Synopsis: Based on the fantastical illustrated magazine Heavy Metal, producer Ivan Reitman enlists the world’s greatest comic book artists to create the otherworldly tale of a glowing green orb from outer space that spreads destruction throughout the galaxy. Only when encountered by its one true enemy – to whom it is inexplicably drawn – will goodness prevail throughout the universe.
Lavishly drawn, the vignettes of the orb’s dark victories include the character voices of John Candy and Harold Ramis plus a pounding soundtrack by Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, Donald Fagen, Don Felder, Grand Funk Railroad, Sammy Hagar, Journey, Nazareth, Stevie Nicks, Riggs, and Trust. Highly imaginative and full of suprising special contemporary animation. An intoxicating experience not to be missed.
Heavy Metal 5.5
eyelights: the score. the character and set designs. the rotoscoping.
eyesores: the animation. the juvenile script. the slipshod connecting threads.
I remember when I first got into animated films. I liked cartoons as a kid, but as a teenager I was interested in more serious animation, including ‘Fantasia’. At the time, there were very few mature animated motion pictures available, so we turned to anime, including ‘Akira‘ and the like. But there was also ‘Fritz the Cat’ and ‘Heavy Metal’.
Despite seeing it two or three times over the years, I’ve always retained mixed feelings about ‘Heavy Metal’. Even before watching it this time around, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason(s) why. I had a hesitant appreciation of it and couldn’t figure out quite why.
I remember now: ‘Heavy Metal’ features relatively poor animation of the kind you might find on television, it appears to have been written by inexperienced teenage boys, and the hard rock soundtrack is dated to the extreme (and is ill-suited to the movie). To sum it up, it’s what you might expect hard-rockin’ airheads from the ’80s to come up with.
It’ s based on the Heavy Metal comic book that was then published for more mature audiences. What the filmmakers did was to adapt some of the stories for the film and also included new ones that were inspired by the style of the magazine. It turned the film into a sci-fi/fantasy anthology with a loose recurring thread to keep the piece together.
That is the most interesting aspect of the film. While each segment has its strengths and (largely) weaknesses, the concept is what makes the film appealing: sci-fi/fantasy buffs would naturally love to be treated to a variety of stories like that – especially if it means that none of them overstay their welcome. You can enjoy your favourites fully, and quickly forget the lame ducks:
1. Soft Landing: A very cool bit of animation about an astronaut launching back to earth in a Corvette. It seems vaguely similar to something MTV did. Or did they? Anyway, I love the style of this short intro. 7.5
2. Grimaldi: This follows the opening bit, in that the astronaut goes home and opens a carrying case that holds something called the Loc-Nar, which he found in space. It immediately disintegrates him, and then proceeds to terrorize his young daughter. This was meant to tie in all the vignettes, because this evil from outer space shows up in each one, but it just doesn’t work. And not only does it feel forced, but the rationale of this purported “sum of all evil” is completely lost: at first it told the girl that it would tell her a few tales before destroying her kind, and it eventually ended up telling her to escape right before blowing up the house that they were in. WTF. It was pure schlock. 3.5
3. Harry Canyon: The concept behind this one was decent enough – a taxi driver inadvertently ends up in the middle of a criminal transaction for the Loc-Nar when a mysterious woman escapes into his cab. It could have been an excellent piece, but it was written too broadly to sustain the mystery and too immature to be appealing. Also unfortunate is that the character designs and the overall look of the short are nice but it’s all marred by amateur-hour animation that might -at best- have been okay on television at the time. 6.5
4. Den: This is the segment I remember most when I think of ‘Heavy Metal’, because it was so adolescent – even the ending, which shows the hero shirking his responsibilities for the sake of pleasure. Basically, it’s about a teenager who is transported to another world by the Loc-Nar and is transformed into a muscle-bound hero. Obviously there is a naked damsel in distress and he saves her. He gets laid. Then they are captured and he is forced to infiltrate the Queen’s castle. He gets laid. Then he saves the day. No doubt he will get laid. It’s all wish-fulfilment stuff and it’s poorly-conceived. Here the character designs and animation are no better than your usual He-Man episode. 4.0
5. Captain Sternn: This one was included for larfs and it actually is silly enough to elicit chuckles. Our title character is a villain who is on trial for all his misdeeds, but he bribes a witness to speak in his favour. The problem is that the Loc-Nar confuses things and all hell breaks loose. Again, amusing, but nothing substantive. What’s worse is the lack of attention to detail in the animation: at one point, the villain is counting money, and you can see that the count is off. Of course, this was never meant to be taken seriously, but still… 6.5
6. B-17: The look of this piece is quite nice, but it doesn’t have much else going for it. It’s about a WWII bomber returning from a bombing run with most of its complement dead. The Loc-Nar, for whatever reason, follows it and animates the crew so that the pilot and co-pilot have to contend with being trapped at high altitude with zombies. I guess the advantage of this bit is that it’s not set in the future or in a fantasy world, unlike most of the others, but it doesn’t at all sustain the suspense required for this story to be effective. 6.0
7. So Beautiful and So Dangerous: While this one was meant to be funny, it’s just too moronic for me. Honestly, the only way one could appreciate this segment is by being stoned – and, case-in-point, one of the big gags is the sight of the pilots snorting massive amounts of what looks like cocaine. Sober, however, this ridiculous affair doesn’t make any sense whatsoever: for unknown reasons, a scientist who is advising the US administration about an outbreak turns out to be a robot, which is abducted just as they are trying to solve the problem. Along for the ride is a buxom woman who ends up sleeping with a robot, before the afore-mentioned stoned pilots crash their craft into a space station. Um… really? Whatev. I love their smiley face ship, though. 5.0
8. Taarna: Finally, there is the piece I never remember, because there’s so much to forget. The Loc-Nar transforms a tribe into blood-thirsty savages that destroy everything in their path. A lone warrior, a woman who is the last of her race, is summoned to fight off these invaders. She gets her @$$ handed to her, gets whipped and even sliced but manages to escape with the help of her faithful steed and destroys the Loc-Nar. Which makes one wonder what happened in the ‘Grimald’ segment, since the Loc-Nar is clearly recounting to the girl events that have already happened. Anyway, the animation is again of He-Man calibre but what I liked is that there were moments when the movement of the heroine was pretty good – thanks to the use of rotoscoping. Furthermore, they took their sweet time to set things up at first. That’s good. It doesn’t justify or explain any of the nonsense (ex: the steed flying with gouged out wings), but who cares at this point? 6.5
There was an overlapping narration that is a useful tool for connecting the segments. It introduces some stories, provides background and sometimes closure. Unfortunately, it also had a pomposity to it that became rather ridiculous – especially at the end, when it tried to explain how grandiose the outcome was, how much hope this meant for the universe. Pfffft!
If there was one thing worth noting, it was Elmer Bernstein’s score. I had no recollection of it, but this time I was impressed by just how much his compositions elevated the film. Frankly without the epic quality he added to the action sequences, the comedic elements that he threw into the lighter bits and the overall quality of the recording, ‘Heavy Metal’ would have been a rather slight offering. It’s not a landmark, quite like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ or ‘Star Wars’, but the score to ‘Heavy Metal’ is a surprisingly respectable one. I would buy a copy.
But, beyond that, there isn’t all that much to recommend ‘Heavy Metal’ to fans of cinema or sci-fi/fantasy. Animation buffs might want to see it based on its reputation alone, but they will no doubt spend most of their time picking it apart. Otherwise, I could only recommend this to teenage stoners who wants to watch something mindless and get a few kicks or laughs along the way. This iteration of ‘Heavy Metal’ just doesn’t deserve a more discerning audience than this. It`s too bad, too, because the concept has potential.
Date of viewing: January 3, 2012