By Bob Clark
In honor of Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s recent passing, this piece is rerun.
The wonderful thing about science fiction set in outer space is the sheer size of it all. Though the cosmos isn’t exactly as infinite as hyperbole would suggest, it’s certainly almost inconceivably vast, far too far and wide for any single traveler to circumnavigate, even with the highest of technologies and the longest of lifespans. It is also too large for any single imagination to conquer definitively– more than any other setting for speculative sagas both grounded in professional rigour and unbound in flights of fancy, the night skies of outer space have been and remain the most reliably florid landscape for enterprising storytellers to weave tales of adventure and excitement the likes of which have little earthly comparison, and unlike so many of our own terrestrial locales for such mythic spin, it’s an environment big enough for everyone to share. After a while, nearly all of the locales we tell stories in around our own provincial planet grow stale from the influence of a handful or so storytellers and artists from whose shadow even the greatest masters can never fully escape. Westerns will always carry a debt to John Ford, Noirs will always bear the tell-tale fingerprints of Lang and German Expressionism, and literary fantasy will forever carry a debt to the hallmark tomes of Tolkien and all the Arthurian tradition that came before it. But space? Ah, there’s a canvas so wide and deep it all but puts to shame even the most accomplished contributions to its legacy beyond the stars. It’s a tapestry with room enough for a diverse assembly of creators to start at whatever fringes they choose and develop their weave in full, sometimes never quite overlapping with their brethren in all but the most superficial of family resemblances.
Jules Verne can take us to the moon on page, and Kubrick to the lunar monolith, beyond Jupiter and even infinity without owing too large an IOU to the French master. George Lucas can take us through hyperspace to a galaxy far, far away and never even have to worry about paying a toll for crossing through Buck Roger’s or Flash Gordon’s territories. Hideaki Anno can send teenage-piloted robots out into the universe or world-threatening alien monstrosities down to Earth without it crossing the same tracks as Leiji Matsumoto’s express lanes. Simply put, space is a big enough territory for all of the sci-fi masters of our world or any other to share, and as such there’s a quaint charm to the idea that the myriad worlds of all these creators might be shared, in some metafictional sleight of hand. As such, one wonders where exactly the worlds of director Rene Laloux’s features would be situated in the cosmos, owing so much as they do to their respective co-writers and artistic designers. Last week’s La Planete Sauvage would not be what it is without the sketchy illustrative style of Roland Topur, and next week’s Gandahar would be hard to imagine without the crisper designs of Phillipe Caza. Of all his feature collaborations, however, none are more affected by the presence of his co-conspirator than 1982’s Les Maitres Du Temps (“Time Masters”), where celebrated French comic-book artist Jean Giraud brought his inimitable sensibilities to the big-screen and in full, living animation for the first time. Though throughout the course of this film we may criss-cross from one celestial body to the next in the breadth of the Laloux galaxy, from start to finish our feet remain firmly rooted on Planet Moebius.
Indeed, it’s really no wonder why of all the director’s collaborations, this remains the one hardest to codify in terms of authorship. Yes, Topur and Caza’s styles bear heavy influence over their respective films, but it’s also just as easy to witness the commonalities from film to film as Laloux’s guiding hand of minimalist surrealism takes point. Much the same can be said of this film, as well, especially in the wondrously naturalistic depictions of the myriad flora and fauna on display from planet to planet, each its own colorful and immaculately maintained garden of pen and ink that dance upon the screen. With the higher budget and allotment of cel-animation rather than the Terry Gilliam-esque cut-out work of his feature and shorts both with and without Topur, Laloux’s method grows into a far more nuanced and vibrant array of full, fluid motion, and at times feels as though we were revisiting the same kinds of locales as Fantastic Planet but with a much more sophisticated and accurate means of documenting them. There’s a new breadth of detail to the lush surroundings that the director follows and sets his action in, and a greater attention to in-the-moment narrative clarity than there was in the previous film’s somewhat disjointed, abstract approach. Though it loses a little of experimental oomph in embracing mainstream storytelling and rules of composition in its relatively straightforward tale of mercenaries and fugitive royalty on a mission to fly to a distant planet and save a young boy orphaned by the world’s threatening indigenous life-forms, that baseline of narrative and stylistic composure affords Laloux the opportunity to assemble a more diverse array of unusual sights and actions than even his last film offered. Perhaps the sense of more professional normalcy helps provide a greater contrast to the surreal than before, as well– as with the Star Wars and Alien franchises, sometimes the linear space-opera traditions can help the more avant-garde elements stand out all the better.
It helps that both Lucas and directors like Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher were heavily influenced by the likes of Jean “Moebius” Giraud in the making of their science-fiction masterpieces, oftentimes even borrowing the artist’s work or hiring him outright to help design their visions of outer-space. Thanks to his work in the celebrated magazine Metal Hurlant (“Heavy Metal”) as well as collaborations with the likes of Alejandro Jodorowski and others, Giraud’s artistic style is also far more identifiable and appreciable than the more abstract likes of Topur or the more streamlined styles of Caza (another veteran of the same magazine). As such, it’s harder to separate the designer and co-writer from the work and entirely credit Laloux with the wondrous imagery we see from world to world, not unlike the question that a viewer of the Rintaro-directed anime Alexander (“Reign: The Conqueror”) might have in their mind after realizing just how much the design stylistics of Aeon Flux-creator Peter Chung ooze through every second of the series’ running time. What makes Time Masters work as well as it does as a unified work and avoid the pitfalls of competing artistic disciplines is the way in which Laloux’s sensibilities blend so well with Giraud’s. So much of the director’s work isn’t quite so much in the ornate designs of natural and technological flourishes that slide and glide through his physical planes, but can rather be found in the large empty spaces that those places inhabit, encouraging greater attention to be directed towards those intensely, immaculately detailed representations of alien worlds or trans-dimensional spaceships with far greater focus than there would be if the frame were filled with nothing but visual competition, as can sometimes be found in the overwhelming works that Moebius created on the comics page.
At the same time, the cartoonist’s professionalism as a draftsman is also a big reason why this film carries with it a far more classical mis-en-scene than Laloux’s previous efforts, with a far more symmetrical sense of composition in space and on the various alien worlds, framing technology-filled cabins and densely grown forests alike with an eye for balance that makes all the unusual elements stand out all the more. It’s this sense of composure that helps the film whenever it falls into some of its more philosophically strained tangents, such as an episode where the space-captain and spoiled prince are captured by faceless, winged beings that seek to annihilate their individuality or during the various instances where the ship’s activities are interrupted by a pair of tiny flying telepathic sprites that seem to be designed to manufacture plush toys to the children of existentialists. It’s moments like these that the simple pleasures of the adventure to save the child, an adventure that was already fraught with its own built-in dilemmas and angst, become somewhat hoarse and thin as we witness anonymous angels with the muscles of a Michelangelo sculpture writhing in agony or lumpish cartoon mindreaders shapeshifting and complaining about the “stinky thoughts” of human beings, as if we needed constant reminders of the psychological depths of a film that was already doing a very good job at mixing mature themes with rejuvenating storytelling to begin with. At times, the interruptions posed by the floating telepaths in general feel a bit like the sometimes jarring injections of “humor” supplied by Pen-Pen of Evangelion or the various annoying droids and aliens of Star Wars.
These are minor inconveniences when compared to the histrionic attempts of philosophical grandstanding the more “grown up” portions of the film attempt, none worse than the disappointment of the rather rote deus ex machina ending that manages to mix a magical race of aliens and a lackluster time-loop into the story at the very last moment in ways that come close to adding a sad sense of closure to the whole trip, but mostly just emphasize how artificial and contrived so much of the voyage was to begin with. Laloux’s features all have the same kind of problem when it comes to their conclusions, and even some of his shorts experience this issue as well– his films don’t so much come to a satisfying ending, as much as they simply run out of time and try to tie things up as quickly as they can. Fantastic Planet‘s various flashes-forward into the future of the war between human and Draag feels rushed, even when taking into account the absurdist nature of the film and the already telescoped portrayal of time from the very beginning. Next week’s Gandahar at least makes the effort to set up its own temporal cloverleaf early on in the film, making it far more acceptable than the almost accidental-seeming conclusion of Time Masters, where the film goes on long enough for one to even forget about the invocation in the title itself. Perhaps this is more accountable to the narrative Laloux and Giraud were adapting, taking the novel The Orphan of Perdide by Stefan Wul (author of the source material for La Planete Sauvage, as well), but at the same time it exhibits a curious habit of the director to continue his stories for as long as possible in episodic-picaresque mode and only very late in the game remember to wrap things up.
In the more abstractly styled designs of Roland Topur, this undiscplined, untraditional approach to narrative can work, and indeed can flourish, but in the hands of the more grounded, sequentially minded artistry of Moebius, it can feel a little more haphazard, especially taking into account the strict attention to in-the-moment pacing the rest of the film relies on. Still, in the end it is that very same design from the Heavy Metal genius and the way it plays into the vision of the surrealist director that keeps the film flying as well as it does, and indeed makes it one of the most impressive animated works of the 1980’s, if one of the less recognized ones. During that decade which saw the gradual rise of Disney from its long creative slump and the supernova debut of Japanese anime onto the international scene by the likes of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and OVA releases by Anno and Oshii, it’s easy to see how Laloux’s second feature would have found itself swamped and left adrift in a cinematic audience that wasn’t yet primed for truly adventurous works of animation, and indeed was only just being given a primer that would help the genre gain more acceptance in the next twenty years. And yet, thanks to the rising visibility both of the film’s director and the perennial popularity of its designer, both in comics and in his various assignments as art-director on other film projects like Tron, Willow and The Fifth Element, it’s hard to imagine an animated work that has a better chance of assembling as diverse an audience as this one. There’s no better time to rediscover Les Maires Du Temps.