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HEAVY METAL - 1981
Rated: France: -12 / Germany: 18 / USA: R
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 everpresent
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. He is soon startled to see his surroundings
are littered by jungle-overgrown wrecks of airplanes, of all sizes and
descriptions. With that discovery comes another... he is not alone. 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
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.
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.
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.
copyright 2002 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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