This one falls under the category of Things I Should Have Seen By Now But Hadn’t. Why didn’t I? I was a pubescent boy at one point in my life, and still am if the wind is right. 1981’s Heavy Metal was tailor made for that demographic, the comic book-reading, Star Wars-obsessed adolescent who wanted nothing more than to see gory violence and cartoon nudity done in that familiar, hyper-sleazy way that became a staple of music videos and the like. That’s kind of all I thought the movie was going to be before I watched it, and largely that’s a part of it, but it also contains some really interesting, if flawed, visual storytelling in the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres, all mixed together with rock radio music and a score by, of all people, the great Elmer Bernstein. What a weird movie.
WARNING: The following trailer is NSFW, even though it’s all cartoons.
I tell ya; finding SFW images for this movie proved to be tough, and for good reason. Heavy Metal is the kind of thing that they don’t make anymore, and haven’t for quite a long time: an R-rated, sex-filled, violence-heavy, profanity-laden cartoon for adults. Based on a French-language anthology magazine (which actually translated directed to Howling Metal), Heavy Metal was like MAD Magazine, The Twilight Zone, and Ralph Bakshi’s head all rolled into one, with disparate stories being told all surrounding a main central MacGuffin, which also narrates the piece. It was produced by Ivan Reitman and featured voices from actors like John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Richard Romanus, and Joe Flaherty.
The film’s trailer (above) is narrated by the great and distinct trailer voice of Percy Rodrigues, the Afro-Portuguese Canadian actor who did a lot of preview announcing for Cannon Films during the 1980s. Here, he also voices the narrator of the film, the floating green orb known as the Loc-Nar, the embodiment of all evil, all-powerful and with the ability to influence people and events across space and time. This is really just an easy way to tie a series of completely separate narrative threads into a single film. It’s the framing device; every good portmanteau film has one.
The main stories are as follows: first there’s “Harry Canyon,” in which a schlubby taxi driver in the dystopian distant future New York City happens upon a woman being chased by gangsters because she has in her possession a case which contains the Loc-Nar. Then there’s “Den,” in which the Loc-Nar transports a doofusy kid named Dan into another dimension where he is suddenly in the body of a muscular barbarian warrior named Den and its up to him to save a princess from an evil queen and her minions. (He also gets to have sex with more than one lady, all with John Candy’s teenage-timbered voice-over.) There’s also “Captain Sternn,” in which the titular military man is on trial in a space station court for a litany of awful and profane offenses and the man he’s paid to be a character witness is turned into a monster by the Loc-Nar and goes on a rampage trying to kill the bad man. “B-17” is a near-silent horror story written by Dan O’Bannon in which a WWII bomber has been severely crippled and the remaining crew are suddenly chased by the Loc-Nar and the bodies of the dead crewmen come back to life. In “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” a buxom stenographer for the Pentagon is abducted by stoner aliens and their horny robot… and that’s it. And finally there’s “Taarna,” perhaps the most famous of the stories, in which a young woman, the last of her kind, is sent to destroy evil Loc-Nar mutants with her trusty sword, quail-pterodactyl, and her costume consisting of practically nothing.
Now, like all portmanteaus, there are good and bad elements. For me, the best story is the first one, “Harry Canyon,” for its visual sense in depicting a run-down future New York and its Film Noir sensibilities. This is what I wish the entire film had been. Clearly, it influenced Luc Besson because so many aspects of The Fifth Element come from this short, from the cabbie who’s a former military man who continues to be a badass, to an impending massive evil object, to even just the look of the future city. It’s pretty great all around. “B-17” and “Captain Sternn” are also pretty good for what they are, and “Taarna” and “Den” are good for their being influenced by artists Moebius and Richard Corben, respectively. “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” aside from having cool spaceships, is a completely useless story, I think. “Story” is used in huge quotations. It offers very little aside from some alien drug humor. And, of course, the nudity.
This is where the film is too much of its time: all the rampant nudity. Every woman in the film, or at least all the ones who are onscreen for large periods of time, is a big, curvy pinup girl who undoubtedly gets naked for sometimes very extended periods of time. The film, as I said, was based on very graphic source material which in turn was meant to cater to the adolescent male, and that’s exactly how it comes across. It’s rampantly sexist in places, and even Taarna, who is meant to be a strong heroin, is naked when she appears, then is stripped for her torture scene later on. It’s distracting and more than a little troubling to today’s mentality. There’s a reason they made fun of it on South Park as being part of Kenny’s fevered sexual fantasy; it’s ridiculous.
One other weird thing: so the movie’s called Heavy Metal and touts some impressive hard rock bands on the soundtrack, including Blue Öyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick, and Nazareth. Even people like Devo and Grand Funk Railroad who aren’t hard rock, but fit with the themes. But it also contains bands that are NOT metal in the least. Like Stevie Nicks. Or that other huge metal act Journey. Yes, Journey is here singing that rock anthem “Open Arms.” The music in it is actually pretty secondary to the film, which I appreciated to an extent. I was expecting it to be wall-to-wall headbanging, though I guess the film came out a little too early for that.
Still, as a fan of this kind of graphic science fiction, and as a time capsule to a bygone era of animation, I did ultimately enjoy Heavy Metal. It started strong and ended pretty strong from a narrative standpoint with only one real fart-noise in the middle. If you can look past the dated depiction of cartoon sex objects (and I don’t blame you if you can’t; I can’t really), then you’ll likely find something worthwhile and maybe even a little awesome.