October 11, 2010

Heavy Metal (1981)

I REMEMBER BEING twelve years old at the beach house my parents rented in the summer of ’81 and seeing a commercial on TV for an animated movie…but it sure wasn’t from Disney.

It involved a crazy blend of science fiction, fantasy worlds, and a sword-wielding woman warrior who rode atop a giant bird. It was called Heavy Metal.

Okay, I thought, I am gonna love this. I can’t wait to go see it…

Wait, what? It’s rated R? A cartoon movie? How is that possible?


Based on stories and characters from the long-running sci-fi/fantasy magazine, Heavy Metal ties together six vignettes through the presence of the Loc-Nar, “the sum of all evils” – a large, glowing green jewel that, while desired by those who seek it, destroys their lives once they possess it.

Stories include:
  • “Harry Canyon” – a noir-ish tale set in near-future New York City featuring a cabbie, a girl, gangsters, and money.
  • “Den” – a nobody nerd from Earth gets transported to another world and transformed into a strong, brave warrior.
  • “Captain Sternn” – a smug, disgraced officer, on trial for a litany of heinous crimes, thinks he’ll get off because he bribed a witness. Guess again.
  • “B-17” – a bomber plane suffers heavy damage in battle, but it gets worse when the Loc-Nar comes on board.
  • “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” – two drugged-out alien slackers and a horndog robot attack the Pentagon and abduct a cute secretary.
  • “Taarna” – a female warrior seeks revenge against a race of mutant barbarians who have slaughtered the entire population of a peaceful city.


In terms of the storytelling, Heavy Metal’s two best segments are its shortest: “Captain Sternn” and “B-17.” Watching Sternn’s paid-off witness turn wildly, violently against him is both funny and exciting, while “B-17” (written by legendary sci-fi author Dan O’Bannon) has the eerie feel of a story from the old EC Comics or Creepshow films.

The last story, “Taarna,” is probably the one most identified with the film. It’s the longest story and, probably not coincidentally, the least exciting. While it does have its moments – the bar fight between Taarna and three mutant barbarians, and her climactic clash against their leader, are both pretty bad-ass – it gets bogged down in extended scenes of Taarna flying on her giant bird, swimming nude, and slowly donning her skimpy armor (all while the people she’s setting out to protect are being killed, I might add).

In today’s age of amazing CGI animation, it’s easy to be jaded against old 2-D animation like Heavy Metal. But even for 2-D, the film’s animation quality is iffy and sub-par on several occasions, though other times it’s impressive in its style and scope.

Despite its title, Heavy Metal has a decidedly un-metal soundtrack, featuring songs by Journey, Stevie Nicks, and Devo next to Nazareth and Black Sabbath. But it’s still a great compilation, and it turned me on to the music of Sammy Hagar, Blue Oyster Cult, and Ronnie James Dio-era Sabbath.

I watched Heavy Metal countless times as a young adult. My buddies and I, during my college-age years, would pop it in the VCR while downing a few brews, enjoying it in a group environment. And surely, I had a better time watching Heavy Metal with my friends when I was 20 and rocking a good buzz, rather than the way I watched it for this review: alone in my living room, in my early 40s, sober, while my family was asleep.

Despite generous amounts of science fiction, horror, boobs, gore, and more boobs, Heavy Metal is uneven in its storytelling and animation quality. But if you’re a guy, it’ll appeal to your inner 14-year-old, and it’s worth seeing at least once. (Avoid the awful sequel Heavy Metal 2000.)

Jeff over at Dinner with Max Jenke summed up Heavy Metal almost perfectly in his comment on my teaser post for this review: Heavy Metal doesn’t hold up very well, but to boys (now men) of my generation, it will always have a special place in our hearts.

* Heavy Metal co-screenwriter Len Blum also wrote Howard Stern’s biopic Private Parts.
* The boys at South Park do an awesome send-up of Heavy Metal in the episode, “Major Boobage.” Check it out here.
* For the last couple of years, there’s been rumblings of a new Heavy Metal film being developed, featuring segments by A-list directors such as David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Zack Snyder, and Gore Verbinski. Here’s hoping…

Is it suitable for your kids?
Negatory. Despite being an animated feature, Heavy Metal includes gobs of nudity, sexual situations, graphic violence, drug use, and profanity. (The irony here is that Heavy Metal is rated R, but middle-school boys are its target audience.)

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Since the whole Heavy Metal universe revolves around male adolescent fantasy, I’m guessing no…unless she’s big into sci-fi/fantasy adventures.

Um...was it something I ogled?

Heavy Metal
* Director: Gerald Potterton
* Screenwriters: Dan Goldberg, Len Blum
* Stars: John Candy, Rodger Bumpass, Richard Romanus, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy
* MPAA Rating: R

Buy Heavy Metal from Half.com >>
Rent Heavy Metal from Netflix >>


Retro Hound said...

Amazingly, I've never seen this. My friend had the album though and I taped it. Listened to it often in the car, cruising around. I too always wondered why it wasn't all heavy metal.

Kal said...

The first time I saw it was at a midnight showing and I was as much excited about being out that late as I was about the film itself. R-rated? No worries. If you were out that late then you had de facto permission from you parents to see this show was the thinking of the theatre

Your friend was right, this does have a special place in the hearts of all boys of that age who saw it. It really has something for everyone and boobs. Personally I like the Harry Canyon stuff the best.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

My jaw was on the floor when I first saw this flick. It totally appealed to the 13 year old in me.

I got to see it on the big screen about 10 years ago during a re-release. I don't think I'd like it if I first saw it now, but it'll always hold a special place in my heart.

And the South Park send up was downright perfect.

Jeff Allard said...

I remember when this was being re-released on VHS after being OOP for ages. I was so stoked, having not watched HM since its many airing on HBO in the early '80s. When that new edition came out, I picked it up on its release day and immediately headed home to watch it. All I can say is that was definitely one of the most sobering viewing experiences of my life! I'll always love HM for what it meant to me as a kid but sadly it's one of those movies that didn't age well at all. Still, your review's got me wanting to watch it again, even though I know how flawed it is!

Keith Wilcox said...

funny you should mention this movie. I just rented it a few months ago for the first time. Don't know what possessed me to do it, but it was okay. Worth the rent, but I agree with you -- it's definitely a niche movie.

StuartOhQueue said...

I have so many fond memories of this movie from my childhood. Unlike Dash, I didn't happen to have cinephiles for parents and thus was able to rent just about anything I wanted so long as it was animated. "Guyver," "Akira," and the "Street Fighter" animated film were some of my favorite ways to pull one over on my mother and father.

Jay Amabile said...

I'm ASHAMED to say that I've only seen the sequel. I know. I know. I've always wanted to see this so I'll make it a point.

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