“A shadow shall fall over the universe, and evil will grow in its path, and death will come from the skies.”
Heavy Metal is 40 years old today.
I’m not talking about the music genre, which is even older; I mean Heavy Metal, the animated movie based on the self-styled “adult illustrated fantasy magazine (itself based on the French magazine Métal Hurlant),” which premiered in theaters on August 7th, 1981. Unless you’ve been living on an asteroid or suspended in cryogenic freeze lo these many years, you’ve at least heard of this movie, and are even likely familiar with at least one image associated with the film. Check it, yo:
The summer of 1981 was pretty good for movies, especially if you were a 14-year old boy like I was. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Escape From New York, Clash of the Titans and For Your Eyes Only to name but a few were all in theaters, and this was back in the days when movies where “HELD OVER!” for weeks upon weeks, so long as they brought in decent coin. So, it was with no small amount of curiosity that my friends and I, after ostensibly purchasing tickets to see Indiana Jones do his thing for the seventh or eighth time, instead took advantage of lax theater oversight and snuck our way into our first R-rated cartoon.
Dayton, his young, impressionable eyes opened.
And so it went: A mysterious green orb brought back to Earth from deep space proceeds to tell its tale of how evil it is to the young daughter of the astronaut who brought it home. As for the astronaut? Well, he did bring the thing home, so that was his ass. The orb, which refers to itself as the “Loc-Nar,” reveals its story to the girl (and us) through a series of vignettes, each set in different a time period and/or on a distant world, with tons of violence, bad language, and gratuitous animated nudity…and all of it set to a first-rate musical score courtesy of legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, along with what is arguably one of the most KICK-ASS collections of rock music ever to be lumped together under a “movie soundtrack” banner.
Ivan Reitman (as in Animal House, Stripes, Ghostbusters and…yes…Kindergarten Cop), co-produced the film, which features stories written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien) as well as frequent Heavy Metal magazine contributors Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben. The voice talents of folks like John Candy, Harold Ramis, John Vernon and Eugene Levy add to the fun. The animation, much of which was derived by “rotoscoping,” or drawing animated figures by tracing over filmed live-action footage of actors, has its ups and downs, though a lot of it looks pretty dated when compared to modern efforts and even some earlier animated features. Still, it does have a distinctive style which remains recognizable.
To be honest, Heavy Metal isn’t that great a flick. I mean, we got a huge kick out of it back then, and I’ve watched it however many times during the intervening years, but it’s not a masterpiece. I enjoy many of its components individually more so than the resulting entire package. Regardless of what I might think, there’s no denying it’s a cult classic, with no small amount of charm doing its best to mask the flaws contained therein.
That’s not to say I think it’s a bad movie. It’s cheesy fun, and while it appealed more to 14-year old me than 54-year old me, I still have a soft spot for a couple of the segments (“Captain Sternn” and “B-17,” for those keeping score). What I remember most, and still love to this day, is the music. Holy shit, what a line-up! Sammy Hagar, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Nazareth, and even Journey and Grand Funk Railroad, just to name the ones off the top of my head. I must have gone through a half-dozen copies of the soundtrack on cassette (Remember those?), and waited for years for the damned thing to be made available on CD. Same with the Bernstein score.
As for the movie itself, I unabashedly admit I own it on Blu-ray, along with its lesser sequel, Heavy Metal 2000 (on DVD, natch). I’ve also followed the magazine off and on across the years, up to and including recent issues from its current iteration, and some of their spin-off comics projects have also caught my eye here and there.
There have been rumblings off and on in recent years about some kind of new animated Heavy Metal film project. While that hasn’t yet happened, HM’s had its fingers in a few other screened projects. First, there was Métal Hurlant Chronicles, a French-Belgian anthology series which took its name from the original magazine. After airing in Europe beginning in the fall of 2012, its two seasons made their way to the U.S. in 2014 and showed up on the Syfy network.
Elsewhere, Kevin Eastman, at the time the owner and publisher of Heavy Metal magazine, co-produced War of the Worlds: Goliath, a 2014 animated steampunk sequel to H.G. Wells’ original novel The War of the Worlds. Uh…they had me at War of the Worlds. Anyway, Eastman made sure the magazine promoted the film in the run-up to its release, including featuring several tie-in stories culminating in a “War of the Worlds special” issue. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the film’s novelization, written as it was by friend and fellow word pusher Adam Whitlatch.
Most recently, there’s the Netflix series Love, Death & Robots, which premiered in 2019 and is basically a reimagining of an idea for a Heavy Metal movie series developed by David Fincher and Tim Miller. LD+R has produced 26 episodes to date across two seasons, with a third season of eight episodes slated for 2022.
So, you know: feel free to check out all of that stuff. You know you want to. You can’t refuse. “If you refuse, you die; she dies…everybody dies!”
:: Ahem. ::
Anyway, Happy 40th Birthday, Heavy Metal the movie.