Image: Festival

The world is ending. Humans no longer have the capacity to reproduce. For the answers, they’ll send people below the surface of the Earth, where the clones humans used and discarded thousands of years ago have taken up residence.

[Click here to see io9's statement on this year’s Fantastic Fest.]

It’s a premise that screams big budget Hollywood blockbuster. But Junk Head is not that. It’s a Japanese stop-motion animated film largely made by first-time filmmaker Takahide Hori. And it’s magnificent, mostly because it takes that blockbuster premise and twists it in so many weird, wonderful ways, you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen.

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The first example of this is almost immediate. Text on the screen sets up the plot and we see something dropped into the Earth. As it’s dropping, it meets an unfortunate fate and immediately, expectations have been shattered. The pattern continues throughout.

All that remains of this being sent into the Earth is their disembodied head, which becomes the star of the story. That story is part fish-out-of-water tale, part religious allegory, and part random tangents, all of which add up to a fairly sizable adventure. As the head encounters new creatures or things, there are dire consequences, and it’s forced to change into new forms. Then those forms are sent off on seemingly meaningless tasks. These feel completely tangential to the main plot but, obviously, that’s by design. Even if there is this pressure about the end of the world on the surface, Hori’s subterranean setting is way more interesting, So the film takes a sharp turn turn and explores all these fascinating nooks and crannies in a vast, dark world.

Visually, Hori’s underground world is partially limited by his medium, as most of the larger sets feel very basic or industrial. But the characters that inhabit it are far from basic. They’re ripped from references ranging from Monsters, Inc. and Pan’s Labyrinth, to Alien and Apple. As the head continues to explore new situations and different levels of this world, eventually the world emerges as the star. It’s less about what the head is going through than the stuff around it. Every creature, person and thing feels like it has a huge backstory, but Hori never forces any of that down our throats. There are some clues dropped here and there, but really, the feeling becomes that the ride is more important than the destination.

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That is until Junk Head gets to its destination, and Hori rewards us with a finale action set piece that is, frankly, unfathomable. Using stop-motion animation, he’s crafted an absolutely awesome action sequence. Like the Matrix with monsters. It’s a sequence that’s not only exciting, but filled with thematic material to chew on.

And as the film winds down to its conclusion, that thematic material is what ultimately rises to the top. Junk Head is a film that shows us so many new things. It features so many encounters and possibilites to ponder that, at the end, I sat dumbfounding at the amount of information I’d processed on each and every level. I too felt like I had a subterranean core, one filled with new possibilities and problems. Junk Head is a movie that really digs in deep.