There won’t be many animated films on my list—I don’t think!—but this week’s selection is the major exception. If you like sword and sorcery, low fantasy carnage, outrageous science fiction, and classic hard rock, you’ll love 1981’s animated anthology Heavy Metal.
Heavy Metal is one of those flicks that won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s one that I find myself returning to routinely for repeat viewings. I’ve always been a sucker for anthologies, and while some of the stories are a bit uneven, the effect of the whole is a colorful, musical ride through a fantastical, dark, humorous worlds.
Heavy Metal opens with an astronaut flying a 1960 Corvette to Earth:
Ridiculous, over-the-top—awesome. I recreate this scene when playing with Hot Wheels with my nephews, but I’ll usually sing the intro to the film’s title track, “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)“:
But I digress. The astronaut brings his daughter a gift from outer space, which turns out to be the Loc-Nar, a glowing green orb that describes itself as “the sum of all evils.” The Loc-Nar proceeds to tell the terrified girl that he will show her his influence upon societies throughout space and time.
Heavy Metal does a great job of starting and finishing strong, with some of its best vignettes at the beginning of the film, and again at the end. It’s structured like a good rock concert: a strong, ridiculous opener, followed up by a solid second piece, with a little mid-show filler of varying quality, before finishing with an epic grand finale.
That’s how it feels, anyway, when the first story within the Loc-Nar frame kicks off: “Harry Canyon.” The title character is a film noir cabbie in a near-future New York City that is not unlike The Big Apple today: riddled with crime and illegal aliens (in this case, aliens of the interplanetary variety). Harry helps a damsel in distress, a buxom woman (there are plenty of those in Heavy Metal) with gangsters after her for the Loc-Nar, which her archaeologist father was presenting at a museum. This damsel becomes a femme fatale who lures Harry into helping her negotiate a trade for the Loc-Nar. When the gangster leader picks it up, it disintegrates him, and the damsel attempts to rob Harry, who wearily and somewhat wistfully disintegrates her. It’s an excellent slice-of-filthy-life delivered in a classic, hard-boiled noir manner.
The second vignette, “Den,” is epic sword and sorcery of a Conan the Barbarian type. A homely nerd picks up the Loc-Nar on Earth, and it transports him to a mystical world of dark magic and human sacrifice. The boy is transformed into a massive, naked barbarian called “Den,” and immediately saves a naked, buxom woman (see!) from being sacrificed by another buxom woman (what did I tell you!). That leads the powerful but innocent Den into the world of intrigue between two competing forces—the immortal gadfly Ard and the reigning Queen (the aforementioned “another buxom woman”). Den manages to defeat them both, but rejects the dark power of the Loc-Nar, having seen its destructive power.
The next segment, “Captain Sternn,” is the trial of a disgraced captain who looks and sounds like a Disney prince, but who is an allegedly very wicked man. But he assures his attorney that “he’s got an angle”—the apparently mild-mannered Hanover Fiste, who picks up the now-marble-sized Loc-Nar. Under the influence of the Loc-Nar—or so it seems—Fiste transforms into a hulking monstrosity of a man, utter obscene allegations against Sternn before chasing him through the space station where the trial takes place. Once cornered, Sternn casually counts out some cash and hands it over to Fiste, who reduces back to his normal size—before Sternn opens an escape hatch, sending Fiste to his death in outer space. It’s one of the weaker segments, but it’s a nice bit of levity before the fourth segment, which is one of the best.
“B-17” is one of the eeriest installments of Heavy Metal, both for its depiction of the danger of Second World War bombing mission and the spooky atmosphere of the ravaged bomber. After a difficult mission slaughters most of the plane’s crew, the survivors notice a green orb tailing the plane—the Loc-Nar. The Loc-Nar lodges itself into the plane’s underbelly, and emanates its glowing green malevolence throughout the vessel. The fallen soldiers arise as terrifying, mutilated zombies, killing the survivors. The pilot manages to eject the plane, parachuting down to a tropical island. As he heads into the interior of the island, he finds a graveyard of planes of various eras and nationalities, but all filled with the living dead.
The fifth segment, “So Beautiful & So Dangerous,” is probably my least favorite of the film. It’s not bad, just a bit too goofy. It involves a crew of two drugged-out aliens and their robot pal sucking up a malfunctioning android and—inadvertently—abducting a buxom (there it is again!) stenographer. There is apparently a substantial crossover between stoners and fans of science fiction and weird fantasy, so it’s not surprising there was the obligatory druggie sequence, in which the two goofy aliens do lines of “Plutonian Nyborg” before flying their craft home under the influence. One humorous line that always gets me is when the intoxicated aliens are landing the ship in a space station, and one remarks (to paraphrase), “It’s like you know you can’t trust your eyes, so you just have to let your instincts take over,” before making a rough landing in the station.
That humorous palette cleanser being done, we get to the last story in the anthology, “Taarna.” Taarna is the woman who appears in the cover art for the film, and is the last surviving member of the Taarakians, a race of noble warriors who defend a city of scholars from attack. The Loc-Nar falls into a volcano, and when curious villagers go to investigate, they are turned into a bloodthirsty, green-skinned, yellow-eyed barbarians shouting for “blood!” The barbarians kill the ruling council of the city of scholars, but not before they can summon Taarna to their aid. Witnessing the destruction, Taarna and her valiant pterodactyl steed fly off in search of the mutant barbarians and their leader, who wears a “Z” medallion.
This story is probably the highlight of the entire film, with Taarna overcoming difficult situations and hardships. She is no Mary Sue—she genuinely struggles against the powerful mutant leader, and she and her steed are captured and injured in their quest to avenge the council. When she finally defeats the mutant leader in a close battle, she and her maimed pterodactyl must make the ultimate sacrifice to destroy the Loc-Nar.
After “Taarna,” the film returns to the frame story, with the little girl fleeing her home as the Loc-Nar explodes. There’s a hilariously dated cut from the animated house to what is clearly a small-scale model that is blown to bits. I’m sure it looked more convincing in 1981, but I find that kind of thing charming.
As I noted above, Heavy Metal isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It’s definitely a “cult classic,” one that will appeal to a narrower range of viewers than some other flicks on this list. But it captures perfectly the creative ferment of late-70s/early-80s science fiction and fantasy, especially in the world of comics and short stories. Long-time readers know I am a big fan of short stories and anthologies, and when done well on film, they are often more compelling than single, ninety-minute (or, increasingly, two-and-a-half-hour!) stories.
There is enough variety here, though, that there is something for everyone—not just pubescent nerds who want to see animated boobs. There’s a lot of legitimately good storytelling, too!