Heavy Metal (1981)

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As a lover of animation, this has been on my radar or quite a while. So when TCM aired it some time ago I had to watch it. What with its reputation I was actually a little surprised when I saw it on the schedule, but who am I to tell them what they should air?

Not knowing anything about the movie apart from its reputation, I was quite surprised to find out that it’s actually an anthology. I’m a fan of anthologies, so that gave it a big thumbs-up in my book.

Heavy Metal is really six separate stories very loosely connected together by an encompassing animated narrative. The movie opens with a space shuttle dropping a Corvette driven by an astronaut into Earths atmosphere.

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Sweet

After arriving home the astronaut is greeted by his daughter. (Or, at least, I assume it’s his daughter. The first words out of her mouth aren’t “Hi, Dad” or “Welcome home” they’re “What did you bring me.” A little bratty if you ask me, but I digress…) He goes into another room to show her what he’s brought back with him (from the vast reaches of space, I assume.) But when he opens the case the green, glowing orb inside rises out of its enclosure and promptly kills him.

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You know your movie is going to be a little different when someone melts in the first five minutes.

The orb, known as the Loc-Nar, but which I shall refer to as the Glowing Orb of Evil and Death (aka. GOED), then spends the next 85 minutes terrifying the girl by telling her stories about how it has influenced individuals and societies throughout time and space.

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Not to mention casting the room in that awful ‘puke green’ color.

There’s the story of Harry Canyon, the taxi cab driver in a dystopian New York City who rescues a girl from some gangers who are trying to steal an artifact (GOED) her father dug up.

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There’s Den, the story of a lanky, geeky teen who finds the GOED in his backyard and is hurled into another world, where he is transformed into the hulky, bald, muscle man.

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Captain Stern is the tale of a criminal space captain on trial with dozens of charges against him before the sole witness in his defense finds a small, green orb on the space station.

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Oops

B-17 is about a WWII bomber that suffers heavy casualties before the GOED shows up and zombifies the dead.

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So Beautiful and So Dangerous is about a couple of humans kidnapped from Earth by a huge starship with a sense of humor.

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Really?

And finally, Taarna is about a female warrior (as seen in the movie poster) avenging a city she had been sworn to protect.

The stories had separate animation companies working simultaneously on different segments of the film, so each story has it’s own distinctive tone and art style. They’re also not all strictly sci-fi, as the poster may lead you to believe. For example, B-17 feels much more like a straight-up horror short, Harry Canyon, with its cynical lead and noir-like narration, feels more like a crime show, and Captain Stern and So Beautiful and So Dangerous lean more heavily towards comedy. Naturally, this means that the viewers own personal taste will dictate which story is appreciated more.

Each short includes violence, sexuality and/or nudity to varying degrees. There’s really no way to do any kind of write-up of this movie without mentioning that. Some of it is employed more tastefully than others, but a good chunk of it comes across as pure titillation and male fantasy.

The stories are well written for the most part. Subtle and direct humor are employed well, even in the shorts that don’t specifically focus on that. But there are a few instances where jumps in logic and common sense are required. Taarna, for example, sadly suffers the same fate as most female super heroes do, namely, that her outfit is wholly impractical for her occupation. I know most everyone wants to see the hot chick in as little clothing as possible (and you will), but in a land where so many pointy objects can harm you it would make a bit more sense to wear something that could offer you a modicum of protection.

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See, this wouldn’t have happened if your outfit covered more than 30% of your body.

Some of these are the fault of the whole “titillation” aspect of the film, but I suspect some of them also come from the nature of film shorts themselves. Sometimes there’s just not enough time to fix those little plot gaps when you’re on a time-constrained budget.

One of the other nit-picks I have with the movie was that it was hard for me to tell what the hell the evil glowing orb was saying half the time. I don’t know what filter they used on the voice, but it made it really hard for me to understand what was going on. I kept missing every third of fourth word. I had to pause and rewind a few times to try to figure it out. And even that only worked half the time. It was a bit annoying.

Luckily, focusing on the impressive animation can overlook most of these instances. The rotoscoping technique was used in several sequences (For those who don’t know, that’s essentially filming a live action model and then tracing over the footage later. You can see an example from the actual film (Warning! Animated nudity. Possibly not safe for work.) here. So for the most part the characters movements and actions are very fluid. Most of the set pieces are also pretty damn impressive. When Taarna and her flying, dino…thing (which makes one of the cutest cooing noises ever) fly over a desert landscape, through a dragon skeleton and through a deserted industrial complex it kind of made up for her and her ancestors lack of war-garb sense.

The soundtrack is also exceptional, including tunes from everyone from Black Sabbath, to Journey, to Stevie Nicks. I was expecting something a little more…heavy, as the title implied, so the classics included were a pleasant and welcome addition.

Some stories in Heavy Metal are better than others. There are instances of plot holes and jumps in logic, but the music and animation do well to make up for it. Basically, the film itself is better than the whole of its parts, but worth it for any fan of animation and rock music, as long as you can look past the varying levels of violence, nudity, sexism and juvenile wish fulfillment. Just try not to take anything to seriously, the film certainly doesn’t.

Heavy Metal is currently streaming on Amazon.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

2 thoughts on “Heavy Metal (1981)

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