Have you ever thought back on something you experienced as a child that you simply accepted as it was, and never thought of it as strange until later? For me, this something was a film called Gandahar. I watched a lot of animation when I was very young; this is when I first was introduced to Studio Ghibli’s work through the edited version of Nausicaä (1984) known stateside on VHS as “Warriors of the Wind.” Similarly, French director René Laloux’s film Gandahar was released dubbed in English in the US as Light Years, and it was my father’s VHS copy of Light Years that I remember from my youth. A few years back I managed to dig up said VHS and re-watch it, and though I remembered most of it quite clearly, I was surprised at how truly strange it was, and moreso the fact that I simply took it at face-value as a child. After digging around on the internet a few years back I discovered that the movie’s original French title was Gandahar, and after some searching I acquired a copy of the original (possibly uncut?) French film with subtitles.
Gandahar occupies a niche inhabited stylistically by the magazine Heavy Metal; if you’re unfamiliar with said magazine, it consists mostly of (or used to, I haven’t read it in several years) illustrated science fiction / fantasy stories, often by European (and some American) artists and writers with plenty of violence, sex and nudity punctuating said stories. That’s not to say that it’s all cheap schlock (although some of it surely is); many of the stories are thought-provoking tales, and almost all of them have amazing artwork to go with them. I would imagine most people are imminently more familiar with the 1981 film Heavy Metal, which is of course done in the same tradition as the magazine, and certainly shares many similarities with Gandahar, along with René Laloux’s other films Fantastic Planet (1973) and Time Masters (1982) (all of which I plan to review at a later date).
Set in a fantastical world known as, surprise, Gandahar, Gandahar opens with the native peoples of land living in an idyllic village, gathering food, shepherding and so forth (This is what is shown in the above trailer). Suddenly, lasers that turn people to stone begin flying about, ossifying the people and leaving statues in their place. In Jasper, the capitol of Gandahar (where almost everything has been created via genetic manipulation), the city’s ruling council decides to send in Sylvain, their best soldier, to discover what is attacking and attempt to stop it.
Sylvain meets a wide variety of people and creatures, one of the more notable being a group of misshapen outcasts from Jasper, the mistakes resulting from genetic manipulation. Known as the Deformed, they have limbs, heads and appendages in all sorts of places, and are easily one of the most memorable parts of the movie. Of course, the antagonists are notable too, in that they are black metal-men that march not unlike Nazi stormtroopers, turning everything in their path into stone. They come from a thousand years in the future, through a time door, and have been sent by Metamorphis, a giant brain that was created by Jasper that was deemed too dangerous and abandoned. I suppose if you wanted to you could take away from Gandahar some sort of warning against genetic manipulation, but that doesn’t seem to be a strong message in the film. It should be noted that some time travel is naturally involved when you have robot-like death soldiers from the future, and as a child I couldn’t wrap my head around it, and even now it still was a bit difficult to digest. The Deformed apparently had the gift of prophetic foresight, and in the film they and others refer to events as things that “was will be” instead of “are,” and give us such wonderful statements as “’In a thousand years, Gandahar was destroyed, and and all its people massacred. A thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved, and what can’t be avoided will be.” Somewhat confusing, to be sure, though I guess time-travel rarely works in a completely satisfactory way in any setting that it’s been used in, but that’s a discussion for another time.
All that aside, Gandahar is filled with all sorts of strange vistas and bizarre inhabitants, and easily holds the same appeal as any other science fiction or fantasy setting, that is, there is an entire world laid out in front of us. The animation is dated, and probably even was starting to look that way when it came out – this is the same year that Akira (1988) came out, and sadly the animation in Gandahar is somewhat stiff in comparison to it and some other animated films coming out during the same time period. However, in my opinion, the design and utter weirdness of the whole thing makes up for this, because the setting and characters of the film are truly fantastic, in the literal sense of the word.
As far as differences between the US version Light Years and the French version; aside from the dubbing there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference aside from a 2-3 minute long scene where Sylvain and his newly-found lady friend Arielle are lying next to each other and talking. I guess the implication that sex occurred at some point was enough for the US distributors to chop it, but honestly most of the women in the movie are walking around topless anyway, so it seems sort of trivial for it to be cut. The US version is dubbed with some well-known actors, among them Glenn Close as the leader of Jasper, Christopher Plummer as the brain Metamorphis, Bridget Fonda as the Historian of Jasper, and Penn Jillette as the chieftan of the Deformed. It’s not a bad dub, so if you come across the US version you won’t be missing out on too much.
Any fans of animation or really, any science fiction or fantasy fan should give Gandahar a look if you want something different. I might be a bit biased and wearing nostalgia goggles about the whole thing, but I think you can never have too many unconventional animated films.
Also, here is another excerpt from the French version film if you’re interested. The whole thing seems to floating around on youtube if you’re inclined to watch it there.