I’ve always loved animated science fiction films, particularly those which are set in outer space.
Unfortunately, they are quite rare.
Well, outside the world of Japanese anime, that is.
Very few were made in the English-speaking world, but for some reason a number of quite interesting examples came out of Europe.
Or it might be more accurate to say Eastern Europe, as so many of them came out of the film studios behind the Iron Curtain, which were busy turning out animated films — mostly shorts — many of which dabbled in science fiction. Some of them — like several of the feature length films made by Czech director, Karel Zeman which combined various styles of animation with live action — made it to the United States.
Even the films of French director René Laloux, who created three of the best European animated science fiction films — Fantastic Planet, The Masters of Time and Gandahar — were actually animated in Czechoslovakia.
Sadly, though, two feature-length films from Romania, which were strongly reminiscent of Laloux’s work, never made it to the U.S.
Until now, that is.
One of these two, Misiunea spatialã Delta [Delta Space Mission] (1984) wasn’t entirely unknown in the West, and you could find occasional references to it from film reviewers and in books on Science Fiction Cinema.
But you rarely find any mention of its follow-up, Fiul Stelelor.
If you do, it will most likely be described as a sequel to Delta Space Mission (and by someone who never actually saw it, my cynical side tells me). There is no connection between the stories of the two films, nor do they share characters or settings. However, they do share a similar color palette, character designs and art style, not to mention their occasional indulgences in wild abstract animation and weird aliens.
A family of interstellar explorers — husband, wife, and their young son, Dan — are skirting a dangerous gravitational disturbance known as the Van Kleef Belt when they receive an SOS from a young woman who got lost in the Belt hundreds of years before. They try to reach her, but their ship is damaged. The parents try to fix it, but are instead swept off into the Belt. So the ship’s massive master computer lands the ship on a nearby planet, to keep the boy safe until he is old enough to go off on his own.
Dan is then raised by a group of blob-like telepathic aliens, completely unaware of his own origins.
And then one day he finds his abandoned ship…
More than anything else, Fiul Stelelor resembles René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973). Or perhaps it might be closer to the even more psychedelic Yellow Submarine (1968). After all, it shares with those two films its extravagant use of color, eccentric sense of design and often abstract animation.
Yet remember that both of these films were made over a decade earlier, and the wave of Seventies psychedelia was more or less over. I’ve found that Soviet era films from the Soviet Union or its satellites tended to be a decade behind our trends.
Although it does seem odd to me that something as fundamentally “decadent” and Western as psychedelia got a foothold in Soviet era films like The Star Inspector (1980)
While psychedelia had mostly come and gone in the West by the time these two films came out, the film is beautiful and overflows with a lot of colorful imagery. You can tell that the human figures were largely rotoscoped — it is more obvious than in Space Mission Delta — but this is largely because the human characters are more detailed and shown closer up. For most of the film, Dan is the only human character on screen and thus is generally larger than the figures in the earlier film, who had to share space with several other human characters throughout. The color palette is just a touch odd, heavy on bold primary colors, without many pastels, greys or whites, although it works reasonably well and is reminiscent of some of the bolder Seventies era posters from the Fillmore.
There’s a bit of Fantasy here — and yes, a bit of Star Wars: Dan has to learn how to use telepathic and psychokinetic powers with the help of his alien friends, but he also gathers up a collection of powerful aids in his quest — a sword, an amulet, the giant brain computer BOB, the new spaceship he builds, the powerful friends he makes.
However, what is less expected is that he then loses them all.
And that is one of the charms of the film — the storyline is surprisingly complex for the film’s Eighty-minute runtime, and it keeps changing direction into unexpected new situations. I suppose some might describe the ending as a touch cliched, but you would never expect at the start of the film that this is where it would end up. I’ll confess that I more or less thought we would get a story of a family adventuring in space together, before his parents were swept off into the deadly Van Kleef belt. Again and again, the rug gets yanked out from under our feet, and yet this never destroys the narrative.
Which is something most of those modern writers out there defying our expectations never quite manage.
Fiol Stelelor might not be a lost classic, but it is a beautifully made example of something that was far too rare (and, to a large extent, still is): an intelligent and thoughtful science fiction film in animated form.
As we are talking about a disk which is being released from a modern Boutique video company, don’t expect to see it on the shelves at Walmart. In fact, it isn’t at all likely that Deaf Crocodile will press more than a very limited number of copies. They do seem to be making Delta Space Mission available for streaming, so there is hope that they’ll do the same for Fiul Stelelor.
After all, this is a film which definitely deserves to be rediscovered.
Although, let’s face it, there are an awful lot of those…