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the agony booth

Heavy Metal
1981
Posted on: Aug 17, 2009.
Heavy Metal (1981)
Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
The Cast of Characters:
Harry Canyon (Richard Romanus). Cab driver in a grungy future New York City. Just think every film noir anti-hero cliché, and you’ll get the idea.
Den (John Candy). Teenage nerd turned muscular nude hero. Just think every Conan rip-off fantasy hero cliché, and you’ll get the idea.
Captain Sternn (Eugene Levy). Smug jackass guilty of everything in the book. Just think every jerkass sci-fi captain cliché, and you’ll get the idea.
The Pilot (George Touliatos). War plane pilot who has to deal with a bunch of zombies. I’d continue the joke, but he’s really not enough of a character to even bother.
Gloria (Alice Playten). Walking pair of breasts with questionable taste in jewelry. Just think every dim bulb secretary cliché, and you’ll get the idea.
Taarna. Revenge-seeking warrior, with boobs! Just think every strong, silent fantasy hero cliché, and you’ll get the idea. Plus, boobs!
The Loc-Nar (Percy Rodriguez). The source of all evil in the universe, or so it likes to brag. In reality, just a pathetic excuse to tie a bunch of lame stories together.
The article continues after this advertisement...

Ever since I became a more knowledgeable movie fan, one thing that’s become a particular irritation of mine is the attitude towards animated films in America. It seems that most people can’t get it into their heads that animation is an entire art form, just like novels, comic books, or live action work. There’s nothing preventing an animated film from telling a mature, deep, and meaningful story that appeals to adults. Instead, filmmakers continue to think of animation as only fit for children.

Now, there are quite a few good American animated films out there, most notably the ever-popular output of Pixar Studios. However, even those movies still stick to primarily appealing to children. Is it really too much to ask to get an animated film aimed purely at adults that doesn’t come from Japan?

Apparently so, because when an attempt at doing exactly that happened in 1981 with Heavy Metal, the results were, well, horrifying. A nonstop orgy of boobs, gore, and boobs that utterly wastes a great cast and the occasional good idea, there’s pretty much nothing to recommend about this film. The eight stories it tells are not so much bad as they are levels of Hell. It’s really frustrating that a genuine attempt at non-kiddie fare animation turned out like this, because it ended up being the most we could expect from the genre ever since without going outside the country.

The film has its roots in a French magazine called Metal Hurlant, or “screaming metal”. Launched in 1974, it was an anthology book featuring the work of comics artists from around the world, emphasizing surreal science fiction stories along with a healthy dose of erotica as well. In 1977, National Lampoon publisher Leonard Mogel discovered the magazine, and brought it to America, where it was retitled Heavy Metal. For a while, it simply presented translations of the French comics, but soon branched out into original material.

The magazine caught on quickly in America, and up-and-coming producer Ivan Reitman, hot off the success of Animal House, started to work on adapting some of its stories into a film. Columbia Pictures took him up on it, and over the three-year production he rounded up big names from the Canadian sketch show SCTV. It was also decided to bring aboard some of the biggest heavy metal bands of the day to record the soundtrack, despite the title referring to a magazine, and not the music genre. Never underestimate executive stupidity, I guess. It was released in 1981 to incredibly mixed reviews, though apparently fans of the magazine ate it up.

In this case, the decision about the music played a big part in giving the film an enduring place in cult classic history. The soundtrack featured songs from so many groups (including Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, and Devo) that it became incredibly expensive to secure the music rights for any kind of home video release. Heavy Metal thus became one of those elusive films remembered by a lucky few who were able to see it in theaters, and desperately sought after by everyone else ever since.

The film finally did see a DVD release in 1997, complete with a stunning number of bonus features. Since then, its merits have continued to be hotly debated, with many declaring it a masterpiece, and just as many declaring it a disaster.

Well, I’m here now to help shed some light on the debate. I’ll say it here and now: this movie is terrible. I almost wish it had never been allowed out of the morass of music rights issues. And hopefully, by the end of this recap, you’ll all understand why. Be very afraid.

The first shot is a firmly generic and uninspiring view of space, over which a narrator portentously intones, “A shadow shall fall over the universe, and evil will grow in its path, and death will come from the skies.” Well, not in this movie, but we appreciate the sentiment. A big green phlegm-looking ball moves across the screen, followed by the title, which dramatically rotates around and is briefly lit up by a lightning effect. Boy, they’re really trying hard to make this look serious. Let’s see how long it takes them to completely blow it.


The movie opens by sneezing on us. Lovely.

A space shuttle flies slowly into view, all set to eerie music (composed rather shockingly by the great Elmer Bernstein), and the credits roll. And then all this big serious buildup goes completely to waste as the shuttle’s cargo doors open and disgorge... an astronaut driving a ‘50s Corvette. With the top down, no less! I have never seen a movie work so hard to create a certain mood and then completely wreck it so thoroughly. And this will be a recurring problem throughout the film, as it’s hardly ever clear just how seriously we’re supposed to take any of it.


This is really going to hurt, isn’t it?”

Oh, and I guess I should mention the song that plays during this: “Radar Rider” by Riggs. It’s exactly what most old fogies are thinking of when they say “heavy metal”: a dissonant wall of noise that renders the lyrics utterly incomprehensible. And we’re stuck with it for a while, as we spend the rest of the credits watching this guy land his car on Earth and drive around. It’s absolutely interminable, and the painfully stiff animation doesn’t help. The one high point, if you can even call it that, is when he activates a racing car style parachute... after he’s already landed. That’s not quite how that’s supposed to be used, I’m guessing.

And one more thing: this segment was written by the great sci-fi screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. Yes, he hadn’t had some of his biggest successes by this point, but he had already made a name for himself as the co-writer of Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, so it boggles the mind why they’d waste him on something that doesn’t even really qualify as a story. His contribution ends literally right when something actually starts to happen.

This occurs when the astronaut finally gets to his house, and takes a box out of his trunk with a very noticeable change in animation style. Each segment of the film was done by a different animation studio, and it’s especially jarring here, because we’re given no transition between the two at all. But if it means we’re actually getting to the plot, I say go for it.


Eat your heart out, Tarantino.

The astronaut enters his house, and his daughter runs down the stairs. And what are her first words to her father after he returns from presumably a very long time away? “What did you bring me?” Not the best first impression a character can make, even with the syrupy music they suddenly switched to. Instead of telling the whiny twerp to shove it, he winks and says, “You’ll see,” and then he walks into another room without another word. Dan O’Bannon definitely wouldn’t have made this so vague.

His daughter follows him, and he opens the case to reveal a glowing green ball, which promptly rises up and causes all his flesh to melt off.


”I knew I shouldn’t have bought the Complete Uwe Boll Collection!”

A nice little shocking moment on its own, but it’s promptly ruined when the ball floats over to the girl, and we have to watch her reactions for the rest of the scene. Each one is utterly hilarious in its simulation of an actress on the level of, say, Pamela Anderson’s caliber trying to do this scene, and thankfully, we’ll be seeing these reactions a few more times.


”Okay, first show us your Oh Face.”

”Yeah, now try to add ten and twenty in your head.”

”And how about you imagine there’s a cookie just inches away you?”

There’s a pointless cut to an exterior shot of the house, and then back inside as the ball tells the girl she’s under its control. It goes on that it is “the sum of all evil” and orders her to look at it. “My power infests all time, all galaxies, all dimensions, but many still seek me out. A green jewel they must possess. But see how I destroy their lives.” Sorry, movie, I just watched a guy drop to Earth in a sports car, no way am I taking you seriously again now. Oh, and this thing is called the Loc-Nar, but I refuse to dignify this movie by using that term, so from now on it’s the Gumball of Doom.

And thus begins the real purpose of the movie, to be an anthology of stories either taken directly from or inspired by the Heavy Metal magazine. What we’ve seen until now is just a pathetic, half-hearted attempt to give them a framing story, as they’re all supposedly meant to weaken this girl’s will by showing her what the Gumball of Doom has already done to people who got involved with it.

I really have to wonder why the filmmakers even felt the need for this to be anything more than a pure anthology film, because the whole Loc-Nar thing is really more of a detriment than anything else. Several of the stories have to bend over backwards to include it in some way, and not even all of those make much sense anyway. Plus, it’s not like their target audience would complain if the film was nothing but an unrelated series of mini-stories.

Also, I wonder if it ever occurred to the filmmakers that their film is being portrayed in its own universe as a torture method. And that’s not even getting into how they decided to wrap the whole thing up, which we’ll get to in due time.

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