Friday, April 20, 2012

Obscure Fantasy: Time Masters

R.I.P. Jean Henri Gaston Giraud. 1938-2012.

Other writers more eloquent than I have said better things about Moebius and his contribution to genre fiction. I can only attest to what he means to me.

Very few artists have had such an effect on me as Moebius. He's right up there with the Hildebrandts, Frazetta, Elmore, Amano, and Rackham. When I think of fantasy, his work is what I envision. Completely unreal worlds where everything, from the costumes to the flora to the fauna to the sky itself, is alien to the world we know. His artistic dreamscapes harkened back to comics pioneers like Windsor McCay, but he took it a step further. Arzach is whimsical, but its also beautiful, and evocative. In those comics, which typically had no dialogue, he lets the images do the talking. I can't look at his pictures without having my imagination go wild. The image above by itself could inspire a thousand stories without a shred of context. I'd been thinking about working on stories that incorporate Moebius-style imagery when I read the news of his passing on Black Gate.

I've never been really into science fiction, but I love some science fantasy/planetary adventure. That's why I have a soft spot for Robotech and old NES games like Bionic Commando, Captain Harlock, Dreadstar, etc. It's this idea of a magical, mythological future. Give me high adventure, alien creatures, space ships with lots of glowing buttons, and people flying on dinosaurs and I'm good to go. My interest in space opera ultimately led me to Heavy Metal, the magazine for which Moebius was founder, inspiration, and superstar. Whenever there was an Arzach story in those old 1980s issues, they emblazoned his name across the cover.

Like many, I first learned his visual aesthetic through those who were influenced by him. The "Taarna" sequence in the Heavy Metal motion picture. I saw the movie when I was 11 or 12, and of course I was amused and titillated by the nudity, profanity, drug use, and violence. Then it got to "Taarna" and I was captivated. A horde of green-skinned mutants massacre a city of scholar-scientists. The doomed town looks like this bizarre steampunk-rococo-Little Nemo hybrid populated by the androgynous descendants of French circus acrobats.

From there, the breathtaking scene of Taarna in her acolyte robe flying her pterodactyl-like steed over the plains and pipelines and villages of her desert planet. She dives underground into this vast series of metal catacombs, to the airplane hangar-sized temple that houses the statue of her ancestor. There's something futuristic about this world. There's something primitive about it. There's something desolate and lonely about it. What kind of race left these industrial ruins, now home to mutants and warrior-women? What would it be like to live in this alien version of the Wild West?

It's all Moebius. Once I got older the style became more obvious to me, to the point I spent years thinking he'd actually worked on the film. Some say he did. Either way, the animators were recreating the world of Arzach. Moebius pioneered that grungy "used future" look that would get popularized by Star Wars. Grandeur and decay. He had no problem mixing science fiction and fantasy elements in ways that felt organic, such as his superbly whimsical Magic Crystal series. His work is fantastical, detailed, improbable, and, above all, fun. With Moebius, you have it all.

One thing I have learned since his passing is how truly influential he was. Star Wars. Nausicaa. Blade Runner. Tron. The Fifth Element.  He either worked on them or influenced them. Those are not credentials to sneeze at. If you think about it, the only aesthetic in mainstream scifi he isn't responsible for are the Giger-inspired designs from Alien. Oh. Wait. He did concept art for the first movie.

I've been meaning on doing an Obscure Fantasy on Les Maitres du Temps for a while. I have loved this quality piece of '80s fantasy since I first saw the BBC dub on VHS. Like any good comic artist, Moebius was a master of collaboration, and the film is his superstar team-up with Rene Laloux. The video box said as much, more or less: "MOEBIUS and LALOUX...TOGETHER!" Seeing those names side by side made my geeky little heart flutter.

As with Moebius, I'm a longtime fan of Laloux. The same father who rented Heavy Metal for me took me at a young age to see Fantastic Planet at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Even though I already owned it on VHS, with subtitles and dubbed British voice actors. And no, the subs and dubs did not match up. I was beyond excited to see it on the big screen, along with a pre-movie screening of Laloux's short film Les Escargots. I think my dad fell asleep.

Rene Laloux epitomizes the fact that quality means everything. He made three movies. He only needed to make one to secure his place in animation history and that was Fantastic Planet. The trippy scifi midnight double feature cult classic has been popular for decades, and I guess it's only appropriate I mention it on 4/20. Stoners of all generations have zoned out to its array of bizarre imagery. Beyond that, it's a very intelligent movie; philosophical, dark, beautiful, and has something to say about man's place in the universe. Time Masters, Laloux's second of three films, is a rare collaboration between two geniuses of French art. In the animator, Moebius found a fantasist as imaginative as himself.

Les Maitres Du Temps

"A boy. A hero. A universe of danger."

Gotta love blurbs. One thing I adore about pulp is they put the "sense of wonder" up front. Slap some astronauts and rocketships and weird aliens on the cover, promise a universe of danger, and away we go.

Time Masters is Laloux's most accessible film. Fantastic Planet has its very dark humor while Gandahar is beginning to end grim. Time Masters has songs, cheesecake swimming scenes, zany sidekicks, oafish-looking bureaucrats straight out of a Tintin comic, and cartoon physics everywhere. It is, to put it bluntly, a kids' adventure movie.

Or is it? The film begins with the death of parents. From there, danger is ever-present, and death is just around the corner for all of these characters. The theme of mortality runs throughout this movie; the inevitability, yes, but also the idea of what constitutes a good life. It's about the importance of humanity, whether you're human or an extraterrestrial. It's about the worth of the individual, especially in regards to the ending. Nowadays we associate this blend of pathos and dark subject matter in animation with Pixar movies, but it is par for the course when considering the French cinema.

The philosophy is what I love about French science fiction. They internalized the concept-based approach of 1960s scifi and carried it to their best works. Look at La Planete des singes, or as we know it Planet of the Apes. What is ostensibly a dystopian adventure is also a multidimensional look at the notion of humanity, while retaining its sense of fun (the apes of the book had all sorts of crazy gadgets their film counterparts did not). Fantastic Planet and Gandahar (a whole movie based on an Isaac Asimov quote) are both loaded with subtext. In doing a family film, Laloux and Moebius approach it with the same thoughtfulness.


The film starts off in Fantastic Planet territory. A daddy longlegs-looking mooncraft is driving around what appears to be a desert planet into a forest of bizarre trees that absolutely dwarf the small vehicle. We know right off the bat that humans are not top dog in this universe. The driver is making an urgent SOS to someone named Jaffar. Some unknown force attacked the family, killing the mother, injuring the father. Only the little boy Piel is unscathed. Their vehicle crashes in the titanic briar patch.

Mortally wounded, the father lies to Piel about his mother, and about his own condition. He gives the boy his communicator, a ying-yang styled radio that he calls Mike. This design is interesting: the archetypal symbol for the balance of elements, in a movie that balances light and dark. The father anthropomorphizes Mike, tells Piel to keep Mike as his companion while waiting for help. The boy, of course, thinks Mike can actually talk. When Piel wants to stay with his dad, the dying man shoots at the ground to make him run away. There's a theme here of trying to shield children from the realities of the world. Doesn't that never work? Inevitably. As parents will say that Santa Claus brings presents, the father tells Piel he will survive his wounds. So Piel runs off into the wilderness, ying-yang radio at his side.

Cut to outer space. A Millenium Falcon-style junker spaceship captained by the chiseled Jaffar and his tight black t-shirt. You can tell he's the hero because he has the patented Harrison Ford Two Facial Expressions of Doom: smirk and scowl. Jaffar is escorting the exiled Prince Matton, who has stolen half the intergalactic government's treasury, and his beautiful sister Belle. A friend of mine in high school told me how the prince bears a resemblance to Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie, and the princess resembles his pre-Iman wife, Angie Bowie. I'm going to just assume this is intentional. Jaffar, communicating with Piel through his own Mike, is intent on rescuing his friend's son from the Dolong Forest, on the planet Perdide. Matton is not keen on this detour, as he's just too glam rock and fabulous to rescue little boys. He just wants to hang out and smoke his cigarettes in those little holder things. His sister, however, has a heart of gold, and is all for joining the quest.

There are some very charming scenes of Jaffar and Belle taking turns talking to the boy (they say that Mike has two voices), helping to keep him calm in this dangerous situation. Piel has his own complications to deal with, such as a giant penguin/platypus who decides to sit on Mike until it hatches. Poor kid. At least here half of the creatures he contends with are whimsical. In Fantastic Planet they'd kill him within five minutes. These scenes of Jaffar and Belle communicating with the boy are at the core of Time Masters. What is important to Laloux and Moebius is how we help and care for each other. With this in mind, Jaffar travels to a nearby planet to recruit his friend, Silbad.

If you want one scene that illustrates the beauty of the Laloux/Moebius vision, look at this one. Silbad lives on a planet of mountainous purple lilypads and herds of floating jellyfish crossing the nectar-colored sky. As ambient synthesizer plays, they fly their landing craft to Silbad's palace in the middle of a silver lake, surrounded by land that looks like no land I've ever seen.

Just going off what I know about the individual artists' styles, I'm guessing Laloux was more involved in the planet/set designs, with Moebius heading up mech/character/creature designs. If so, this is a brilliant choice, playing to each artists' strength. I want to go to this planet. I want to go there badly. Just look for yourself. In fact, watch the whole movie. It's up there.

The film slows down to take in the sailor Silbad's world. Laloux loves to explore the strange locales of his films and and here he indulges himself. Even better, the characters themselves marvel at their surroundings. It is at Silbad's that we meet our Comedy Sidekicks, two little newborn gnome-things birthed from one of those jellyfish, called shroos. Yura and Jad are telepathic, and often complain of how bad the human thoughts around them stink. Does it make automatic sense for fully intelligent and articulate creatures to be birthed from a jellyfish? No. This is planetary adventure, and thus retains that element of magic. The mechanics of this world are ever explained, nor should they be. We the viewer are dropped into fantasia and we just absorb it.

There is a fluidity to the animation that Laloux couldn't accomplish with Fantastic Planet. The choppiness worked for that movie. Here it is crisp. Long, dialogue-free scenes ensue of humans and animals interacting with their environment. I love that Belle and Jaffar aren't jaded; this sense of wonder is the reason why they space travel. This whole section is just lovely; a perfect melding of creature design, technological design, and environmental designs.

"Silbad has been hopelessly in love for twenty years," says Jaffar.

"With who?" Belle asks.

"This planet."

I can see why. As always, it's the human moments that make this movie. I don't mean the scene where Jaffar and Belle disrobe and do synchronized swimming to bubbly synth, though that's fine. I mean the part where they help Yura and Jad hatch from the shroo when they get stuck. There's a moment where Silbad sings a nonsense song to Piel that will have all sorts of poignancy later on. That's what I always remembered about Time Masters, even years later: the focus on human kindness. When faced with the indifference and cruelty of the universe, the most important thing is to treat each other well.

And for such a short movie, there's plenty of indifference and cruelty. If it's not the Time Masters, it's giant killer hornets. If not that, it's government stormtroopers. If not government stormtroopers, killer vegetation. There's a comet Jaffar has to circle in a certain amount of time. Mastery of space travel isn't mastery of anything, and the dangers come fast and furious.

So the film proceeds in a series of interlocked episodes. As in a proper fairy tale, at least one adult wants to kill the child. Fed up with this detour, and maybe a little jealous of his sister's immediate attachment to Jaffar, Matton gets on the microphone and tries to convince Piel to drown himself in a lake. This ends with him thrown in the brig. Yura and Jad, who are repelled by his stinking thoughts, decide to do him a favor, ease his troubled mind by dumping the cause of his worry into the vacuum of space. Gotta love a movie where they throw away a treasure horde.

Did I mention that the comedy sidekicks are actually funny? How often does that happen? The yellow and purple gnomes are in the tradition of Hamlet's gravedigger, philosophizing on the inscrutability of humans. They can morph their bodies and disengage parts and fly and generally make awesome use of cartoon physics. They are also heroes in their own right, helping Jaffar when he's in a pinch.

And they're unpredictable. It's funny to think how much of the film's second half is propelled by them taking independent initiative. Matton's thoughts stink so bad they release him. Since a dangerous guy like that can't just go free, Jaffar follows him to the desert planet Gamma Ten (what a great name for a scifi planet?). It is this point in the movie where Laloux and Moebius take both the fantasy and philosophy up a notch. As soon as they touch down, Matton and Jaffar are captured by angelic creatures. Completely white, featureless, androgynous. A vision of uniformity.

There is a joy to this storytelling, where a new and amazing place is literally around every corner. I know I'm not the only one who remembers how John Carter and Dorothy Gale and similar heroes would just stumble upon hidden cities based around wild science fiction concepts. Time Masters is no different. In the great pulp tradition, we are introduced to a major villain halfway through the movie. Moebius' angels wrap Jaffar in what I guess is webbing and fly him to a volcano that looks nothing like any volcano I've ever seen, carrying him like bats that have just caught a juicy mouse. These angels are all part of a central conscious that thrives on uniformity, and Matton and Jaffar are next in line to be absorbed into the collective. The Borg, but scarier.

This is a cool science fiction concept that Laloux would, thankfully, expand on with the villain in Gandahar. Moebius' design of the assimilated as angels always seemed to me a subtle dig at the notion of Heaven: a place built on exclusivity for certain believers, overseen by a judgmental omnipotent force, where all the desires that make humans interesting are wiped out for eternal malaise. According to Yura and Jad, the only way for Jaffar to gain even a Pyrrhic victory is to throw himself into the conscious, fighting it with emotion. Turn his mind to pure hate, insanity, fury, in order to corrupt and destroy the power. He needs to embrace all the darkness that humans suppress; thus killing the conscious, and himself at the same time. In other words, there is no way to win.

Ultimately, it is Matton who makes the sacrifice, choosing annihilation over assimilation. Matton's sacrifice always left a bad taste in my mouth because it is so sudden and painful. Yet it's also beautiful in a way. The prince who through the whole movie indulges his greed, avarice, a murderous impulses, gets to finally use them as a weapon against a far greater evil. It is the very ugliness of his emotions that ends up saving the others. That's a pretty deep look at human nature.

It's also horrific. Matton dies. He dies a hero just like Belle would have wanted, but he still dies. In agony. This last act of heroism will not wipe away the final image of him on the platform, screaming as he is crushed by tentacles. In the end, there is only death. Young Piel learns this, as he meets up with a cute kangaroo/pony hybrid who becomes his companion. In no time flat the animal is lured into a cave, where it is ensnared by killer vines and strangled to death in front of Piel's eyes. In his desperate flight, the boy is attacked by dozens of the aforementioned killer insects. There's the illusion of safety the adults provide him with Mike. Then there is the reality of the world, right in his face, and there's nothing he can do about it.

Such despair. All the more reason for us to treat each other well. Jaffar escapes the destruction of the volcano with as many survivors as he can, changed back from their angel forms into whoever they were before. The 32 survivors are a hodgepodge of cartoony aliens, Popeye-looking sailor types, 19th century whalers, and whatever else popped into Moebius' head for these group shots. I'd say one of the reasons to watch Time Masters is to see the full breadth of his character design capabilities. I can't think of a piece outside of Arzach where he is allowed to create so many distinct characters. I won't spoil the trick Jaffar & co. use  to get them a ship, but it's quite clever and strange.

By the climax, we've got Piel unconscious and bleeding from a skull fracture, about to be bug food. We've got Jaffar, Silbad, Belle, Yura, and Jad knocked out by a ray from the Time Masters, who finally decided to show up in the movie bearing their name. Turns out, they run a colonization process where they terraform planets by, first, transporting them into the past. They send Perdide back about sixty years. The Federation let's them get away with this because...what else are you gonna do? They're giant blue aliens who can relocate planets. An astronaut in Piel's storyline is shocked to find a whole world appearing out of nowhere, but rescues the injured boy, bandages his wounds, and takes him on as an apprentice.

Later in Jaffar's story, the crew are in the hospital of a planet-sized space station, recovered from their ordeal. All except one, the eldest, who is on his deathbed. You can see where this is going.

So, Piel was with them the whole time. While it is implied he suffered amnesia from his head injuries, I have to wonder if Silbad knew, at least in some subconscious way, that he was going back to the beginning to die. Jaffar failed to rescue Piel, but it was never about that in the first place. It is about living a full life, which the boy went on to do. We learn more about the man named Silbad as he lies dying, the accomplishments of his life related by Yura and Jad with great solemnity. There is a great dignity and poignancy that the Comedy Sidekicks are all of a sudden the sages, conducting Silbad's eulogy. And maybe, the fact that Jaffar helped Silbad reach his end is just as noble as his attempt to save him when he was young.

Time Masters is literally a mobius strip of a movie. The reveal of Silbad = Piel makes the part where Silbad's singing a silly song to the boy all kinds of profound. Literally communicating with a young version of himself, and what does he do? Same thing he would do for any frightened little boy. Look back at the movie poster. See Silbad holding Piel's hand. You know a movie's got it's thinking cap on when they work that kind of symbolism into the promotional materials. The ambiguously unsatisfying ending is not the kind expected for a children's movie, but it goes down better and better every time I watch it. What is important is that Piel/Silbad lived.

"The orphan of Perdide is dead, humans," says Yura.

"He has left our time to enter into eternity," says Jad.

After all this chaos and adventure, the final image is of Jaffar and Belle standing with the crew of the space station to give Silbad his funeral. That Laloux ends on an old man's funeral shows this is no typical pulp. The doctor gives him a Mike for his journey, and Jaffar and Belle hold hands as Silbad is shot forth on his final journey. The last shot is a pull-out on the gargantuan, monolithic space station. In the midst of all this technology, the crew gathers to honor a single human life. A Time Master even shows up to send him off.

And isn't that a good message? In this violent and indiscriminate universe, the individual matters. We all must die. Some of us die violently like Matton, some of us die quietly like Silbad; the end result is the same. But if you put out goodness into the world, someone will care and mourn you. All this genuine emotion wrapped in a thrilling, race-against-the-clock plot that takes me to lands undreamed of. Les Maitres du Temps stayed with me. All the best movies do.

Moebius has left our time to enter eternity. He has joined Rene Laloux among the ancestors. I lift my glass to the both of them.


  1. Hey Elwin, came across your blog from Weird Fiction Review. Really enjoy your site. Moebius is awesome!!!! I'm also a huge fan of Enki Bilal, author of the Immortels. French BDs rock.

  2. The Immortels? I'll have to check that out.