Heavy Metal 1981
You may remember that one friend you had when you were younger, you know the one who had the hidden stash of Playboys and knew how to get alcohol and cigarettes. Or the one who had the cool dad who let him and his friends watch whatever they wanted from their VHS library or have the run of the TV which also happened to have HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax. Or maybe you were that kid and your friends would come over to your house. I don’t remember those friends very clearly anymore, but I do remember visiting one of those friends when I was somewhere around early middle school, maybe 5th grade and we watched Heavy Metal because we weren’t supposed to be watching it. I remember when I was younger I had a love of darker animation like Secret of N.I.H.M, the Last Unicorn, and The Mouse and his Child, but the days where I would discover Liquid Television, Vampire Hunter D, and Akira were still several years away, though Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards was also right around this time even if I don’t remember if it came first or not. So this was unlike anything I had ever seen before and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Over twenty years later I’ve finally gotten around to revisiting it and unfortunately it’s not everything that I remember back when I was 12 or so.
Heavy Metal has an interesting history, it started out as a long running magazine that was owned by the same company that published National Lampoon. Yes, it’s a magazine and not a comic, but each issue would have written stories, illustrations, as well as comics. And this was all before it was turned into this animated film produced by Ivan Reitman with a cast composed of many members of Second City including John Candy who does several voices including the main character in one of the segments. A sequel was bandied about for many years until one was finally made 19 years later in 2000, and another sequel has been in the works for many years with big names behind it like David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, and Robert Rodriguez though it appears to still be in the development stages. The actual film itself is reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped style for several of the segments as well as plenty of adult content. This film was rated R for many very good reasons. It also had an impressive soundtrack for the time which contributed to its lack of a home video release for many years.
Since this was an anthology film, the writing was the most notably weak aspect of the movie and does not hold up twenty years later, which wasn’t helped by the anthology nature. In its brief hour and a half run time it has a full seven segments plus a wrap-around story, which means that most of the segments were either shorter tone pieces that worked, or longer segments that tried to tell a story but had to be cut short and felt incomplete. Most of the segments had at least some redeeming quality, but most were marred by simplistic writing and juvenile depictions of women. Most of the women in this film have larger than D-cup breasts and almost all of them are depicted as sex objects at least one point in time. There’s only two women that don’t fully fall into that trap, the young girl in the wrap-around story and the warrior woman in the final segment Taarna, and neither one of those women have any spoken lines, though Taarna spends a portion of her scenes naked. It is a bit of a nice touch that neither Taarna or the girl in the wrap around segment speak, since it adds that extra connection however minor that allows that girl to become the next in this line of warrior women.
Even though most anthologies tell separate tales, they are usually connected through certain story elements and usually have a similar tone that helps flow from one story to another. Heavy Metal varied wildly from story to story where the only connective tissue was this green orb that was narrating the whole story from the wrap around. One segment is a sloppy film noir homage with bits of humor and sex thrown around, another is more of a Conan style fantasy set in space and narrated by John Candy, another is more like an episode of Tales From the Crypt with all the gore and none of the comedy, and yet another is a straight up stoner sex comedy with aliens. There were plenty of stories in the magazine to choose from, it shouldn’t have been that hard to find a half dozen that had similar themes or at least tones.
For as many flaws as this film has, there are some bright spots here and there. The B-17 short was the one with a very macabre Tales From the Crypt feel to it. It was one of the shortest, but it did have some great visuals. Captain Sternn was also a fun little short with a character that looked like a stereotypical space hero or even a bit of Shazam mixed in only he was the complete opposite of what he looked like. He was a scheming criminal on trial for a number of crimes, including a moving violation, and the voice of the prosecutor was the great John Vernon better known as the principal in Animal House. It had a lot of humor in it, it was probably one of the best animated segments outside of Taarna, and it had a nice twist ending. It’s a shame that Taarna was one of the low points in the film as it had such potential and ambition. There were a small handful of creative visual techniques like a great match cut between a young boy who has just been impaled by multiple spears and a high tech piece of landscape with pipes in place of the spears. The biggest issue with it was the pacing was way too slow, especially a long tracking shot over a rotoscoped desert background that did not look very impressive as the colors would shift every frame which gave it a very jerky and cheap feel. In the end, the film was just a bit of a mess all around, some segments were good, some were ok, some were bad, but they all had good moments within them. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.