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Heavy Metal (1981)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

HEAVY METAL (1981)

Voices: John Candy, Rodger Bumpass, Marilyn Lightstone, Jackie Burroughs, Eugene Levy, Richard Romanus

Written By: Daniel Goldberg (also stories), Len Blum (also stories), Dan O'Bannon (stories),

Bernie Wrightson (story), Richard Corben (story), Angus McKie (story) Directed By: Gerald Potterton

The Short Version

As far as animated films go, this one’s a landmark.

Whether or not it’s any good depends on why you’re watching.

“Sophomoric” really is too kind a word for most of what’s going on here.

But some of the visual art truly is magnificent.

Heavy Metal never aged past the locker room, but it’s a well-painted locker room.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEEZ WHIZ.

It’s not particularly good for you, but your teenage self thought it was delicious.  Don’t deny it.


Pairs Well With...

MILLER LITE.

The target audience of Heavy Metal was probably pounding this stuff before it was legal for them to do so… and probably still fails to see any irony in modern commercials that suggest Miller Lite as a way to “man up.”

“Wow!  Eighteen years of nothing, and now twice in one day!  What a place!”


For many film fans and 80s pop culture aficionados, Heavy Metal is instantly recognizable… as the basis for one of the most classic movie posters of all time.  As time has passed (and even back in the day), far more people know and admire that poster than have ever actually seen or even attempted to see the movie.

Are those who’ve chosen to skip the experience missing anything?  Well…  It helps to know a few of the ground rules coming in.

First off, don’t go in thinking that Heavy Metal is a hard rock video.  In fact, the title isn’t lifted from the music style, but rather from the name of the retitled American edition of a French magazine (the French version translates as “Howling Metal”) specializing in sci fi/erotica/fantasy stories and art, with a major focus on sex, violence, monsters, and sex.  If Heavy Metal has anything to do with the musical genre of the same name, it’s that its art (and especially that of the magazine that inspired it) has informed many a classic album cover.  Indeed, even though the soundtrack does feature a bit from Black Sabbath, it’s also got the likes of Donald Fagen (from Steely Dan) and Devo, and the most powerful music by far is the score by Elmer Bernstein.  Something to keep in mind.

Now that you know to take any references to a style of music with a grain of salt, that classic movie poster that everyone remembers really does spell out – almost – everything you need to know about Heavy Metal.  At least, the original version does.  That version contains the following lines of text:


“A universe of mystery.

A universe of magic.

A universe of sexual fantasies.

A universe of awesome good.

A universe of terrifying evil.”


So, which one caught your eye first?  Yeah, thought so.

Heavy Metal is a collection of short animated sci fi and fantasy vignettes – pulp style adventures is a pretty accurate descriptor – loosely tied together by a common thread (a green ball that symbolizes Ultimate Evil), with an emphasis on boobs, blood, monsters, boobs, robots, drugs, boobs, swords, spaceships, and ass.  In other words, it’s the base mind of a boys’ locker room captured sometime between puberty and sophomore year.  Indeed, I can think of no better way to describe most of the included stories than “sophomoric,” and looking at interview material, the filmmakers themselves readily own up to that label with no apologies.  This is a flick made by men who took the opportunity to turn nine million dollars into the movie they would have wanted to see as teenagers: Saturday morning cartoon adventure stories with gore, tits, and ass.

If nothing else, at least they’re honest about it.

Though it isn’t the signature piece of Heavy Metal, no segment captures the true essence of what this movie is more than the second major vignette, called “Den.”  It’s the story of an out-of-shape teenage gleep who lives at home despite technically having no life.  Suddenly, he finds himself transported to a mystical jungle world… and outfitted with a brand new, incredibly buff body, complete with sizable plumbing.  (It’s worth noting that in the magazine story that inspired this piece, the male nudity was graphic, but in the film, it is not; we only know about Den’s penis because he makes a point of mentioning it… and calling it his “dork.”  Go on; slam another beer.)  He learns that he must save a beautiful woman from an evil queen – both of whom are eager to get naked on camera and have sex with him – and to slay various evil things (including a monster loosely named after Cthulhu) along the way.  A bloody softcore riff on “Thundar the Barbarian” ensues (high five if you get that), and when it’s all said and done, Den cheerfully informs the audience that even given the chance, there’s no way he’d ever go back to being a teenage doufus on Earth.  There’s simply no missing the fact that Den is the target audience of Heavy Metal incarnate, and though it may at first seem jarring to some that the character is voiced by none other than John Candy, given a little further consideration… yeah, it’s perfect.  Understand the core of “Den,” and you understand the entire movie.  Yeah, some segments are even less mature (“Captain Sternn” is an irredeemable pig no matter what decade it is), and some more so, but overall, it really is that simple, and it really is that unapologetically cheesy and sophomoric.

This isn’t to say that it’s bad, mind you.  But it is a matter of taste, and if an adolescent locker room where the guys still snicker at the mention of “boobies” (and have probably never seen them in person since puberty) is not a place where you can spend an hour and half without wanting to puke, then Heavy Metal probably isn’t for you.  On the other hand, for another segment of the population, Heavy Metal has “nostalgia” and “guilty pleasure” written all over it.  As for me, with the understanding that I do think the “Sternn” segment is a troglodyte waste, I’ll admit that I count myself as part of the “guilty pleasure” contingent.

Besides, there’s more to that classic poster than the aforementioned lines of text.  There’s also – most prominently – the image of a sexy futuristic Valkyrie holding up a sword while she rides an alien bird to who knows what awesome adventure.  Modern eyes can’t help but see this picture as the blueprint for modern sword-and-sorcery gaming, and any serious fan of fantasy art recognizes it as one of the iconic images of the genre.  Most importantly here, though, it is a reminder that Heavy Metal is not just a collection of schoolboy fantasy stories: it is also a showcase of visual art and animation.

It is in this role that Heavy Metal earns its place as a landmark motion picture.

Heavy Metal is both a microcosm of animation just before the rise of Japanese anime, and a herald and inspiration for things to come.  The artistic styles are not consistent from segment to segment, but that’s part of the film’s appeal.  It can’t even be said that all of the art and animation is great; none of it is bad, to be sure, but some (including the framing segments) is just plain average.  And yet, all of it memorable for one reason or another.  (And yes, I refer to things that go well beyond the T&A.)

The grit of the “Harry Canyon” segment that is the first real vignette of the film proves to be an inspired stylistic choice, perfectly conveying a dismal and wrecked New York of the future where no surface is clean enough to eat off of, including the kitchen table.  Before a word is spoken, the visuals completely define the world that is this particular story’s stage, and do so with a completeness and an economy that no voice over or prose could ever hope to achieve.  (They also, one suspects, seem to have been paid close attention by the folks behind The Fifth Element.  Call it a guess.)  It’s a nasty and at times unpolished visual style the likes of which it’s doubtful we’ll ever see again in this current age of CGI… and that’s exactly why it works.

“Den,” meanwhile, is the common state of Saturday morning animation of its day given a bigger stage and a lack of censorship.  It’s a museum piece, and for those who remember the style in its heyday, it's one worth visiting.

And then, there are the standouts.

Even more than three decades after the fact, “B-17” stands as one of the single greatest pieces of horror animation ever done.  It starts with the concept of a World War II bomber meeting the skeletal undead, and it just runs from there.  It’s drawn in a style that would inform true Heavy Metal album covers throughout their greatest era, and just plain awesome to watch.  If you enjoy horror art at all, this piece by itself is worth the entire film.

And oh yes, there is that Valkyrie who dominates the poster art and serves as the template for just about every sword-and-sorcery babe that would follow forever after.  She is the title character in the film’s climactic segment, “Taarna,” and that segment is phenomenal.  As a story, it’s the movie’s most interesting and best constructed.  As a piece of visual art, the work of Moebius (the legendary artist responsible for this segment) stands apart from everything else as the most beautiful, most gripping stuff of the entire film, and along with “B-17,” is the real reason that Heavy Metal has endured in the cinematic consciousness for over thirty years.  This is the standard by which fantasy animation – be it storytelling animation or, as the medium developed, gaming animation – would come to be judged, and often found wanting. 

It is also why maybe, just maybe, there need not be any guilt associated with taking pleasure in watching Heavy Metal.

Oh, wait.  The segment with the drugged up spacers.  Den and his “dork.”  Nevermind.

Bottom line, the psychology and storytelling of Heavy Metal never made it past the underclassmen’s locker room, and on that basis, it’s just going to be too sophomoric and sexist for many audiences.  And yet, there’s plenty of good to be found here, as well, whether it’s an appreciation for the animators’ art, a trip down Nostalgia Drive, or acknowledgement of something that would come to be a template for so much that came afterward.  All things considered, there are plenty of worse guilty pleasures out there to pick from… and if nothing else, hey, how about that poster?

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2013


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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