Movies We Love: Heavy Metal

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Heavy Metal (1981)

Oh, wow … good Nyborg!

This animated anthology film, which pays tribute to Heavy Metal magazine, consists of nine risque comedy, sci-fi, action, fantasy and horror stories. Each story is loosely connected to the others by a single ubervillain – a talking green orb called the Loc-Nar.

Why We Love It
Unlike many movies lauded by aging stoners, Heavy Metal actually makes for pleasant viewing while dead sober.

All right, it’s primarily pleasant for viewers of the male persuasion. It appeals to base manly urges, showcasing guys with big guns and gals with bigger knockers, fighting and fucking to a cheesy classic rock soundtrack. Heavy Metal didn’t even try to throw feminists a bone. Unless you count the tale of Taarna, who’s literally a *cough* well-developed female protagonist … who transforms the act of girding herself for battle into a complete unmotivated strip-tease.

That, of course, is the point. Heavy Metal is an unapologetic, politically incorrect ode to just about every imaginable guilty pleasure that makes hetero male life worth living. Vintage Corvettes? Check. Voluptuous babes? Check. Mindless aggression? You got it. Recreational chemical abuse? Yup. Would you like a side of airborne zombies with that?

Capping the experience off is the fact it’s entirely animated. In a post-Family Guy, post-Adult Swim, universe, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. But at the time of its release, the prevailing wisdom in America was that cartoons were strictly for kids. Sure, you had anomalies like Ralph Bakshi’s pot-smoking horndog, Fritz the Cat. But even Fritz and friends were beholden to their cuddly cartoon predecessors. They were essentially Disney’s id.

Heavy Metal owes very little to Disney in both style and substance, instead bringing to life illustrations and stories by horror and sci-fi visionaries such as frequent Stephen King-collaborator Bernie Wrightson, Alien creator Dan O’Bannon, and French cyberpunk pioneer Moebius.

Each segment in the anthology is presented with a different aesthetic, from the surrealism of the opening title sequence, to the superhero caricature of Captain Sternn.

Heavy Metal also showcases stunning examples of rotoscoping, an old-school technique that’s something of a spiritual predecessor to today’s motion-capture animation. Models (of both the badass vehicle and curvaceous Amazon variety) were filmed on a set, then traced frame-by-frame onto film. The result is at once otherworldy and lifelike.

Moment We Fell In Love
Heavy Metal is, of course, more than the name of a nerdy fetish magazine and film. It’s also a genre of music that, oddly enough, is somewhat under represented on this movie’s soundtrack.

Ah … the soundtrack. In some ways, this is the true connective tissue that binds this film’s disparate parts. More than the admittedly thin framing device of the Loc-Nar, the common thread between each of the segments is a balls-out, greasy-mullet-flappin’-in-the-wind musical accompaniment. To call Donald Fagen, Stevie Nicks, Devo and Journey “heavy metal” is beyond stretching the term. In fact, to call most of the music here good is really stretching it. But, it just fits the retro-macho aesthetic of this film perfectly, as a set of mag wheels and whitewalls just fit an egg-yolk yellow ’78 Camaro.

Time for an aside for all of you who are trying to bring Journey back. I don’t care if “Don’t Stop Believin’” was used to great ironic effect in The Sopranos. Journey still sucks and nothing you do or say will ever change that fact.

And yet, as a testament to the power of Heavy Metal to perfectly marry sight and sound, I must now sheepishly admit the moment I fell in love with this film.

The moment actually came some time after I first saw the movie. I heard “Open Arms” on the radio and it brought to mind an animated love scene starring a blue-eyed, red-haired knockout who boasted a stunning rack. Thanks to Heavy Metal, whenever I hear that godawful Journey ballad, I can mentally retreat to a special happy place.

Final Thoughts
I know I’m not alone in loving Heavy Metal. In fact, I’m in pretty good company. A conspicuously all-male pack of celebrated filmmakers love it, too. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element borrows heavily from Heavy Metal for its characters, themes, set, costume and prop design. David Fincher, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, Zack Snyder and Gore Verbinski are all itching to bring Heavy Metal glory to the silver screen one more time.

And I’ve been craving some more of that unapologetic badassedness like a purple-skinned fiend jonesing for his Plutonian Nyborg.

Check out more Movies We Love.