HEAVY METAL, as I discovered over 20 years ago, is one of the best animated features, ever. While I'd qualify that statement with the caveat that its animation is not as sophisticated as recent releases, like FINAL FANTASY: The Spirits Within, you won't mind the simpler appearance.
HEAVY METAL still has a killer sound track 20 years after its release, with powerful songs by Devo, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Journey, Nazareth, and other top bands of the time. Not only does the music not detract from the stories, but it adds to their raw passion and exuberance. One can accurately describe HEAVY METAL as bawdy, violent, horrifying, imaginative, shocking, and creative, without beginning to list its many other robust qualities.
Despite my above introduction, I really haven't told you what HEAVY METAL is, except that it's animated. It is actually seven different stories linked by a common element. The stories are "Soft Landing" (by Dan O'Bannon), "Harry Canyon", "B-17", "Captain Sternn" (Bernie Wrightson), "So Beautiful And So Dangerous" (Angus McKie), "Tarna", and "Den" (written by Richard Corben, voiced by John Candy), not in that order. The common element is a glowing green orb (voiced by Percy Rodrigues), called the Locknar, introduced in the first tale, "Soft Landing".
Typical of the imagination and energy in this movie, "Soft Landing" shows the space shuttle in orbit; its cargo bay slowly opens to release a 1960 Corvette Roadster, piloted by a space-suited astronaut. The descent through Earth's atmosphere, the landing, and the bone-jarring ride home are accompanied by the explosive tune "Radar Rider" (Riggs). The astronaut drives to a three-story wood frame house, enters, and opens a briefcase while his adoring daughter looks on. This Norman Rockwell scene is shattered when the green orb rises from the suitcase, its festering sickly green illumination dissolving the girl's astronaut father as she watches. From there, the orb introduces the theme that links the different episodes; it is the sum total of all evil, and its mechinations span time and the galaxy. She is forced to watch as it shows how it has existed outside of time as the ever present destroyer of lives and worlds.
While not describing each episode in detail, my favorites are offered here as examples of the best of HEAVY METAL. The "B-17" (Dan O'Bannon) sequence is an excellent adaptation of the EC style horror comics of the 50s. Here a B-17's bomber crew flies into the thick of enemy anti-aircraft fire during a night bombing mission; the full moon riding shotgun to the plane in a starry sky. It's not long before the bomber's crew in the tail and fuselage of the plane are riddled with bullets from "nightfighters" that have risen to meet them, and shrapnel from the exploding anti-aircraft rounds. Though the co-pilot knows what the silence he hears over the plane's intercom means, he still goes back to check on the condition of the crew. In true EC fashion, he is greeted by the horrifying blood spattered remains of his crew, rocking silently in death as the plane limps its way slowly back home.
Unfortunately, they are not alone, for he sees the plane is being pursued by a glowing green meteor, which rams the fuselage and enters the craft. Its poisonous glow penetrates the bodies of the dead crew, and something happens... On the way back to the cockpit, the co-pilot hears a noise from within the ball turret for the belly-mounted machine guns. Opening the hatch, he looks inside, and is pulled in....by something, that tears him apart. When the captain hears the screaming, he leaves the cockpit to check, and is greeted on the other side of the cabin door by the festering, semi-skeletal remains of his crew, dead, yet alive, and very eager to greet their captain. Locking the armored cockpit door does not keep them out, as they soon break it down with sledgehammer blows from their fists; point-blank gunfire from his service pistol has no effect.
The captain desperately bails out of the plane, leaving the ghouls behind, and parachutes to safety on a small island....or so he thinks. The following ending is brutal, savage, ironic, and perfect.
"Tarna" (Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum) is another favorite of mine, and for many reasons. One is it's the longest episode by far, and it tells the most detailed and complete story. Another is the animation; though not the most detailed or realistic (the "So Beautiful And So Dangerous" episode holds that honor), its characters have the most lifelike movements. Though that may seem like an almost trivial characteristic, it adds greatly to the superb action scenes in that episode, and action there is, with some of the most graphic and violent bloodletting I've ever seen put to animation.
The story starts with a group of people witnessing the arrival of a huge, green meteor; it crashes in a dormant volcano. When the people go to see what happened, the volcano erupts, covering the people with the green liquid that spewed from it. It deranges them, making them homicidal, seeking only to kill those who are different, the peaceful people living in a nearby city. They are led by a crazed chieftan, sporting a metal helmet with horns.
The people in the city are helpless before the attack; passive and meek, they are slain in an orgy of carnage. Before the last of them are killed, they mentally summon the namesake of the episode, Tarna, who is the last of a warrior race bound by a pact to defend the peaceful people. She arrives too late, and must pursue the chieftan and his followers into the wastelands beyond the city. What follows is a nonstop epic of bloodshed and revenge, with no quarter asked, and non given, between the hunter and the hunted. The final battle, appropriately, is to the death, between Tarna and the barbarian chieftan.
There are no "gentle" episodes in HEAVY METAL, and that's fitting, considering the nature of the magazine that inspired this movie. Each episode has graphic violence, including killing, and the only difference between the stories is how much. Despite that, the tone of the tales spans a full range, from light-hearted to extremely grim. Some have argued that HEAVY METAL (the movie) is an adolescents' film, because of the heavy emphasis on violence and sex. While those are obviously appealing things to a teen-aged male, that's not the point.
HEAVY METAL is simply an unabashed, unapologetic tale about the bawdiest and coarsest things in human experience; life is often full of raw and untamed energy, and the easily offended and "pure" need not apply. Likewise, death is a reality, and often a very messy and violent one; there's no point in sanitizing it, when the point is literally the violence. If you still don't understand or appreciate HEAVY METAL (the movie), then get some of the back issues of Heavy Metal (the magazine) from its heyday, in the late 70s and the early 80s. It's here that you see the creations of dozens of artists showcased, over a stunning range of styles, and they are used to tell every kind of story, from the whimsical to the wicked.
Of course, that brings up another point about HEAVY METAL; each episode was done by a different team of artists. Thus, you have very different styles of animation and levels of detail, and even the use of colors to highlight or accentuate mood or action. One of the interesting things I've heard about the movie was some of the animators were former Disney cartoonists, and when they were given the chance to draw naked women, etc., they were unstoppable. If that's so, it's easily believable, because the collection of sights in the episodes is sometimes like a vision of a feast imagined by a starving man.
I'll also comment about the soundtrack again. Yes, I admit I have a preference for some kinds of 80s recordings, and it just so happens that everything in HEAVY METAL was by groups I liked. Younger people may not know these artists, or if they do, dismiss them as old fashioned or retro'. The songs, however, all have a raw power that only adds to energy of the story, and unlike some soundtracks, these songs do not meekly fade into the background; they're there, whether you like them or not.
Do you like sophisticated and thought-provoking entertainment? Do you take offense at bare-ass depictions of violence and sex? Then HEAVY METAL is not for you. If you understand what its message is before you see it, then you can enjoy being carried away by the torrent of its raw energy, and maybe even feel what it's like to be young again.
HEAVY METAL gets five Shriek Girls.
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