Heavy Metal (1981)

(Second viewing, Netflix Streaming, July 2017) In-between kid’s stuff and adult matters, there’s a teenage gray zone in which topics inappropriate for kids are discussed in ways inappropriate from adults. Too often, any effort to escape kids’ stuff ends up in a puerile mixture of violence, nudity and bad language for their own sake rather than in support of more enlightened discussions. So when Heavy Metal magazine was founded (in France as Metal Hurlant) as an adult alternative to kids comics, it ended up taking the easy path. Much of the same true for Heavy Metal the movie, which delves into grandiloquent yet meaningless drivel, embarrassing nudity, teenage power fantasies, gratuitous gore, pervasive swearing and a cynical worldview that smacks of poseur nihilism rather than experienced weariness. It really doesn’t help that the film ran out of time and budget before being completed, with a lot of shortcuts visible on-screen as cheap animation, truncated stories and insufficiently rotoscoped results. This anthology of animated stories contains ten entries, very loosely tied together by one of the worst framing stories (a green ball of evil!) ever put on film. “Soft Landing” gets things going smoothly with a unique rotoscope-dominated airbrushed style set to anthemic music. Then it’s off to the bottom with terrible framing story “Grimaldi”, trying-too-hard “Harry Canyon” and the embarrassing teenage power fantasy “Den”. I first saw Heavy Metal as an older teenager, but even then I knew that this particular segment was drivel. Things don’t necessarily improve with “Captain Sternn”, an overlong and unfunny attempt at a joke segment. On the other hand, “B-17” is the highlight of the film: It’s gratuitously gory in the darkest Twilight-Zone sense, but it’s interesting to watch and does offer some kind of conclusion, as arbitrary as it may seem. (It’s penned by Dan O’Bannon, who has quite a few more good stories to his credit.) This is followed by “So Beautiful and So Dangerous”, which is juvenile and unfinished, but at least has the decency to drop the all-darkness-all-the-time motif for some dumb fun and humour (and robosexual jokes). Alas, the longest and worst segment “Taarna” concludes the film with an embarrassing barbarian fantasy film that spends minutes ogling its mute female protagonist rather than deliver a satisfying story. “Den” and “Taarna”, taking together, give a pretty good glimpse at the inner fantasies of late-seventies teenagers, but seen from today’s perspective make for a movie that you’d be ashamed to suggest to anyone. The occasional good music and rare good segments don’t manage to make Heavy Metal anything but a slightly noxious representation of geek obsessions back then. Alas, they may still be more current than we’d wish.

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