INTERSTELLA 5555:
THE 5TORY OF THE 5ECRET 5TAR 5YSTEM
*** (out of ****)
Directed by Kazuhisa Takenouchi & written by Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel De Homen-Christo, and Cedric Hervet, with music by Daft Punk (Bangalter and De Homen-Christo)
2003
68 minutes NR (should be PG or PG13)

Telling a compelling, comprehensible story without anyone having to say anything is a pretty neat trick.  Even a lot of the old silent films—“Potemkin” and “Nosferatu,” for instance—require title cards at regular intervals so we can know what everyone is saying.  And that’s what intrigues me about “Interstella 5555:”  it’s a 68 minute cartoon without dialogue and sound effects, only music.

With a title like “Interstella 5555:  The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem”—I think Microsoft Word hates me now—and the intentional abandoning of sound, we just can’t expect a conventional narrative.  What we get is a pretty wild story, about a blue-skinned alien rock band, kidnapped by an evil record producer, and brought to Earth to make him millions while doped up and disguised as humans.  As we watch the rockers rock in a hazy-eyed stupor, while topping the charts week after week, the satire about the anesthetic value of pop entertainment is not hard to spot.  I like that the villain can travel anywhere in all of outer space, yet he can think of nothing more interesting to do than kidnap musicians for his personal gain on Earth.  Again, the satire is that mass media executives have a universe of talent at their disposal, yet what they often chose to churn out is less than stellar.

“Interstella 5555” is packed with terrific images, many of them archetypal in order to avoid speaking.  The villain, with his fiendishly self-satisfied glower, long white hair, and house-sized stretch limo, is obviously the villain.  His cronies are enormous suit-clad toughs, and the long-haired, bespectacled PR guy is the epitome of flaky sycophancy.  The four members of the band itself, while not quite achieving separate personalities, are visually distinguishable, and their spaceship looks like a guitar.  The alien who comes to rescue them opens the movie with a terrific sequence in which he hungers, magically, for the woman who plays bass.  Director Kazuhisa Takenouchi handles giant, cheering crowds, dancing throngs, haunted mansions, flights through the depths of space, and desperate car chases through the countryside well, as our foursome tumbles in-and-out of danger.

Of course, the movie can be called a glorified, 68-minute music video for French electronica duo Daft Punk, and it’s more likely to appear in snippets on the wall of a dance club than in a movie theatre or on anyone’s television.  The Gap had a commercial a few years ago in which actress Juliette Lewis was dancing with two guys dressed as robots, who were dancing The Robot.  Those guys were Daft Punk.  Much, if not all, of “Interstella’s” soundtrack comes from Daft Punk’s album “Discovery,” released in 2001 and named after the cerebral spaceship in Kubrick’s “2001.”  Therein lies the key to both the movie and the music:  a fascination with a past era’s view of the future.  Nostalgia and futurism are mixed into one, in the way old Bradbury and Asimov stories are now warm and comforting, or how a lot of James Bond’s gadgetry from the 1960s is still cooler than any of his new toys.

“Interstella’s” music is thumping, hypnotic, and repetitive, and I mean that in the good, trance-inducing sort of way.  The lyrics do not comment directly on the story so much as contribute to the mood, like any other instrument.  It all sounds very modern and digital, yet it retains some of the cheesy organic quality of 1970s disco.  (For a sample, visit Virgin Records at www.virginrecords.com/daft_punk/index2.html.)  The visuals achieve this same combination, in which the alien world and haircuts look distinctly ‘70s.  Even the animation style hearkens back to the 1980s—or at least so I’ve been told by sources more knowledgeable of these things than I—which for some viewers will no doubt key up fond memories of Saturday mornings in front of the TV.

My only problem with “Interstella 5555” is the same problem I have with all anime, which is that it’s, well, anime.  Some of anime’s visual conventions just strike me as ugly and annoying as all get out.  Character movements, whether running, dancing, fighting, or playing the drums, are jerky and unnatural.  Long-haired males are indistinguishable from females; at one point, when the saving alien confronts his beloved, a friend of mine called out “they look the same!”  Women are blown out of all proportion, with too-long legs, shortened torsos, and derrieres and chests that dominate way too much visual real estate.  The band’s drummer looks and moves like a monkey, and has one of those awful anime smiles that reveals his mandibles to be comprised of only one huge tooth on top and another one on the bottom.  I could go on and on—and luckily “Interstella 5555” has no sound, or I’d go off on that as well—but there wouldn’t be much point.  Plenty of people have no problem with anime’s visual style and squealing sound effects.  I’ve even heard that some fans can be aroused by it.  The less said about that, the better.  But I have to give a shout out to all my homeys who are perplexed by anime’s appeal and who are tired of seeing its characters on so many Trapper Keepers.

Certainly if all rock bands made hour-long cartoons to go with every new album the vast majority of them would be unremarkable.  Much the same thing has happened to MTV and VH1; because major label acts are more-or-less required to put out videos for each single, there’s very little inspiration left to squeeze out of the format of four-and-a-half minutes of blue-tinted slow-motion.  But “Interstella 5555” succeeds because it does tell an interesting story, with characters for whom we may not be quite able to feel sympathy, but we are at least curious to know what happens to them next.  And Daft Punk can be pretty catchy, too.


Finished December 11th, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Friday & Saturday Night

                                                                                                   
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