Feather-light entertainment is all that animated ‘Heavy Metal’ can offer

December 26, 2012

The bizarre animated anthology Heavy Metal is something of a cult classic. Unfortunately, my recently viewing of the 1981 picture (my first time watching it) clearly showed that the film has not aged well.

That’s not entirely the fault of director Gerald Potterton and the film’s writers, led by Dan Goldberg and Len Blum, who scripted the frame story as well as two of the segments. Since Heavy Metal appeared, special effects have advanced far beyond the state of the art in 1981. (Which this film likely does not reflect, with its estimated budget of $9.3 million, per the Internet Movie Database. Compare with The Fox and the Hound, an animated picture released one month earlier, which IMDb says costs $12 million.)

Moreover, since this film’s debut, popular entertainment’s restrictions on showing nudity, sexuality and graphic violence have loosened significantly. As a result of these changes, Heavy Metal offers views of material that, far from being forbidden, now qualifies as rather routine. The film’s decidedly juvenile mentality isn’t helpful, either.

The movie loosely revolves around an intelligent glowing green orb possessed of a malignant magic and a megalomaniacal mentality. In the wordless opening sequence, a space shuttle deploys a 1960 Corvette convertible manned by a spacesuited figure, which enters the Earth’s atmosphere, drives across a desert landscape, navigates a twisting road and parks in front of a hilltop mansion. Inside, the astronaut is joyously greeted by a roughly 14-year-old girl, presumably his daughter, who asks what he’s brought. “You’ll see,” the grey-haired man says with a playful wink.

Indeed. When he places his case on the table and opens it, the green orb inside reduces him to bones and goo and corners the girl. This is the Loc-Nar, a floating, talking sphere, and it demands that the girl look into its depths. The bulk of the anthology plays out as stories that the orb shows its terrified prey. 

The film’s first long segment is probably the best. A futuristic film noir set in New York circa 2013, this tale features a deliciously cynical and world-weary cabbie named Harry Canyon, voiced by Richard Romanus. He happens to be passing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Loc-Nar is about to go on display, when three crooks gun down the archaeologist who has discovered it. After his shapely daughter escapes into Canyon’s cab, they partner to sell the Loc-Nar to the gangsters pursuing it.

In the next segment, a scrawny American teenager discovers the Loc-Nar, which transports him to an alien world during a lightning storm. Den finds himself transformed into a hairless blue-skinned (and later red-skinned, for no discernible reason, but whatever) muscular man. A fairly routine fantasy adventure follows in which Den rescues a damsel in distress and becomes entangled in the schemes of two rival power-hungry rulers who are intent on sacrificing the damsel in the presence of the Loc-Nar. John Candy, who has bit parts in two other segments, provides the nerdy voice of Den the teenager as well as the manly utterances of Den the hairless warrior.

Comedy is next on the agenda as the Loc-Nar shows the spaceborne trial of one Captain Lincoln Sternn, a thinly veiled parody of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, who has been charged with multiple counts of theft of Federation property as well as rape. Instead of trying a plea-bargain, Sternn waits for a lowly janitor he has payed off to testify on his behalf, only to find Hanover Fiste transformed in menacing fashion by the marble-like Loc-Nar with which he idly toys.

The sphere then lands on a B-17 bomber that has been pounded by enemy fire. The two baffled surviving crew members find their late colleagues transformed in, yes, a menacing way by the Loc-Nar. Bailing out of the crippled plane does not lead to a hoped-for reprieve.

The next segment, the film’s least coherent, is mainly comedic. At a tense meeting of high-ranking American officials, a necklace pendant that presumably is the Loc-Nar prompts a scientist to attack a secretary. An immense pink and grey spherical spaceship comes to a halt above the Pentagon and scoops up the scientist and the secretary. As the ship journeys to its faraway destination, its two alien crew members snort drugs and its robot (voiced by John Candy) makes a play for the secretary. What happens to the scientist? Why did the alien spaceship abduct the two humans? Where is the ship going? Your guess is as good as mine.

That brings us to the film’s final segment, Taarna, which is all about action and erotica (or at least nudity). Apart from Canyon’s tale, this story is probably the most interesting, because it’s not entirely clear how this fantasy-SF melange will evolve. The protagonist of the tale is a nameless, voiceless, nearly clothes-less woman who rides a small dragon (?) and wields a deadly sword. She fights against a horde of Loc-Nar-possessed baddies who seem intent on destroying the remnants of humanity.

Heavy Metal also has an interesting but arguably unearned twist ending to its frame story.

The movie’s biggest flaw is its low entertainment value. But its biggest crime is a low-brow mentality that embraces antediluvian gender roles. The film’s only women who don’t remove their clothes, or have them removed, are prostitutes who are bursting out of them. Heavy Metal’s women are nameless (the girl in the frame story, the archaeologist’s daughter, the prostitutes, the evil queen from the Den fantasy segment), voiceless (for all practical purposes, the girl in the frame story) or both (the heroine of Taarna).

Just two of the movie’s women wield any power: the evil queen from Den’s tale and the Taarna heroine. But the queen’s servants clearly despise her obsession with sex, and the heroine’s martial ability does not spare her from being stripped, bound and whipped.

Also, many of the movie’s concepts feel derivative. Sternn is clearly a parodic riff on Star Trek; Den feels like a swipe of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars; the B-17 segment feels like a carbon copy of any airborne-supernatural-tale ever; the Canyon segment is an amusing but not very original take on film noir; Taarna’s tale has little to distinguish it other than nudity and violence that was fairly graphic for 1981.

I’d be remiss in concluding this review without mentioning that Heavy Metal was inspired by and features some tales adapted from the illustrated science fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. I should also mention that the film features a number of heavy metal and science fiction songs, including some performed by Sammy Hagar, Blue Öyster Cult, Devo, Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, Journey and Stevie Nicks. For whatever reason, the music didn’t make much of an impression on me.

For mainstream movie viewers, even those who like science fiction and fantasy, there’s little reason to watch Heavy Metal. Fans of the soundtrack’s rock and those strongly drawn to eclectic and outré fare might enjoy it, however.

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