Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Rhetoric of Mass Murder: An Analysis of 'Fantastic Planet / La Planate Sauvage' (1973 animation)

Content Warning: Discussion of genocide; full plot details

Some works of art aim only to leave the audience with a feeling. Characters, story, aesthetic, all elements become secondary and instrumental to producing a state of mind. Fantastic Planet is about genocide, and, more strikingly, the mindset needed to commit genocide. The film guides the audience to, for even one small moment, adopt this mindset, and then realise with horror how easily they adopted it.

On the planet Ygam, the gigantic Draags treat Oms (humans) as animals. The Draags either keep Oms as pets or exterminate them as vermin. One pet, named Terr, flees into the alien wilds, dragging behind him a Draag education headset. Finding a ‘wild’ Om tribe, he gives them the Draag headset, allowing Oms the knowledge to escape Draag oppression.

If you’ve only seen stills of Fantastic Planet, that summary will come as a disappointment. The film’s aesthetic feels as if a renaissance painter, trained in depicting Hell, was abducted by aliens and lived to illustrate it. The plot of the film, however, can be found in any young adult dystopia, although young adult dystopias tends to have rounder characters. There is an overclass and an underclass. A very special underclasser rallies the underclass to resist, or at least escape, the overclass. Happy ending optional. In terms of scene outline, the film does not introduce thematic complication or complexity to this trite plot. Yet this is not a trite film. The film does not merely waste its creativity on the visuals, sparing none for the plot. The visuals make the audience feel the film’s themes.    

Fantastic Planet is film about genocide, and the genocidal mindset. Before you can slaughter a people, you must convince yourself they are not persons. A person has reason as I do, suffers as I do, ambitions as I do. But these people do not reason as me, and their suffering means less than mine, and their ambitions can only be to my detriment. Besides they’re barely individuals, they’re a swarm, whose every causality is one less pest.

A table, without even a computer
The film’s visuals and plot elements manipulate the audience into adopting this view, on a pre-rational, amoral level. For one, the audience identifies earlier and more closely with the genocidal Draag than with the victimised Oms. Until half-way through the film, the only Om voice we hear is Terr’s narration. Oms are little more than voiceless animals. The Draag, however, seem more human than the Oms. It is no failure of imagination that these alien beings live like middle-class inhabitants of the industrialised world. The director could have alienated us from the Draag easily. The director could have given the Draag a hive-like family structure, instead they live in nuclear families. The Draag could have conducted their government in a telepathic convergence of minds, but, no, their leaders gather around a literal table. Most importantly, they speak intelligibly. If the aim was to alienate the viewer from the Draag, there would be no quicker means than having the Draag speak gibberish. Yet the first dialogue we hear is from Draag children, saying the kinds of things children do. Sparing the architecture of Draag-ish homes and how Draags breed via astro-projection, the Draag-ish society mirrors the presumptive industrial-world viewer’s own.

Terr and his love-interest, in an unromantic kiss
As the film forces us to identify with the Draag, viewing them as at least a little like us, the film also dehumanises the Oms by depersonalising them. None of the Oms are three-dimensional characters. Terr wants to help his fellow Oms, and he possesses Draag knowledge; beyond this he has no character. The leader of the Om tribe also wants the best for his people. The wizard of the Om tribe doesn’t like Terr. Terr’s love interest is… his love interest. This lack of character is not necessarily a failing. We identify with the Oms because we know they must have internal lives, but we cannot identify with these characters because we cannot see their internal lives. We know they are sentient beings, but we cannot empathise. We can neither empathise with the Draag, as they are at most two-dimensional characters, but the two-dimensional Draags inhabit a society and social roles closer to the audience’s than the one the Oms inhabit.

Evoking insecticide
Starting from this emotional distance the film accomplishes its most affecting sequences: the Draag genociding the Oms. These sequences are not affecting because of the visceral impact each death has on the viewer, but from the viewer reflecting on how little of an impact all these deaths make on them. Only for moments at a time is the genocide shot from the Oms’ point of view, i.e. from the victims’ point of view. The camera looms back, so dozens of unknown Oms occupy the screen, dying on mass. Sometimes the camera hangs so far back that the Oms become black blots, looking and feeling like insects falling.

Two pedestrians
This is the film’s most affecting element: the audience feel the genocide as the Draags rationalise it, even if, intellectually, the audience knows it is unconscionable. The Draags do not believe they are committing genocide. They murder Oms like we would murder insects, throwing gas canisters and spraying death. Even as the Draags find evidence that the Om are rational beings like themselves, the Draags never talk of Oms as a military threat, but as an insect infestation. Oms live in ‘nests’, they are ‘dirty’, they ‘reproduce at an alarming rate’. The Draags are not ‘killing’ anybody, they are ‘de-Omming’, just as you would delouse. This is the rhetoric of mass murder. It is a crime to kill innocent people, but these are not people.

We do not view the victims as people. Their deaths do not affect us because they are as emotionally and physically distant from us as insects. And then we realise we are seeing Oms like the Draags see Oms. We realise each of those depersonalised deaths is the death of a person. The horror of these murders is heightened by the fact that we the audience so easily took on the mindset of the murderers.

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