Retro Review: Heavy Metal

Canada. Directed by Gerald Potteron, 1981. 90 minutes. 5/10

From the pages of Heavy Metal, the legendary comics magazine of adult fantasy and science fiction, come these tales of heroism, sensuality, violence and imagination.

An astronaut returns to his home with a gift, a green crystal sphere, for his young daughter. But he realizes, too late, that this is no mere bauble. It is the Loc-Nar, “the sum of all evils,” a powerful alien intelligence whose corrupting influence has been felt across worlds, times, and universes. It will destroy the astronaut’s daughter, it says, for she possesses a destiny of which she is yet unaware. But first, it will reveal itself, and the full extent of its powers, to her, in these tales of the death and destruction it has caused.

  • In New York, in the near future, a group of ruthless alien businessmen threaten a young woman in possession of the Loc-Nar, and a taxi driver gets more than he bargained for when he comes to her aid.
  • The Queen of Neverwhere uses it in human sacrifice rituals to commune with the great god Uhluhtc. An arrogant upstart seeks to steal it, to usurp the Queen’s power for himself. Between them stands a stranger: Den, a strapping warrior claiming to hail from a far-away land known as “Earth.”
  • A seemingly harmless bauble picked up by an apparently random passer-by, it nevertheless has the power to interfere with the fate of a roguish spaceship captain on trial for his life.
  • It appears on board a bomber plane during the darkest days of World War II, and teaches the hapless crew that some horrors are worse even than war.
  • A motley crew of aliens pick it–and a beautiful young stenographer–up when it causes an android masquerading as a government scientist to malfunction.
  • Finally, it takes a nomadic tribe under its evil influence, mutating them into warrior savages who make war against an ancient city. The city’s elders call upon the lone descendent of a noble warrior to protect them. But she arrives too late, and her quest becomes one of vengeance.

*   *   *

Most anthology films are mixed bags and the 1981 animated effort Heavy Metal is no exception. Pulpy, a bit sleazy and not particularly sophisticated, it wants to prove animation ain’t just kid’s stuff, but it doesn’t understand what “mature content” actually is. (It’s like the target audience isn’t adults but teenage boys.) It just throws a lot of gore and sex at the audience, and the end result is something like an animated exploitation flick.

It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. A couple of the segments are quite good, and even the weaker ones aren’t unwatchably bad, especially if you can keep yourself from thinking too much. But taken as a whole, it’s more than a little less than the sum of its parts.

Reviews of the individual segments, using capsule-review ratings, follow.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Soft Landing/Grimaldi

Heavy Metal kicks off with one Hell of a visual event: a Space Shuttle deploying a 1960 ‘Vette from its cargo bay, which then descends to the Earth’s surface. Then we get the whole thing with the astronaut and the little girl and the Loc-Nar.

This is the film starting as it means to go on, prepping the audience for most of the conceits that recur over the next hour and a half. The animation style is…well, there’s no way around it, pretty creaky by modern standards. If you’re familiar with Ralph Bakshi’s output of this vintage, the animation’s quality shouldn’t really surprise you. I really hope you like rotoscoping, though. On the other hand, if Don Bluth is the standard by which you judge all early-Eighties feature animation, Heavy Metal isn’t likely to impress you.

In terms of the art itself and the overall visual aesthetic, those who like genre mash-ups will find themselves drooling uncontrollably like dogs in Pavlov’s kitchen. “Soft Landing” juxtaposes the Space Shuttle (a very 1981 image) with a classic sports car, and “Grimaldi” twists it again by adding the obviously mystical Loc-Nar to the mix. Again, this is something that the film does throughout, so this is just setting the stage.

Other recurring elements that start here is the sight of a human being dissolving into goo (which declares the film’s commitment to graphic violence as well as being the signature effect of the first third or so of the film) and the use of contemporary rock (mostly hard rock and heavy metal) in the soundtrack, in the form of Jerry Riggs’s “Radar Rider.”

Harry Canyon

The first proper story is a bit of a weird one: initially continuing in the same science fiction-horror vein as “Grimaldi,” with a death scene set to Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” the genre then shifts to near-future neo-noir, with the taxi-driving title character caught between a beautiful young woman and the alien “investors” who want to buy the Loc-Nar from her.

“Harry Canyon” should work a lot better than it does, considering its refreshingly sardonic tone and beautiful design (apparently influenced by the French comics genius Jean “Mœbius” Giraud), but it comes up short. The writers don’t put much effort into the characterization. For example, the femme fatale doesn’t seem to have a name other than “Girl,” which should give you a good idea of what the film’s sexual politics are like. The world-building is similarly lazy, despite a few nice touches such as the NYPD demanding cash up-front to investigate the attack on Girl.

But the big problem here is the animation. Too many poorly-rendered scenes like the one where Harry hands Girl a beer. Also, notice how the side vents on Girl’s dress seem to appear and disappear from scene to scene. I know enough not to expect Disney quality from Heavy Metal but this is something Bakshi might turn in if he just didn’t give a shit.

Den

About a month ago a friend of mine retweeted the following:

That’s not really true, of course: only two of the stories, “Harry Canyon” and “Den,” are like that. (The two appearing right next to each other in the running order doesn’t help matters, though.) But it is indicative of something I’ve always suspected: while “Taarna” is the segment of Heavy Metal people seem to remember most clearly, “Den” sums up what the hive-mind seems to think the entire experience of watching it is like: cheap T&A and gratuitous violence.

Based on material writer/artist Richard Corben started publishing during a fad in sword-and-sorcery comics (and comix) that lasted throughout the early to mid-’70s, “Den” is essentially Conan with the nudity Marvel Comics couldn’t depict in their comic books featuring Robert E. Howard’s legendary warrior-hero. Basically, it’s a juvenile power-fantasy. A nerdy eighteen-year-old virgin on Earth, Den becomes a muscular, charismatic badass in Neverwhere. Whereas Harry Canyon’s sexual prowess was incidental, Den’s is crucial: in one scene, he literally fucks–albeit temporarily–some sense into one of the villains. No wonder he doesn’t want to go back home.

As such, “Den” feels a bit quainter and cornier than the rest of Heavy Metal, because these days audiences expect more sophistication from fantasy. (Not that fantasy always delivers.) But as a product of the age of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, it’s exactly what the mass-mind thought fantasy was like in 1981. The writers undercut this somewhat by using the same sardonic sensibility that marked “Harry Canyon,” juxtaposing cornball lines such as “Your great strength has brought peace to my restless body” with the immortal “There was no way I was gonna walk around this place with my dork hangin’ out!”

The story benefits somewhat by refusing to play the material straight. But one piece of casting pushes it a bit too far. To give the film credit, contemporary audiences might not have immediately recognized up-and-coming comic actor John Candy as the voice of Den. Modern audiences don’t have that luxury, and while Candy’s performance isn’t bad (and he probably provided the producers with exactly what they asked for), it’s too distracting. I guess, considering the number of connections that exist between Heavy Metal and Stripes, we should just be thankful Bill Murray didn’t end up in the role.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Captain Sternn

Next is a tale of Berni Wrightson’s Capt. Lincoln Sternn, standing trial for “twelve counts of murder in the first degree, fourteen counts of armed theft of Federation property, twenty-two counts of piracy in high space, eighteen counts of fraud, thirty-seven counts of rape, and one moving violation.” But he has an angle: he bribed the nebbishy Hanover Fiste to serve as character witness. Unfortunately, fate wrecks Capt. Sternn’s plans when Fiste pockets a small green marble he comes across in the corridor. Prompted by the Loc-Nar, Fiste Hulks out on the stand, accuses Sternn of “selling dope while disguised as a nun,” and proceeds to attack Sternn and the entire space station.

“Captain Sternn” is the more successful of Heavy Metal’s two attempts at outright comedy, and is easily my favorite segment of the bunch. The design matches Wrightson’s illustration style exactly and the script lifts almost all of its dialogue from the first Sternn story. The voice casting–SCTV vets Eugene Levy as Sternn and Joe Flaherty as his lawyer, along with SpongeBob’s Rodger (Squidward) Bumpass as Fiste, is dead-on.

The chase scene goes on a bit too long, and as a segment it doesn’t feel particularly substantial compared to some of the other stories (that’s why I don’t have much to say about it), but on the whole “Captain Sternn” is as good as Heavy Metal gets.

B-17

Based on an unpublished short story by Dan O’Bannon, “B-17” is Heavy Metal’s only excursion into pure horror and apparently the only segment that can’t be traced back to something that originally appeared in the magazine (the Loc-Nar comes from the Lovecrafian mythos Corben invented for the “Den” stories, while “Harry Canyon” and “Taarna” have their own influences).

It’s also another success. The grossest of the lot (not even the corpse-meltings are this disgusting), “B-17” owes an obvious debt to the horror titles of E.C. Comics, with its Loc-Nar-animated corpses attacking the flight crew of a wartime bomber plane. The art, coming in part from comics (creator of Ghost Rider) and animation (Wizards) vet Mike Ploog, is gorgeous and overall the segment is very effective.

If I have to pick a fault, though, it’s in the song used during the segment, “Heavy Metal” by Don Felder. Seriously, who commissions the ex-co-lead guitarist of the Eagles to write and perform a song called “Heavy Metal”? Come on.

So Beautiful and So Dangerous

There are times when Heavy Metal feels more like a product of the ’70s than the ’80s. Of course, most of the source material was actually published during the Me Decade, but that’s not the only reason. And no segment feels more like the ’70s than “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” which takes the designs of Angus McKie and transplants them into a story which might as well be called Cheech and Chong in Space.

It’s an unfocused, meandering affair, which starts with aliens in a smiley-face spaceship abducting a scientist and a stenographer from a government meeting about Americans mutating into green beasts (I blame the Loc-Nar), and ends with the crew, stoned to the gills on “Plutonian Nyborg” (cocaine, essentially), trying to pilot into a space station hangar (“You know your perspective’s fucked, so you just let your hands work the controls as if you were straight”) while the stenographer discusses the prospect of marriage with the ship’s robot. “I’m just scared some day I’ll come home and find you screwing the toaster.” Legit concern.

John Candy (as the robot), Eugene Levy and the late Harold Ramis (as the crew) put in fine performances, and the art and design (with McKie consulting) are breathtaking, particularly the CG-rendered spaceship, the story is just…kinda pointless, really, never seeming to go anywhere or do or say anything, as if the screenwriters were high on Plutonian Nyborg themselves. (I’ve not read the source material, but I’ve heard it described as a more philosophical affair.)

The feeling I get is that the producers felt Heavy Metal needed three things to prove to the audience that it wasn’t a kiddie cartoon: violence, sex and drugs. Other segments cover the first two (actually, “Beautiful/Dangerous” spends plenty of time objectifying the nude female form as well), but the latter needed to be represented. And thus…this.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Taarna

The cornerstone of Heavy Metal is its final segment, “Taarna.” Promotional work features the title character heavily (the most common poster art, later used on home video release covers, is Chris Achilleos’s rendition of her). Taking up the final third of the running time, it seemed to have received the most thought…and the most money. “Taarna” is the only segment that gets all the disparate elements–story, themes, character, aesthetic, and animation–right.

Cribbing heavily once again from Mœbius–this time the “Arzach” cycle–“Taarna” takes all the various elements explored in the preceding segments and blends them together to create something other than else. The result is a mystical Western with both science fiction and fantasy elements, like someone trying to describe El Topo without ever having actually seen it.

The key to the segment’s success is the title character. I’ve criticized the film’s depiction of women in earlier paragraphs, but honestly, Heavy Metal is really no more offensive than your average exploitation flick or teen sex comedy of this vintage. And Taarna certainly suffers from her fair share of objectification: she’s as top-heavy as any of the film’s other major female characters, her battle garb consists of a bikini with strapless top and thong bottom, and she spends two or three sequences completely nude.

But she also has a lot of implied depth and is fierce enough to stand toe-to-toe with any modern action heroine. She’s the film’s most fully realized woman, and considering she has absolutely no dialogue, that’s no mean feat.

Epilogue

Sadly, the film’s end, which ties “Taarna” together with the frame story, isn’t as strong as might be hoped. The connection between Grimaldi’s daughter and Taarna isn’t much of a surprise; admittedly, it’s probably not intended as one, but it’s still somewhat lame. And the links between the two segments are…maddening. Everything the film tells us indicates that “Taarna” takes place in the past, so how does Taarna’s defeat of the Loc-Nar affect the girl in the future? The assumption that the two segments take place simultaneously creates its own problems.

It doesn’t kill the whole film or the power of the “Taarna” segment, but it’s a disappointing way to resolve the strongest portion of the film.

Heavy Metal poster

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