Movie of the Day: Heavy Metal (1981)

28 Mar


The immediate reaction to seeing Heavy Metal for the first time was one of disappointment.  Myself, like millions of people who don’t opt for bootlegs, spent years hearing about the infamous Heavy Metal, the grown-up cartoon that we were destined never to see.  Mired in lawsuits and copyright issues, the film spent a decade and a half out of circulation where it wallowed in the underground market.  When finally the dam broke in 1996, the public got its first chance to own the film on a properly licensed home video.  Therein is where the film came to me.

It was not worth the wait.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad film and my disappointment may have come from the fact that my expectations has been built up to a fever pitch.  Maybe it’s was all those talented people on board starting with a producing credit from Ivan Reitman, the man who made Ghostbusters.  Perhaps it was just unusual to have a major release of an animated film with this kind of content. Or maybe it just has something to do with the fact that for the first time an animated film brought about the elements of a bawdy comic book and played it out for the mentality of 13 year-old boys.

Whatever the reasons for the success of ‘Heavy Metal’, I’m afraid I just don’t get it. I see the images, I see some original writing in spots, I see the potential for a cult classic. But, for me, ‘Heavy Metal’ looks dated, silly, disjointed and out of all eight stories I find myself defending only two.

I found ‘The Legend of Tarrna’ (the last one) to be a true original. Sure, it seems sexist and Tarrna is a complete male fantasy but I found it to be strikingly original in its visual imagination. She comes out of the sky riding a giant condor and carrying a sword. She walks into the bar, is hit on by three slobbering goons and you can fill in the rest. This well animated scene owes more than a little to the Clint Eastwood westerns (Did I say a little? She even squints her eyes). I caught myself smiling at this scene, that’s why I liked it despite the fact the movie affords the first opportunity to separate the heroine from her clothing.  Not necessary, but we appreciate it.

I have to admit that ‘So Beautiful, So Dangerous’ is curiously funny. An alien spacecraft breaks into the Pentagon and kidnaps a secretary. She is held captive by a trio of robots, one of whom has an over-inflated libido in it’s programming. I wasn’t all that keen on this segment but I have to admit a certain admiration for any scene that opens with a robot and a naked woman in bed after sex and ends with the line: ‘Okay, but I want a Jewish wedding’.

The rest is pretty routine. I liked where the segment ‘Harry Canyan’ was going but it seemed to be over before it began. ‘Den’, a story about a geek who gets turned into a giant blue hulk is little more than a prepubescent fantasy. ‘Captain Sternn’ had some fun dialogue before disintegrating into predictability. ‘B-17’ the disturbing story of a plane being taken over by the living dead is a matter of taste (not mine). The framing material about a sickly green orb that tells these stories to a frightened girl is just plain baffling.

‘Heavy Metal’ is based on a popular behind-the-counter comic book that would make Bob Guiccione blush. The movie isn’t anywhere near the graphic level of that book but to fans of this movie that hardly matters. What makes this film so popular beyond the bombast and the nudity (I think I just answered my own question). I find chunk-style movies like this lacking almost by definition. It has it’s moments, it fills it’s quotient of T&A and graphic violence, but the grand visionary scale that this movie aspires to never really come to the surface.  It wants to be an adolescent fantasy but it doesn’t seem to want to be anything more than that.  It’s all at the service of base pleasures and for me, that’s not enough.


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