Heavy Metal began in 1977 as an American translation of Metal Hurlant, a French science fiction fantasy magazine that featured seminal work by such legendary creators as Moebius, Enki Bilal and Jean Claude Forest and had a massive influence on the entire comic book medium because TITS.
Tits tits tits. Melons. Gazongas. Knockers. Hooters. Tatas. Jugs. Boobies. Yayas. Bosoms. Chesticles. Mazumas. Badonkadonks. Big ol’ greasy Baps.
Was there some genuinely thought provoking and visually spectacular sci-fi in its pages? Absolutely! Playboy also published plenty of great articles, what’s your point?
Heavy Metal, the 1981 anthology animated film that adapts many of the magazine’s most iconic stories, has tits. It has many tits. It has big tits and small…actually no, it only has big tits. In the ancient swamp of the pre-internet age, that really was enough. The marketing campaign could literally have been the words “CARTOON BOOBS, YA DIG?” plastered on every available surface and this movie would have been a success.
But for a jaded, modern reviewer who sees boobs once (maybe even twice) a month, it’ll take more than that. So, is there more to Heavy Metal than awesome bewbage? Let’s take a look.
Being an anthology, Heavy Metal is divided into several segments, each based on a different feature from the magazine and with different animation team. So, you know what that means!
The first sequence is less an animated short than a credits sequence with ideas above its station. After the obligatory eighties portentous narration over a star-field telling us that a great evil from beyond the stars is about to yada yada yada, a space shuttle appears over a planet and disgorges a 1960 Corvette being driven by an astronaut. The Corvette then lands on the planet and drives to a house in the middle of nowhere, all to the strains of “Radar Rider” by Riggs. It’s pretty badass, and as an introduction to the film’s unique melding of ray-gun gothic and sweaty rock music it absolutely does the job. Cool fact, one of the directors of this was American-Irish animator Jimmy Murakami whose studio would later animate the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
We transition directly into our next sequence, Grimaldi, which will serve as our rather contrived framing device for the rest of the movie. The astronaut steps into his home and his young daughter runs down the stairs to greet him and ask him what he brought back from space. He tells her to come into the living room and he opens his suitcase which disgorges a glowing green ball of pure evil that reduces him to goop. The globe (which is called the Loc-Nar) corners the astronaut’s daughter and tells her that it is the sum of all evil in the universe.
The Loc-Nar says that he’s totally going to kill her but, before he does, he will demonstrate his evil by showing her several short-form narratives of wildly varying quality. These stories all involve the Loc-Nar in some way, and will show just how eeeeevil it truly is. And am I the only one who smells bullshit? We have a saying here in Ireland; if you gangsta, you ain’t gotta tell nobody you gangsta. Then again, the Loc-Nar has basically trapped this poor girl and is forcing her to watch a slideshow of every vacation it’s ever taken so yeah, that is something the manifestation of all evil would do.
“Harry Canyon” is based on The Long Tomorrow, a two part comic story illustrated by Moebius and written by legendary screenwriter Dan O’Bannon as a lark while the two men worked on Alexandro Jodorowsky’s ultimately doomed attempt to film Dune. This one, ridiculously influential comic would go on to influence…oh, pretty much every science fiction movie made after the late seventies as well as kickstarting the cyberpunk genre. What’s truly impressive about this short is how it manages to mimic Moebius’ utterly insanely detailed art-style without the animation looking like shitty ass. It’s quite an achievement. Our story begins in a decaying, crime-ridden New York in the 2030s and our hero is Harry Canyon, a gruff, balding, take-no-BS cabbie who is so used to dealing with potential thieves that he has a collection of weapons taken from guys who’ve tried to rob him. One day, a beautiful and mysterious red-head lands in his cab and Harry is pulled into an interplanetary conspiracy involving crooked businessmen and an alien ball of pure evil and also the red-head gets her boobs out for no readily apparent reason…
Yeah, that little description might strike you as a little, shall we say, familiar.
Moebius actually worked with Luc Besson on The Fifth Element, and later actually sued him for plagiarising his work…but not The Long Tomorrow. Moebius claimed that Besson had ripped off another of his works, L’Incal and ended up losing the case. I can’t help feeling that if he’d claimed that The Long Tomorrow had been Besson’s inspiration, he’d have been on much firmer ground, but what do I know? France, it’s a different planet. Anyway, the woman’s father is an archaeologist who was murdered by gangsters who were looking for his most recent discovery, the Loc-Nar. Harry takes her to a police station but can’t afford a murder investigation (I mean that literally, the cops charge $1,000 a day). So instead he takes her back to his apartment and she offers to sleep with him because he saved her life and it’s a movie in the eighties (God I hate this trope). Anyway, Harry wakes up the next morning and she’s gone. He gets threatened by cops and then gangsters who are all looking for the woman. He then gets a message by drone telling him to meet her on the Statue of Liberty. The red-head shows him the Loc-Nar and tells him that the head gangster, Revnick, has agreed to pay her for it but she wants Harry to come as backup. Harry, the old romantic that he is, tells her that he’ll do it for a fifty fifty split. She bats her eyes and tells him that he can have anything he wants and he says “Money please”.
They make the trade off and leave Revnick with the Loc-Nar, which promptly turns him into goop. As they drive off, the red-head pulls a gun on Harry and tries to double cross him which is exactly the kind of ruthless power play I’d expect from a museum curator’s daughter. Harry vaporises her with the death ray he keeps hidden in the seat of his cab for dealing with unruly fares and takes the money, musing that it was a “two-day ride with one hell of a tip”.
Back in the astronaut’s house, the Loc-Nar tell the girl that he’s chosen her because she possesses powers that she doesn’t understand and so he’s going to show her another story about someone who had powers that they didn’t…understand.
Den tells the story of a young, nebbish teenager named David Ellis Norman (‘Den’) who finds the Loc-Nar in his back garden. He takes it to his bedroom and, during a lightning storm, he is transported to an alien world and he himself is turned into a massive, muscled warrior with a schlong the size of a Tuscan salami. There, he battles monsters and has proper sex with many beautiful ladies. It is completely juvenile but it’s saved by the narration by John Candy who invests the protagonist with the guileless, aw shucks enthusiasm of a kid who’s accidentally been locked in a toy store overnight. It’s very silly and nakedly pandering but it’s carried off with such tongue in cheek awareness that it ends up being oddly charming. The short ends with Den refusing the power of the Loc-Nar and remaining on the alien world to continue having adventures and proper sex with many beautiful ladies.
Back in the astronaut’s home the Loc-Nar tells the girl that “even when someone is strong enough to resist me, my power remains undiminished” which I’m sure is technically true. I mean, if you ask a girl out and she shoots you down, your attractiveness remains undiminished but clearly it wasn’t much to yell about in the first place. Perhaps sensing our pity, the Loc-Nar hurriedly switches to another story.
On a space station in the far future, Captain Lincoln Sternn is on trial for various and sundry awful crimes. He pleads innocent, much to his lawyer’s dismay, as Sternn is so guilty the best they can hope for is a secret burial so his grave doesn’t get desecrated. Sternn’s not worried however, as he’s got “an angle”.
Said angel is Hannover Fiste (heh), a witness for the prosecution who Sternn has bribed to give favourable testimony. Unfortunately for Sternn, Fiste has come into possession of the Loc-Nar which takes control of him and…makes him tell the truth so that Sternn will actually face justice for his actions?
Loc-Nar…do you not know what evil is? Are you…are you evilliterate?
Fiste then proceeds to turn into a massive, hulking…hulk and trashes the courtroom, trying to kill Sternn. Sternn leads the monster into a corridor and then pulls a switch which opens an airlock, sucking Fiste into outer space. And that’s it, that’s the sequence.
In fairness, the original comic is kind of a nothing burger too. Beautifully drawn (and the movie does a really great job of replicating the original artwork) but it’s pretty darn insubstantial.
We now come to B-17 which is the shortest sequence (if you don’t count “Soft Landing” which you obviously shouldn’t) and it is BY FAR the best one. Seriously, it’s not even close. Introduced with the title track Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride) we see a World War 2 era bomber flying over the Pacific. Having been shot up by enemy fire, only the pilot and co-pilot are still alive. The co-pilot sees a strange green light following the plane which is, of course, the Loc-Nar, who’s actually decided to do something evil today. The Loc-Nar reanimates the dead crew-men as gruesomely detailed zombies.
It’s a brutally effective little premise. Tiny confined space flying a mile over the ocean. Zombies. What happens next?
After a few minutes of mostly wordless, monstrously effective horror, the last surviving airman parachutes down onto a jungle island only to discover a graveyard of dozens of downed aircraft…complete with zombie crews of their own. It’s a phenomenal short. Unfortunately, we go from the movie’s high water mark to its nadir.
So Beautiful & So Dangerous
A woman, wearing the Loc-Nar as a piece of jewellery because the movie has basically given up on tying all these strands together at this point, gets abducted by stoner aliens and has sex with a robot. That’s pretty much it. It’s just weird, painfully unfunny stoner comedy mixed with gratuitous nudity.
The Loc-Nar tells the girl that he’s going to kill her because she’s the only one who could destroy him but hey, how ’bout one last vignette for the road?
Taarna is our main feature, essentially, by far the longest section and probably the most famous what with Taarna being on the movie poster and that one South Park episode parodying it to Hell and back. The Loc-Nar finally gets of its ambiguously existent ass and crashes into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It attracts hordes of Mad Max-esque tribesemen and coats them in green goo, turning them into savage green mutants. These mutants then wage war on all of civilization while riding giant bats and blasting Black Sabbath. It is, to quote the poet Keats, metal as fuck.
One of the cities they attack puts out a call to the Taarakians, a once proud warrior race whose numbers have dwindled to a single member; the warrior woman Taarna who spends her days flying her pterodactyl in front of gorgeous, Moebius inspired artwork.
Tarna prepares to rescue the city by slooooowly putting on her extremely practical battle bikini and by raising her magic sword and saying “FOR THE HONOUR OF GREYSKULL”.
Taarna then heads out to the city only to find that everyone is already dead.
She flies off, finds the leader of the mutants, battles him, and then she and her pterodactyl fly a kamikaze mission into the volcano, using her magic sword to destroy the Loc-Nar. Or, seeing as he’s been narrating this whole thing, at least mildly inconveniencing him.
Taarna has probably the most impressive animation in this whole thing, with gorgeous backdrops and some mighty fine flying scenes that must have been a nightmare to render by hand. The expanded length also helps the short as it allows room for the characters and world to breathe. And Taarna, for all her fanservicey design, is quite compelling as a brooding, utterly silent hero. Probably my second favourite sequence after B-17.
We then flash back to the astronaut’s house where the Loc-Nar starts to break apart because the story he was telling was so traumatic that he triggered himself. Terrified, the girl runs out just before the house explodes, presumably destroying the Loc-Nar. She runs into a field until she sees a pterodactyl waiting for her. She climbs on and flies away, turning into Taarna because apparently she was actually Taarna all along or something, I dunno.
Heavy Metal is pretty dated in a lot of ways. This is the kind of movie where the credits list two characters simply named “girl” and another two named “whore”. Buuuut if you can get past the dated gender politics, the gratuitous nudity, the wildly veering tone and quality there is a fascinating, weird and unique slice of animation history right here. It’s not for everyone, but I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that it’s very much for me.
Really hard to judge an anthology with such wildly different animation but it averages out around here.
Again, mixed bag.
I’ve seen villains who tried to talk the heroes to death. I’ve never seen one who talked himself to death.
Supporting Characters: 14/20
Guys, I’ll be honest, I’m just picking numbers at random here.
Fittingly, the soundtrack rocks. Also, the incidental score by Elmer Bernstein is very effective (and keep an ear out for an early appearance of elements from the Ghostbusters soundtrack).
FINAL SCORE: 60%
NEXT UPDATE: 08 December 2022
NEXT TIME: This is the only Christmassy thing on my “to-review” pile. Is it too late to convert?