Sword and Sorcery meets Science Fiction meets Playboy. Rejoice Earthlings!
Based upon the cult French SF/Fantasy magazine, Metal Hurlant, which boasted the enormous talents of the late great Jean “Moebius” Girard, Columbia’s ambitious 1981 animated fantasy anthology takes us on several very eventful rides. We meet a laconic cabbie, Harry Canyon, in a sleazy future New York in which he gets to play noir detective when he stops to help a mysterious girl from vicious gangsters. We journey to an alternative world in which a nerdy teenager is transformed into a muscle-bound barbarian sex-god in Den, and bear witness to a comedic travesty of galactic justice in Captain Sternn. We board a doomed bomber stricken with the living dead in B-17, and roar off on a cosmic “trip” with randy robots and coke-snorting aliens in So Beautiful And So Dangerous. And then we venture across a fantastical realm in the company of a warrior-goddess who, alone, can thwart the despicable mutant warlord who has laid waste to the land in the epic Taarna. All of this is wrapped around the connective tissue-tale of the fiendish Loc-Nar, a trans-dimensional green orb that proclaims itself to be the essence of pure evil in the linking set-up of Grimaldi.
Confused? It matters not. This is a wild and wacky free-fall into the bizarre, the sexy, the frightening, the hyper-violent, and the simply addictive world of acid-dropped science-fiction, culled from those imaginative Gallic pages and infused with American excess and the youthful exuberance of renegade filmmakers who didn’t adhere to any boundaries.
Heavy Metal (which is a translation of Metal Hurlant) was something of a last-gasp celebration of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, liberally bedecked with alien carnage and teenage wish-fulfilment before Reaganomics smothered such freewheeling creativity and channelled Hollywood into the more conventional patriotic testosterone served up by the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. The seventies had been all about conspiracies and paranoia; social discontent and right-wing vigilantism painting a terrifying landscape without any rays of hope or the faintest glimmer of a happy ending. Escapism was found in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, though even much of this, Star Wars exempted of course, was built around the concepts of bleak and corrupted futures (Soylent Green, Logan’s Run) and misled and exploited societies (Death Race 2000, Rollerball). Perhaps the SF movie that most bravely attempted to mix ideas and metaphors with the true wonder and awe that was the eternal promise of far-flung futures and outer space was Disney’s The Black Hole, which was dark and techno, heroic and psychotic, ominous and spiritual all at the same time.
But there had been nothing quite like Heavy Metal, that’s for sure … and, if anything, the film was responsible for opening up minds that wouldn’t normally have bothered with a Sci-Fi flick, let alone an animated one, to the plentiful possibilities that the genre had to offer.
In part a Cheech and Chong-ish recognition of the anarchic anti-establishment, and in another a bold exploration of over-the-top visuals and themes, Ivan Reitman’s audacious animated genre catalyst was the late-night hallucinogenic trip for the generation that missed out on the doped-up psychedelic potential of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film played for years at cinemas, becoming a cult favourite not only amongst potheads but also among film-makers and animators, who were heartily influenced by its various styles, its symbolism and its eye-popping excesses. Tendrils of Heavy Metal have wormed their way into Blade Runner, The Thing, Gremlins, Robocop, Repo Man, the Star Wars prequels and, especially, The Fifth Element, amongst many others.
The irreverence of the stories and the occasionally slapstick nature of the animation ran completely counter-culture to Disney’s family-spun ethics and, in the wake of Ralph Bakshi’s controversial adult-oriented fare of Fritz The Cat, Wizards and The Lord of the Rings, provided the cheeky, titillating and thought-provoking antidote to all those cutesy-wootsy talking animals. In some ways, it was this exciting and mature blend of conventional genre tropes (aliens, mystic evil and dunderheaded heroism) with sex, drugs and violence that would open the door to more enigmatic and darker animation fare for younger audiences too. Without the groundswell created by Heavy Metal it is doubtful that we would have had Don Bluth’s The Secret of N.I.M.H, Martin Rosen’s The Plague Dogs, Disney’s eerie and horribly overlooked The Black Cauldron, or even the likes of the Conan-flavoured TV cartoonsHe-Man and the Masters of the Universe andThundercats. The film’s debut coincided with the unveiling of MTV, an event that Reitman’s pop-cultural, rock-flavoured fantasy-opera seemed tailor-made for.
With National Lampoon’s Animal House to his credit, Ivan Reitman already had a solid reputation with the youth culture and this meant that he had the clout to approach prospective collaborators with freakish ideas for projects. His own comedic bent would see to it that Stripes and Ghostbusters achieved great popularity, but it would also serve to provide Heavy Metal with a distinctly oddball tone of high-brow SF with its trousers down around its ankles. With a team of writers that included Bernie Wrightson, Dan O’ Bannon, Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, finding inspiration from the pages of the magazine, Reitman gathered up a host of artists and animators who would work under the overall auspices of director Gerald Potterton, who had worked on Yellow Submarine and Animal Farm. They didn’t set out to change the world, just to give it a glimpse of a universe it hadn’t experienced before.
Whilst noir and nightmare furnish the atmosphere of HarryCanyon and B-17, we have simple flunky heroism in the brilliant champion-satire of Den. With John Candy brought over from the set of Stripes during the evenings to voice both incarnations of the science-geek Dan, and his beef-cake alter-ego, Den, and much sex and bloodshed punctuating the dislocated teen’s thrilling adventures on a strange planet of mutants, nympho-babes and giant bees, the funked-up, semi-comedic riff on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is a hugely enjoyable adaptation of Richard Corben’s celebrated original 12-part serialised comic-strip in the magazine. The fact that the steroid-packed Den still has the mind of the wimpy teen that he was back on Earth is a great device that enables massive empathy with such a ridiculous conceit. The newfound Adonis is given a quest, he saves the same girl not once, but twice, and he gets to stay in his new body to enjoy a life of wondrous adventure and great sex. What teenage boy could dream of more?
Berni Wrightson’s offering, Captain Sternn, was a violently amusing sideways slant, showcasing a bizarre space trial that ends-up being a bludgeoning tour de force of subverted Dan Dare heroics when the titular captain, a dastardly felon judging by the charges read aloud by John Vernon’s prosecutor, is pursued by a Loc-Nar mutated hulk-thug.
The Grand Guignol of the EC Comics brings gruesome relish to the Twilight Zone-ish story, B-17, in which the Loc-Nar infiltrates a doomed American bomber during the Second World War. With most of its crew shot to ribbons and lying in pools of blood, the co-pilot ventures back into the craft to find survivors. The green evil of the celestial nasty then brings the dead back to life and they go on the rampage. The story was actually conceived by the great Dan O’ Bannon and clearly arises from his more famous “crew-in-jeopardy-whilst-in-flight” sagas of Dark Star and Alien. Originally, it was supposed to have been gremlins causing the havoc onboard, but this was changed to zombies to provide a more grisly and unsettling mood.
Total warp-out craziness is the order of the day when a vast alien vessel hovers over the top of the White House in that time-honoured fashion in So Beautiful and So Dangerous, but the cliché is incontrovertibly spun on its head when a mutating scientist and the curvy, stocking-and-suspenders clad lady reporter are then sucked up into the ship and whisked off on an interstellar voyage of absolute absurdity. This sequence reminds me of the set-piece lunacy of Monty Python and, in fact, the Pythons, themselves, performed a very similar sort of riff on the unexpected space journey in 1979’s Life of Brian, revealing a certain symbiosis in the love for abject irreverence. The coke-addled pilots of this galactic smilie-face then crash the ship into a vast floating city, the whole scenario simply an excuse to indulge in mecha-love and the euphoria of a space-born high. It is interesting to note that some of the huge spaceship interiors that the two human characters are swept through, via a twisting, turning tube, resemble the immense Krell machinery seen in the classic Forbidden Planet.
The creative team all freely admit that all they wanted to draw and animate was aliens, robots and sexy women … and that is probably in reverse-order. The women are unfeasibly voluptuous, with their breasts great globes of jutting joy, tipped with nipples that you could hang from to perform chin-ups, long Amazonian legs and bums possessed of so beguiling a sashay that you can get seasick just watching them. Critics quite justifiably levelled complaints at the film’s rather overt use of sexuality being aimed at a male teenage market. You wouldn’t, however, have found many male teenagers complaining, though. 48 Double D is the order of the day in the Heavy Metal universe, and most of the ladies are pure sluts, even those who happen to hail from the scientific expedition in Gibraltar as the bulging Den finds out.
Alongside the sauce is the liberating welter of unsanitised gore. Heads are lopped-off, people are messily evaporated, the undead grasp for the flesh of the living, and various characters are devoured, disembowelled or sliced ‘n’ diced. But the violence of Heavy Metal is purely cartoonic and more avant-garde than simply gruesome. I like the shot of a corpse with the still-smoking hole from a laser-bolt in the head, though, and a double decapitation is admittedly awesome to behold.
The most epic story is that of Taarna. This final chapter is an utter delight that tells a Spaghetti Western type story of the one solitary but committed mercenary out to put an end to injustice, but with a pneumatic, sword-swinging heroine in place of Clint’s enigmatic Man With No Name. Once she has teasingly strapped on what little costume she wears (in a neat reverse of Barbarella’s infamous stripping session), and took up arms, she becomes the fantastical avenger, seated atop a squawking mutated pterodactyl-like bird, who flies, strides and rides across the alien territories, mercilessly slaying enemies with samurai grace and precision. If Den was a depiction of wanton macho fantasy, then it is certainly conceivable that Taarna is the female equivalent … although it is difficult to imagine anyone having more admiration for this silver-haired warrior-temptress other than red-blooded blokes, who would surely not mind a woman coming to their rescue … if that woman was the epically arousing Taarna.
The visual breadth of this tale is huge. It combines yawning deserts with towering edifices of rock and steel, Babylonian provinces with laser-rifles, alien cowboys with rock bands, one gorgeous girl with the green might of a Loch-Nar volcano.
Sadly, the narrative flow of some of these stories is not as good as their visual flair and sheer breadth of imagination that has gone into their creation. Although Taarna is the longest tale, dominating the final third of the film, it is also the one that could, ironically, done with being a little bit longer. We have lots of fawning footage with the warrior-woman as she ritualistically prepares to undertake her mission, and then some nice Sergio Leone-esque moments in an alien saloon that could have tumbled from the pages of 2000 AD, but there isn’t enough time spent with her full-on confrontation with the fiendish enemy warlord. She is captured very swiftly, humiliated and whipped and then cast-aside. Then she escapes and is pursued and shot down from the skies … and then she faces her final duel. It is all brilliantly done and richly cathartic, but there is the nagging impression that something is missing, something to provide some meat and meaning to it all. The story is that good and so epic in scope that more is needed to flesh it out. If the mutant army is so much in awe and hatred of this notorious warrior from this secret sect of galactic protectors, why do they merely fling her into a weird chasm-dungeon, cackle at her for a moment and then throw down her armour to her, and simply walk away? In a film where little actually makes sense, it seems a bit churlish to pick up on an element such as this, but the point is that the story is actually very effective and grand in scale, and it just feels, to me at least, to be let down by an unbalanced narrative.
The umbilical thread that links all these disparate stories is neat, though not great. The Loch-Nar is brought to Earth by the returning, Chevy-“flying” astronaut, who foolishly shows this dangerous treasure to his young daughter, and gets himself ickily dissolved in the process. Each tale that we see is actually revealed to the trapped girl by the glowing Loch-Nar who is, apparently, attempting to exclaim its all-consuming power and capacity for devout evil. Yet, these stories often result in the ruination of its own nasty purposes, and the death and destruction of those who serve it. Thus, it is almost as though the glowing green orb has selected the wrong tracks from its infernal playlist with which to intimidate the girl. As a result, the overarching story shouldn’t work. And yet, oddly enough, these little vignettes of the imprisoned innocent are still provocative and menacing, and the film arrives at conveniently neat conclusion that has the air of a “Phew, thank God that worked!” conclusion that seems both poetic and slightly rushed.
Although the original wrap-around device was altered from a fantastical merry-go-round that depicted the various stories to the little daughter of the returning astronaut from the shuttle to the sinister Loc-Nar homecoming that we see now, one entire sequence was removed from the film altogether. Whilst we can see both of these deleted elements elsewhere on the disc, it is worth mentioning that Cornelius Cole’s lost scene looked tremendous and would certainly have added a sweeping and sobering ingredient to this already over-flowing cooking-pot of ideas. This would have told of how the malevolent Loch-Nar first came to Earth and began to create mayhem and bloody mischief throughout history, from prehistoric barbarity to Jack the Ripper to Hitler. It would have sinuously connected two of the stories together, the amusing rampage of Captain Sternn and the horror-show of B-17. However, I can agree that it would have changed the tone of the film, and possibly slowed its effervescent flow down a little too much.
With different writers and directors taking on the anthology’s individual segments, there was also an astounding mixture of styles that was crafted to inform the diverse visual appearance of the various stories. Multi-plane cameras were used for depth and dimensionality. Rotoscoping techniques and live-action footage were brought in to provide life for the various characters, most notably the glamorous uber-vixen, Taarna, whose body was traced around and movements moulded on model Carole Desbiens, and the depiction of an alien rock group in the saloon was actually essayed in the flesh by Devo. Large miniatures were also mapped with grids of lines, traced-over and filmed in negative to provide a properly drawn feel, such as the bullet-riddled B-17 bomber, and the landscape that Tarrna flies over. Real objects were cut ‘n’ pasted into the footage and animated around, such as the Corvette that drops to Earth from an orbiting space shuttle at the start, in the brief, but MTV-like Soft Landing. Dyes mixed into liquid formed exquisitely organic backdrops, like fluid matte-paintings. Model buildings were blown-up and their shrapnel-spinning explosions grafted into the animation. The results are often surreal, sometimes striking, but always sublime.
The film was denied an official release on home-video for many years (not until 1996, in fact) due the complicated licensing tribulations that engulfed the many fabulous rock tracks that had, in some cases, even been written specially for the film. Groups such as Devo, Black Sabbath, Rush, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult and Stevie Nicks supplied surprisingly appropriate songs for the various adventures, really aiding the sense of chaos and madness that the film strove for. But, for me, the icing on the cake, is Elmer Bernstein’s incredible score. I have already reviewed his terrific music for Heavy Metal with coverage of its complete CD release from FSM, but it is only fitting that we mention his development of themes and motifs that span back to The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, To Kill A Mockingbird and True Grit, and take in such trademark stylings as found in Saturn 3, Zulu Dawn and Big Jake. After working with Reitman on Meatballs and Animal House, the producer thought immediately of going to Bernstein to add further colour to his extravaganza. Bernstein was more than happy to oblige. His use of the ondes Martinot, an instrument that creates eerie, glistening and otherworldly sounds like those of the Theremin, was a signature of much of his work during this period, and he uses it to lace the Lock-Nar with a fittingly alien and creepy cadence. His awesomely beatific theme for Tarrna was actually an unused concept for a love-theme held over from the much-maligned, yet really enjoyable Saturn 3. Here it becomes a sweetly magnificent anthem that works as an orchestral retaliation to the many rock tracks. Listen out for the particularly effective use of the “Dies Irae” theme during the Tarrna chapter, too. The combination of symphonic material from Bernstein and thrashing metal from the various bands doesn’t clash anywhere near as much as you might think. The two ideals weave through the stories adroitly, providing a soundtrack that is as eclectic and as unpredictable as the animation and the characters concocted by it.
Viewed nowadays by fresh eyes, Heavy Metal probably seems quaint and all rather primitive. But there is so much innovation and passion thrown at the screen by animators who were working in little teams all over the world, and usually around the clock, that the film becomes an energetic tribute to unbridled imagination and creative vitality. What it lacks in depth or emotion is more than made up for with a no-holds-barred desire to entertain and to hurl dazzling and jaw-dropping imagery at a grinning audience. As such, it is testament to how fondly it is thought of and how influential it was to a genre that when a follow-up was first mooted, animators, writers and artists begged to be involved with the project. The sequel, Heavy Metal 2000 was, perhaps, more polished and accomplished, but it lost some of the sheer on-the-edge quality of its predecessor two decades before. It wasn’t entirely the fault of the production, of course. Audiences, themselves, had changed a lot over the intervening years. Anarchic shows, including animation, had become ten-a-penny. CG trickery was renovating the entire concept of movie-making and movie-expectation. And Sci-Fi/Fantasy was being taken in entirely new directions by the likes of The Phantom Menace, The Matrix and, very swiftly, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and by Harry Potter. The first flamboyant outing had the benefit of being groundbreaking and controversial, agreeably helter-skelter in terms of different stories, and uniquely animated. The second was a combination of poor CG and bland traditional animation, and it elected to tell one long story that lacked the punch and originality and wildcard nature of the anthology template.
The original film remains a fascinating and strangely sophisticated, extremely witty rock-fantasia that breaks a few rules and concocts a heady brew that was just ahead of the curve.
“A shadow shall fall over the universe, and evil will grow in its path … and death will come from the skies.”
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