Misiunea spatialã Delta [Delta Space Mission] (1984)

Lately, Animation and I have had a very complex relationship.

It hasn’t exactly been a good one, not for some time now.

I suppose, in a way, you might blame Pixar.  Not that it’s exactly their fault, it is more that everyone else had to copy them and all the money went into computer animated films which try very hard to look like Pixar.

At least the Japanese have instead been trying to look like Miyazaki (well, mostly) which is an improvement, but the sad truth is that no approach to film offers such an incredible opportunity to do extraordinary things as Animation does.  It offers the opportunity to play with style, with design, with the use of exaggeration, and to go beyond mere realism to find new ways to express yourself.

Nor should animation be locked into a tiny little box labelled “children” (even if that does create trouble with marketing it!)

And all this is even more true when you talk about using animation for science fiction or fantasy.

Let’s face it, there haven’t been too many animated science fiction films lately — at least, not outside of Japan (where, yes, they’ve made more than the rest of the world combined).  Here in the West, there was an all too brief moment at the end of the Nineties and the early Nothings when the big Studios dabbled their toes in the inviting waters of animated Science fiction and created a handful of great films like Titan A.E., Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Iron Giant, Atlantis, and Treasure Planet.  However, there hasn’t been much since then (outside of a few weird independent films like Nick DiLiberto’s Nova Seed or Frank Sudol’s Shock Invasion) — and, sadly, there wasn’t much before that time.

Although there were a few — and some of them were quite good.

Mind you, nearly all of those were made by Rene Laloux.

Laloux’s film Fantastic Planet has generally been recognized as a minor classic, and it is a cool, freaky sort of film and definitely worth watching.  However, he also made two others: Masters of Time, which is beautiful but has been ignored because it was made for a younger audience; and Gandahar (Light Years) which is as good or better than Fantastic Planet, but far more technically accomplished.

So it is a joy to find an animated science fiction film which has a lot of the same, fantastic and highly stylized quality as Laloux’s movies.

Now I had been aware of Delta Space Mission for some time.  I’d even found a copy of it on Youtube some time back, but never watched it because I couldn’t find a set of English subtitles.  In fact, I’ll admit that I’d mostly forgotten about this rare Romanian film.  After all, there are a lot of interesting Iron Curtain science fiction films which are either absurdly rare or do not have proper subtitles, movies I hope to catch up with one of these days, but do not have on my priority list.

It starts out with Alma, an alien girl reporter, and her “space dog” Tin (who looks like a giant white frog) joining the crew of a brand-new spacecraft which is about to leave on a major exploration mission.

Only something goes very wrong and the ship’s incredible new A.I. takes over the ship and rushes off into the asteroid belts to hide, while hundreds of ships are sent out to find it.

Delta Space Mission is an undeniably beautiful film.  There is a dazzling, psychedelic use of color (something we see in Laloux’s films as well) and a very loose, simplified style.  The linework is fine with minimal detail on the figures.  This may have been a cost-saving measure, but the effect is instead somewhat stylized.

We also get futuristic cities, spaceships, and squadrons of small fighters.  Most of the ships are somewhat boxy, but are shown to be three dimensional in the many flight scenes, while the great swarms of fighters are wedge shaped and clearly 3-D.  As these are such strong and simple shapes, I suspect that these may have been done using motion controlled shots of models, like the ships in the 1979 Flash Gordon cartoon series, or possibly even animated over wireframe graphics, as in the 1985 3-D animated film, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin.   However, Alma’s runabout has a distinctive curved shape somewhat like an egg, which is also shown moving in three dimensions, but I suspect that it was probably hand drawn.  It’s a fairly simple shape, and animators used to have to do things like that.

Delta Space Mission also features wild POV trips down curving and twisting highways, as well as a sequence with a water monster crashing through city streets.  I really don’t get the impression that these were done like the awe-inspiring tracking shots in the final segment of Heavy Metal, which were actually shot on a model and then rotoscoped (a stunning sequence ruined on analog televisions because their narrow range of colors made all the little coloring inconsistencies stand out).  It may be hard to imagine that they were hand animated, but such scenes were not entirely uncommon back in the analog days.

Just hard to do.

Some of the shots of the human characters have obviously been rotoscoped, although this seems to be primarily when we see closeups of hands and arms, as well as a few of the more challenging action shots.

And just describing some of the technical work on this film should give you a fairly clear picture of just how remarkable Delta Space Mission is: we get to see weird planetscapes, monsters, incredible action sequences, space battles and lots of robots.  Some of the creatures are absurd and comic, much like those in parts of Fantastic Planet, and there is even one magnificently surreal sequence portraying the rapturous ecstasies Alma experiences when she first sees the incredible beauty of the Delta’s A.I.  It is all portrayed in dazzling colors, against often rather surreal backdrops, filled with eccentric and imaginative creations.

Now, if you’ve seen the science fiction films made in the Soviet Union during the Fifties, then it should come as little surprise to find that we have a crew we would describe these days as multicultural, and that it is implied that this is a future where everyone has come together in one, single, harmonious world.

I’ll confess that I expected a bit of a romance — and perhaps even a romantic triangle — involving the leader of the Delta’s crew, but that was probably just because I forgot that this was a Soviet era film.  Not that you don’t find romance in the Iron Curtain films of the era, but it is rare and never allowed to get in the way of the plot.

However, the A.I. storyline is well handled, even if you can tell they were inspired by 2001.  I particularly like the notion that it has to do with human concepts that it cannot understand, which strikes me as a particularly shrewd understanding of the real limits of computers.

The good news is that this incredible, but rare, film has now been released on Blu Ray by boutique publisher Vinegar Syndrome, and on VOD by newcomer Deaf Crocodile.  I hope that it gets spread to a wide audience as this is a fascinating addition to the sadly sparse ranks of animated science fiction.

And we all know it is far more likely that someone will dig up a lost classic like Delta Space Mission than that someone would make a new film that was this good…

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The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!



And why CGI looks so horrible these days…

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