Sony // 1981 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // March 17th, 2003
Louder and nastier than ever!
Heavy Metal is the ultimate collection of garish fantasies aimed at every adolescent male's desires for sex, violence, and rock and roll.
A mysterious glowing green orb called the Loc-Nar travels the universe as the source of all evil. It travels by chance, passing from the hand of one unsuspecting victim to the next, making its way through time and space seemingly by pure chance. Like the fabled One Ring, the Loc-Nar brings chaos, pain, and death to all who cross its path.
Heavy Metal follows the Loc-Nar through several encounters in time and space, from present-day Earth to fantastic space settings to post-apocalyptic landscapes to alternate realities. As it relates each tale of despair and destruction, it unwittingly sows the seeds of its own defeat and humanity's ultimate rescue.
Heavy Metalis less a unified whole and more a string of mini-vignettes, each one imagining a different sort of evil caused by the Loc-Nar's malevolent presence. These vignettes vary in length and quality of animation, ranging from Beavis and Butthead crudity in some of the earlier segments to some fairly impressive pseudo-anime in the climatic final sequences.
One segment in particular seems to sum up everything that Heavy Metal is about. In the segment entitled "Den," John Candy lends his vocal talents to the tale of a teenage science geek who is transported by the Loc-Nar to a different planet and transformed into a Conan-style musclebound warrior. Much mayhem, violence, and naked women ensue. This is a perfect summary of the male adolescent hormonal nihilistic fantasy world of Heavy Metal. Even the final segment, featuring a wordless female warrior who saves humanity from the evil of the Loc-Nar, has its share of gratuitous nudity and titillating scenarios. Over the top of this whole unappetizing mess is lavished a huge helping of gore. Not that I'm against gore in general -- in fact, I rather enjoy cinematic violence and bloodshed -- but the gore in Heavy Metal is gore for its own sake. It does not come as a logical result of the stories being told; rather, the stories, like the ones my friend Daryl and I used to write in eleventh grade English, seem engineered to get as much blood and guts on the screen as possible. It becomes laughable at times, like an episode of The Itchy and Scratchy Show set to rock music. This is particularly true in the intensely gory and pointless B-17 segment, where the power of the Loc-Nar turns the dead crewmen of a World War II bomber into zombies.
Still, there is something irresistible about Heavy Metal, something eerily compelling buried in its inane dialogue, uneven visuals, and schizophrenic "story." The first chapter in the story is the tale of Harry Canyon, a cab driver in New York City in 2031. His adventure is banal and unrealistic, and spiced with gratuitous violence, sex, and nudity; the visuals in this segment are among the most crudely drawn of the whole movie. Still, there is something gripping about the pessimism, the lack of faith in any kind of future, that must have led to its creation. The story shows us New York as a near ghost town, a run down collection of decaying buildings, vice, and crime. It looks exactly as someone in 1981 with a jaundiced view of the future might have expected New York to look in fifty years. It carries the feel of post-60s disillusionment as filtered through the 70s "spirit of malaise." There is an apocalyptic feel here that transports us back to a time when we were sure of our own destruction, that if the Russians didn't get us, we would do the job ourselves.
After a sequence of stories that vacillate between the nihilistic and the inane, we finally meet Taarna, the mysterious swordswoman. Hers is the only segment that brings any sense of hopefulness, a sense that humanity might have a chance against the evil in the universe after all. This is also the best-animated sequence, with some very impressive background visuals and detailed, almost lifelike characters; at times, it ooks like a Boris Vallejo painting brought to life. Taarna inhabits a post-apocalyptic future where the few surviving tribes of humans have reverted to barbarian ways. It falls to her to vanquish the Loc-Nar and save humanity, at least for the time being. It is hard to say whether this segment really represents a glimmer of hope for our eventual redemption or not, however; most of this sequence is just as harsh, violent, and barren as what has come before. Also, it appears that Taarna only manages to defeat evil after the rest of humanity has already been wiped out; it is up to the viewer to decide what this says regarding a vision for the future.
Columbia/Tri-Star, back in the days when they actually gave a rat's arse about DVD, put out an excellent, fully-loaded Special Edition of Heavy Metal. That was back in 1999; I encourage you to look in the archives for former Chief Justice McGinnis's verdict on that release. Of course, the times have changed, and Columbia/Tri-Star is now deeply enamored of their ridiculous Superbit line of overpriced, bare-bones DVDs. The upshot of all this is that none of the very excellent extras on that release are included here, since that would spoil the gimmick.
That rant aside, does this Superbit title live up to the high standards that it claims to set? Video quality is, in my opinion, harder to assess for animation than it is when dealing with live action. Also, the sub-par quality of the animation in some segments is hard to judge by. There were some source defects visible, such as some pronounced dirt/nicks/scratches in the opening scenes of the movie, as well as some pronounced film grain from time to time. Overall, however, I could not spot any transfer-related quality issues. Edge enhancement seemed to be almost non-existent, and all colors including blacks seemed to be dead-on. Some of the later segments, where the quality of the animation improves considerably, look downright spectacular. Still, is it that much of an improvement? I haven't seen the other DVD releases of this film, so I can't tell you. I can tell you that as good as it looks, it is not noticeably better than the work I have seen from other studios, notably DreamWorks or Pixar, in dealing with animation.
Where one really has to give the devils their due is in the audio department. One of the few acknowledged benefits of the Superbit line is the inclusion of DTS audio tracks. (Other studios, such as DreamWorks, include them on non-bare bones discs, but whatever.) The audio quality on this disc fulfilled and surpassed all expectations. This is just plain good, house-shaking sound. Benefiting particularly from the extra oopmh of the DTS track is the musical soundtrack, featuring work by such artists as Devo, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, Black Sabbath, and many more.
Oooh, a DTS track and video bitrates that are comparable with other studios' high-profile releases. I guess that makes the loss of extras worth it. Because, you know, Heavy Metal, with its twenty-year-old dodgy animation is, like, obviously a movie where the technical presentation outweighs any deep analysis of what the heck the movie is actually about.
Heavy Metal is by and large an interesting concept executed as an ultimately juvenile movie. Still, it is in its own way quite compelling, and contains a handful of thought provoking and redeeming moments that may make it worth a look. In any case, do not buy this release -- look for the Special Edition, with its full array of quality extra features and explanations, instead.
The jury is still out on Heavy Metal, but the verdict on Columbia TriStar and their Superbit tomfoolery is clear. Bailiff, lock 'em up.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R