In 1981, a cult classic hit the theaters. The very first animated movie to be rated R, Heavy Metal. Today, the idea of a cartoon catering strictly to an adult audience doesn’t seem that unusual. This cartoon was not a big hit at the box office but became a cult classic on cable and through bootlegs (due to copyright issues with the music, it took a pretty long time to get a proper, legal home video release.) This cartoon paved the way for a new way to look at animation. I guarantee you anime would never have made it into the US were it not for the cult status of this movie.
So, what was it? It was an anthology movie based on the British magazine of the same name. Each story adapted a specific story or comic that appeared in the magazine. To celebrate the 35th anniversary, I decided to review each short individually. Before I begin, I must warn you–this movie earned its R rating. Almost every short has nudity and/0r excessive violence. So if you’re squeamish about either of those, I don’t recommend it.
- “Soft Landing”–The opening short is a rotoscoped car dropped from a spaceship in space. Rotoscoping was a classic animation style that wasn’t used often, but it was a predecessor to what we know today as motion-capture. Really there’s no story here, just some cool animation of a car landing on the planet Earth. Song: “Radar Rider”–Riggs
- “Grimaldi”–The framing device for the rest of the movie. An astronaut brings home a glowing talking orb called Loc-Nar. This orb is the “sum of all evil.” Anyone who comes in contact with the orb is either corrupted or melted into nothing. Which is precisely what happens to the astronaut. It then comes for his daughter. Rather than kill her, it decides to tell her stories of all the people it has corrupted or killed. Some really good detail of the poor girl in each scene. The framing device is kind of sketchy, but I don’t think it hurts the movie overall until the ending, which I won’t spoil. It’s really only the logic that hurts the ending, otherwise the ending is great.
- “Harry Canyon”–This short inspired the movie The Fifth Element. It’s a futuristic noir about a cab driver who picks up a woman after her father is murdered by gangsters who want the Loc-Nar. The story has an interesting atmosphere, and we get our first sex scene. Probably one of the best stories, if only for Harry’s method of dispatching threatening passengers: he has a foot pedal that melts them away before they can even kill him. It’s kind of funny, in a black humor kind of way, mostly because of how Harry doesn’t even flinch before pressing the button. Songs: “Veterans of the Psychic Wars”–Blue Oyster Cult, “True Companion”–Donald Fagan, “Heartbeat”–Riggs, “Blue Lamp”–Stevie Nicks, and “Open Arms”–Journey
- “Den”–This short features John Candy voicing its main character. A nerdy boy is transported to a parallel world where he becomes a muscular man clad only in a loin cloth (in fact, he’s one of the few clothed humans in the story.) and saves a woman from becoming a human sacrifice. It’s an OK story, and has great animation.
- “Captain Sternn”–My favorite story because it’s the funniest. A rather unsavory spaceship captain has to stand trial for numerous crimes, but he’s “got an angle”–a paid witness named Hanover Fiste (get it?). Unfortunately for Sternn, Hanover has Loc-Nar, and it’s corrupting him into telling the truth rather than lying. He then turns into an Incredible Hulk-like version of himself bent on killing Sternn. It’s actually the funniest short in the movie. Song: “Reach Out”–Cheap Trick
- “B-17” A B-17 bomber is overrun by zombies. The only story with no gore or nudity, unless you count the zombies. Also has one of the best songs in the movie. “Taking a Ride (On Heavy Metal)”–Don Felder
- “So Beautiful and So Dangerous”–A robot abducts a secretary and coerces her into having sex with her. It’s the second funniest story, just because it’s so bizarre and more light-hearted than the rest of the stories. Songs: “Queen Bee”–Grand Funk Railroad, “I Must Be Dreaming”–Cheap Trick, “Crazy (A Suitable Case For Treatment)“Crazy (A Suitable Case For Treatment)”–Nazareth, “All of You”–Don Felder, “Heavy Metal Noise”–Sammy Hagar, and “Prefabricated”–Trust
- “Taarna”–This is kind of the main attraction, as Taarna is the woman on the movie poster and DVD cover. Taarna is a barbarian who kills Loc-Nar on a barbarian planet. And then we discover the girl from Grimaldi has the same tattoo on her neck as Taarna. Some really good animation here, and the best part is throughout the whole story, Taarna has NO dialogue. This is why I enjoy the segment–It is the perfect example of “show, don’t tell”. We know just from her actions just how powerful Taarna is. It’s worth all the fame it’s given the movie. Granted, Taarna’s armor (if you can call it armor) leaves little to the imagination, but it’s great. Songs: “The Mob Rules”–Black Sabbath, “Through Being Cool”–Devo, and “Working in a Coal Mine”–Devo
As I said, this movie is a milestone. It paved the way for anime to become an acceptable medium. I’m certain that even Akira wouldn’t have been a cult classic were it not for Heavy Metal. If you are a fan of animation and you can handle sex and violence, I recommend this movie.