatto explains that the Deformed “were/will be” the hideous results of Gandaharian scientific experimentation in the distant past. And Sylvain just rolls with it and apologizes to Quatto, Quatto’s six-breasted girlfriend, and the shirtless, mouthless woman who’s making bedroom eyes at him, and now they’re friends. Quatto assigns Shayol, one of the particularly hideously Deformed to accompany Sylvain, mostly so that they can keep the action going while Sylvain gets some more exposition, such as the fact that the first generation of Deformed could see the future, which is why they always double-conjugate their verbs (As close as I can tell, they don’t do this in the book. I mean, I don’t see any dialogue where there are superfluous verbs. They do speak almost exclusively in capital letters though.), and where they got that handy catchphrase.
Sylvain eventually comes to the village of petrified topless women. I don’t mean to keep harping on it, but there really is quite a lot boobs in this movie. If this were live action, even if it were French, it’d be kind of excessive. Like something out of Ed Wood’s later stuff. I’m trying not to pass judgment, just noting that it’s weird.
It’s here that we finally see the enemy: the “metal men”. Sylvain’s thorn-pellet gun has no effect on them as they very slowly advance, and he very slowly evades, eventually being turned to stone himself. Shayol bravely ran/will run away, leaving Sylvain to be… Stuck in a big egg with a topless woman named Airelle, which Google translates as “Huckleberry”, and therefore so will I.
And then Godzilla attacks the Metal Men’s convoy and steals the egg Sylvain and Huckleberry are in. I’ll let that sink in for a second.
Sylvain cracks the egg with a pellet from his gun, which grows a big thorn tree that, fortunately, cracks the shell open before impaling them. Godzilla (a “Sorn”, according to Huckleberry) assumes them to be its children and makes them a little nest, then very slowly and with exceptionally detailed animation, licks them. And then there is an awkward cut and Sylvain has his shirt off. Because in the French version, they totally did it. There’s a few lines of dialogue indicating that Huckleberry and Sylvain have fallen hopelessly in love, which I’d object to, but it’s kind of late in the day for me to start objecting to things in this movie being weird, nonsensical and unrealistic.
The next morning or whatever, they survey the remains of the Metal Men that were destroyed in the Godzilla attack. Sylvain is surprised to find their bodies completely hollow, save for a little red mcnugget. They follow some Metal Men, learning that they gather up the petrified Gandaharians, stuff them in eggs, then push them through a black gate, which then disgorges more metal men. They sneak aboard a boat and follow the Metal Men to this sort of big pink thing that looks like a cross between a jellyfish, a testicle, and a butt [No, there will be no picture here. I am not putting a picture of a giant pink testicle-butt-creature on my website and getting thrown on porn-filter blacklists. Again.], which the Metal Men worship as a god. It sucks our heroes — or, I guess, our hero and his girlfriend — up into these sort of polyp-vagina things. Sylvain loses his shirt again.
Eventually, they’re dropped into a gooey pink place, where they get to telepathically converse with Metamorphis, played by Christopher Plumber, who you might remember as the bad guy from Star Trek VI. He denies being the god of the Metal Men, but concedes that the Metal Men have a different opinion on that subject. He seems either confused or irascible on the matter: he reckons that he’d find the Metal Men’s defeat “physically unpleasant”, but doesn’t actually want Gandahar destroyed. Then he grows this pink flying tongue-thing to give Sylvain and Huckleberry a ride home. There’s another hard cut, which I assume means that they did it again.
The tongue dies on the outskirts of Jasper, but Sylvain hangs on to a bit of it. Omega Santa determines that both the tongue and the delicious pink center of the metal men are the same organism, but, in case you are very dense and hadn’t worked it out, the cells from the metal men are “immeasurably older”.
The battle for Gandahar begins in earnest with Jasper launching some vagina-polyp things at the Metal Men. A different sort of vagina-polyp than the last one. These have teeth. So vagina-dentada-polyps. I’m going to guess René Laloux had some weird Freudian issues. These are moderately successful, but can’t handle the numbers. They also launch some bugs that lay thorn plants. These fare less well, as the Metal Men simply petrify them and drive over them. Dumping their reservoir on the Metal Men causes them to very slowly flail around and fall down, but eventually they manage to swim to shore.
Meanwhile, Omega Santa has found some archival footage that reveals that Metamorphis was another product of ancient Gandaharian science experiments, a giant, indestructible brain with super-powers, which they pitched into the ocean. Sylvain is only about 90% convinced Metamorphis is evil, so he takes another flying manta ray to see him again, this time armed with a bio-weapon which may or may not kill it. He accuses Metamorphis, who now reveals that the Metal Men are time-travelers.
Metamorphis doesn’t want to rule the future-world the Metal Men come from, and wants Sylvain to kill him, but he “isn’t vulnerable yet,” because it “takes time to get ready to die”, and wants Sylvain to come back in a thousand years. The explanation, such as it is, is that Metamorphis has worked out — not clear how — that at some point in the future, he’s going to go senile and mastermind this whole invasion. He wants Sylvain to put him down, but just at the moment, he’s indestructible. He’s reckoned that in a thousand years, his regenerative abilities will have broken down (hence the senility), so he’s going to put Sylvain in suspended animation until then. Sylvain works most of this out later, but it’s pretty hard to follow.
This is probably the most ridiculous stunt involving the manipulation of time Christopher Plumber has ever been party to, and he was once in a movie where he delivered the line, “Imperial starship, halt the flow of time!” (Star Crash, 1978).
Things have gotten so serious that the Council of Women have put shirts on. Huckleberry tries to persuade them to give Sylvain more time, though I have no idea for what. The Deformed decide to join in the fight by somehow summoning lightning bolts, which make the metal men very slowly fall down. Jasper unleashes its army of giant crabs, which have some success, but are somehow even slower than the metal men and eventually yield to their ceaseless advance. In their final act of defiance, the crabs smash the pillars that hold the head onto the giant naked lady statue-castle so that a flock of birds can carry it away to safety.
A thousand years later, Sylvain wakes up and finds the Deformed, who’ve recently arrived from the past, but were discarded as unsuitable by the Metal Men, unlike the captured Gandaharians, who Metamorphis has been, I guess, pulping, as it needs replacement cells now that its Wolverine-like healing factor has burned out. Using stolen Metal Man gauntlets, the Deformed help Sylvain make his way to Metamorphis. They use their special powers to… Something. There’s a hard cut like something was removed, I don’t know what. By the way, using their special powers makes their eyes glow blue. Even the ones where their nipples should be.
Metamorphis has forgotten about his plan for assisted suicide, and repeatedly attempts to seize Sylvain in brain-tentacles, which keep exploding into brain-splooge. The Deformed do… Something. And it incapacitates Metamorphis’s brain-tentacles while Sylvain shoots it up with the brainacide Evil Santa had given him, leading to an “outrun the
fireball exploding brain-splooge” sequence that I nearly described as “tense” before I realized I was watching it in 1.25x speed, and it’s really just as slow-moving as everything else. Metamorphis mumbles philosophically in its death-throes, so you can’t tell exactly how it feels about dying; at times, it seems relieved, at other times scared, and at others vengeful. Sylvain, the Deformed, and the Gandaharian survivors make it through the door of time just before it ceases to exist. The remaining metal men very slowly sink into the ground.
Sylvain returns to Jasper, where he has just enough time to whine about what’s the point of all this if his civilization is in ruins, when a bunch of birds show up, carrying the head of the castle with his people inside.
And then we fade to black and roll the credits. The ending of the book, from the return through the door of time to the end, is three pages, so this is only a bit more abrupt, perhaps, but it feels very anticlimactic. After setting up the romance between Huckleberry and Sylvain, we don’t even get to see their reunion. There’s a vague implication that the Deformed are going to be reintegrated into Gandaharian society, but nothing comes of it. The younger Metamorphis is still floating in the ocean somewhere, doomed to eventually go senile and try to take over the world, but no one brings that up (Is that the paradox? Was it the destruction of Gandahar that allowed Metamorphis to build the Metal Men, create an empire, and eventually go senile? Would have been nice to mention that or something). And having already seen the birds fly off with the castle-head, there’s really nothing shocking in the reveal when it comes back.
It feels like the movie just runs out of weird at the end, so Laloux loses interest. Because that’s what this movie comes down to. Even in the original French, Gandahar takes tremendous liberties with the plot of Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar. The plot is simplistic, even with the Time Travel angle — you could have young-Metamorphis and old-Metamorphis be clones or brothers or something and just leave the whole time travel angle out and it wouldn’t really impact the plot. The Deformed having once had prophetic powers isn’t developed and all it contributes to the plot is a catchphrase that only ever serves as a bit of foreshadowing. The idea of the non-scientific Gandaharians having these dark secrets in their past about unethical scientific experimentation could be fascinating, but nothing comes of it other than Omega Santa wryly observing that they’ve brought this whole mess on themselves. There’s no pay-off, no sense of Gandahar having to make up for the sins of their past or confronting their deep dark secrets. Or, you know, anyone reacting to the revelation that their society used to be into science and all, but gave it up after creating a race of freaky mutants and a giant floating brain. Airelle serves basically no purpose in the plot — she’s not a peril monkey for Sylvain to rescue, as you might expect from this genre, but neither does she contribute anything substantive. Just a topless woman for Sylvain to snuggle with while we take in the weird scenery. The explanation we’re given for Metamorphis’s plot is less than satisfying since it’s never more than conjecture Sylvain comes up with on the scantest of evidence. And why couldn’t he have woken up about a week earlier in the future and sorted out this whole mess before the siege of Jasper? And what about Scarecrow’s brain?
No, this movie isn’t about being about something. This movie is a sensory experience. You’re probably better off watching it in the original French with the subtitles turned off, unless you speak French. I hear the soundtrack to the French version is fantastic (The soundtrack to the English version is merely “okay”). The plot isn’t full of holes as such, just thin and unfinished. Cursory. The actual plot of Light Years feels about as obligatory as the fight scenes in Captain Power. It’s there because movies got to have plots. Even in France. The point of this movie is, rather, for us to look at all the weird stuff. Weird stuff, and also boobies.
In a big way, Yellow Submarine, which I keep coming back to, is the same (modulo boobies) — the plot is mostly just an excuse to hang a bunch of weird visuals on while Beatles songs play. But Light Years goes a lot farther in that direction. Things actually happen in Yellow Submarine. The characters do things which advance the plot. They get captured and have to be rescued. They have trouble controlling the submarine. They wake up strange beasts and have to evade them. They make new friends. And when they finally get to Pepperland, there’s a proper battle, with strategizing and everything.
Light Years doesn’t do that. Sylvain, for the most part, is not an active agent in his own story. He’s not even a reactive agent. He basically goes for a long walk and things happen around him, but, for the most part, not to him. Most of his plot consists of him meeting people, accusing them of being behind the attacks, then passively accepting it when they claim innocence. He’s captured by the Metal Men once, and rescued by a random act of Godzilla rather than his own actions. He discovers the physical nature of the Metal Men and learns about Metamorphis, but this doesn’t seem to actually affect how events play out in Jasper. He’s asleep for the siege of Jasper. The only time he actually takes any action that forwards the plot is when he offs Metamorphis at the end. Admittedly, he has more of a hand in the final outcome of the story than Indy does in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but not by much.
And yet, Gandahar is really just a pleasure to watch. Everything’s just so weird. It really is kind of like watching an hour-long Salvador Dali painting. From basically our first glimpse of Gandahar, continuously through the movie, it’s just a rapid succession of weird and uncanny images — Godzilla is quite possibly the least weird thing we find living in Gandahar. You’ve got suckling puppy-bugs, and tardigrade snail cattle, and giant crabs with faces that look kinda like Tintin, and attack-ladyparts-polyps, and those are the normal things that live in Gandahar, to say nothing of the Deformed or Metamorphis. This isn’t a movie you want to watch for its story, it’s a movie you watch for the experience of watching.
And also, y’know, the boobies. Seriously, lots of boobies in this movie. No idea what to make of that.