Wednesday, November 21, 2012

80s Animation Month: Heavy Metal (1981)

Heavy Metal is a bit of an anomaly for 80s Animation Month because unlike Fire and Ice, Rock & Rule and Starchaser (next week's entry) it wasn't a flop and actually managed to turn a profit. Okay, it wasn't anything stellar but it doubled its $9 million budget. This may have been down to the fact that it was based on an existing (though quite niche) comic book. 'Heavy Metal' magazine started publishing in 1977 and initially reprinted translations of a French comic book 'Metal Hurlant' before they started using their own artists and writers. The magazine was known for its provocative artwork which often feature topless or scantily clad female characters in sci-fi settings. I read several issues as a teenager and I've got to say, though the art was superb, the stories were very forgettable. Still it gave a platform for a lot of great artists such as Moebius and Milo Manara.

The plot
of the Heavy Metal film is difficult to describe in detail. Essentially, it's an anthology film of short stories. The film begins with an astronaut returning to earth with a glowing green orb. When he gets home the orb kills him and terrorises his daughter by telling her weird and wonderful sci-fi/horror stories. These stories include Harry Canyon - a futuristic noir thriller about a cab driver caught up with criminals (GREAT), B17 - a horror short about a World War II bomber crew who get attacked by zombies (CREEPY), Den - a bizarre story about a nerdy kid who is turned into a musclebound hero and sent to a far off planet (WEIRD), Taarna - a short about an alien female warrior fighting off a barbarian invasion (NOT BAD) and many other, lesser, stories.

For once this isn't a kids film that has a couple of inappropriate elements; the makers clearly pitched this at grown ups. I think aiming it directly at adults was probably another reason this did okay at the cinema, the audience knew exactly what they were getting. One interesting thing to note is that this film was produced by Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs fame, and featured a lot of famous Canadian actors voices such as Eugene Levy, John Candy and Harold Ramis (most of the Second City cast is here). Sadly Reitman's involvement doesn't mean its a laugh riot though. In fact I'd almost say it's a little dull and dry in places. The anthology nature of the film means that most stories are over before they've begun.

Like the comic, the artwork is great but the quality varies from short to short. Again, there's some use of rotoscoping which gives the characters fantastically realistic movements but it's not used in every segment. The stories are okay but none of them really wow you. I did enjoy the Harry Canyon story though because it fused the classic film noir cliches (femme fatales, world weary protagonists) with a futuristic setting (not unlike Blade Runner). The whole futuristic cab driver angle definitely reminded me a bit of The Fifth Element but that's to be expected given that both films were paying homage to Moebius' ultra detailed line drawings. I also enjoyed the Den story because it was a funny tale of literal wish fulfillment.

The whole tone of the film is quite juvenile
. There's a fair bit of sex, breasts and cursing but I guess that's just an accurate reflection of what the magazine is like. It plays a lot like some 13 year old boy's daydream and while I enjoyed the dynamic, let's-try-everything nature of the film I didn't think it ever found its groove. Speaking of grooves the soundtrack almost made up for the film's other shortcomings. They roped in a lot of great bands (none of which I would really call "heavy metal bands" ironically) including Devo, Blue Oyster Cult and Cheap Trick (again). I'd recommend the film to anyone who is a fan of these bands or just that era of 80s music.

So ultimately,
I found that Heavy Metal didn't quite live up to it's bold tagline "A Step Beyond Science Fiction". I think the concept of an sci-fi anthology film is a great idea and it's been mooted for a few years that either David Fincher or Robert Rodriguez might oversee a new Heavy Metal anthology. I'm not adverse to eroticism or juvenile storylines in science fiction but I hope whatever filmmaker does take on the new project remembers to have some decent writing to go with all those boobs.

For another review of Heavy Metal check out The Film Connoisseur's perspective



  1. The thing about Heavy Metal magazine is that it can have art by a great artists, or it can have art by a mediocre one, it's always a surprise.

    Some of the stories in the magazine are done by complete amateurs, people with no art education whatsoever. But they send their stories in and the editors can decide if it's good enough or not. If it gets picked up they print it. This explains the difference in quality in terms of story and art, same goes for the film, the different shorts were produced by a bunch of different animation studios and then united into one film. The result is disjointed yet interesting because of how different the stories are.

    Agree the whole film is extremely juvenile, but then again, showing boobs and doing drugs in an animated film back then had never been done before, so they kind of over did it in a way.

  2. Oh yeah, totally. The film was a very bold experiment. In theory it's a great idea to get different studios to do different segments but I think they needed a stronger backbone to the film than just the green orb showing up repeatedly.

    You're right about the magazine. It had some great and some mediocre art but I always found the stories really weak regardless. It's probably about time I gave it another chance.

  3. Great write-up!

    Loved all the classic 80s music...the movie is pretty decent at points too...Heavy Metal 2000 on the other hand...not that good. Haha.

  4. Yeah I heard that Heavy Metal 2000 was pretty bad. Might give it a watch one day if I can track down a copy. Not sure how they screwed up an animated sci-fi movie with Julie Strain, Michael Ironside and Billy Idol? That sounds like a great recipe to me.

  5. I need to re-watch Heavy Metal 2000, saw it all those years's totally erased from my memory banks!

  6. I have very fond memories of seeing this as a young kid and knowing I wasn't supposed to. lol. Like, they would only show it late at night on cable and always thinking how awesome it was because of the sex and violence and the fact that it was animated. And I remember the B17 bomber with the zombies and the futuristic Cab Driver story being my favorites, along with the rockin' 80's soundtrack. But I wonder what my feelings would be seeing this again as a 36 year old. lol. Only one way to find out! I just saw this on sale on Blu-ray the other day and "almost" picked it up because it was under ten bucks. Great review as always buddy.

  7. I'd say go for it - get the blu-ray. Even though I didn't totally enjoy the film I'm still itching to watch it a couple more times in the near future.