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HEAVY METAL: Collector's Edition

By Steve Biodrowski     December 31, 1999

This dated relic from the '80s had long lain dormant because of problems regarding home video rights to some of the songs on its soundtrack. Then, a few years ago, the problems were resolved, and HEAVY METAL received a 15th anniversary re-release before finally making its debut on videotape. Unfortunately, a second glimpse proved only that the film has not aged like a fine wine. In fact, the heavy metal soundtrack, which tried so hard to sound contemporary in the 1981, is now more dated than the soundtrack of FANTASIA. The choice of songs is hit-or-miss, with little attempt to choose bands that work in a science-fiction mode. Some of the sequences are amusing, but others lag, and there is an overall repetitiveness (e.g., all the woman are bombshells who take off their clothes within minutes of appearing on screen). The sexist attitude is more glaring than ever, and is only partially apologized for in the final episode, in which the warrior-hero is a woman.

The film starts with a strong image: an astronaut descending through the atmosphere in a '57 Corvette. This moves quickly into the linking device: Loc Nar, a glowing green ball that claims to be the embodiment of all evil in the universe. For reasons of its own (which, frankly, make no sense), the ball melts the astronaut and tells a series of stories to his daughter. The first full-fledged story is also one of the best: 'Harry Canyon' has a nice blasé tone, with its New York cabbie of the future barely reacting to the wild plot around him, in true tough-guy film noir tradition. Unfortunately, Elmer Bernstein's score doesn't quite carry the mood as well as it should, which is a shame, because the song selection isn't that good either (although it is always nice to hear Blue Oyster Cult's 'Veteran of the Psychic Wars,' one of the few genuine science fiction-themed songs on the soundtrack).

After that, the film is a mixed bag. 'Den' is an adequate male adolescent fantasy. 'Captain Stern' offers up a few laughs but makes no sense: Loc Nar influences a bribed witness to tell the truth at the trial of the titular captain (so the film is saying it's evil to testify truthfully, is that it?). 'B-17' has some cool rotoscoping of flying bombers, and there is a nice eerie atmosphere, but the story is little more than a vignette that fails to build properly to its downer climax. 'So Beautiful & So Dangerous' is even more of a non-story, a non-sensical alien abduction that serves mostly as a cocaine joke, providing a chance for some cheap psychedelia as the stoned pilots swerve through the stars. The whole thing feels like a subplot, as if some comic relief characters were excised from a larger story and left, haplessly, to stand on their own.

Finally, 'Tarrna' wallows in a slow pace, after a promising start with a volcanic eruption and some reverberating guitar. Bernstein's score tries to lend a sense of majesty to Tarrna's rather slow response to a distress call, but he can't sell the feeling. Fortunately, things pick up: the episode does a good job of recycling clichés from Sergio Leone's Italian Westerns; the Black Sabbath tune actually fits the scene better than most of the other songs, and the inclusion of music by Devo as a source cue from a bar band is clever and funny. The finale, with Grimaldi's daughter escaping from Loc Nar and taking Tarrna's place, is a nice image, although it makes the talking green ball seem much less all-powerful than it's supposed to be.

Now, Columbia Pictures has issued the film on DVD, and the results are interesting, even if they come nowhere near justifying the film's supposed cult classic status. The picture image is sharp and nicely letterboxed at 1:85. The two sound mixes (Dolby Digital and Dolby Surround) are effective, although the dialogue is a bit too low compared to the music and effects. The special features include: a documentary IMAGINING HEVY METAL; deleted scenes; a feature-length rough cut with optional commentary; an audio track of Carl Macek reading from his book HEAVY METAL: THE MOVIE; subtitles (English, Spanish and Portuguese); and galleries of production art, pencil renderings, and single and layered cel portfolios, and covers of HEAVY METAL magazine.

By far the most interesting extra is the abandoned 'Neverwhere Land' sequence, an impressive piece of impressionistic animation meant to link the 'Captain Stern' episode to 'B-17,' by encapsulating billions of years of history into a few minutes, showing the evil influence of Loch Nar. The scene is a standout, far better than anything that made it into the final cut, and the explanation for its deletion (to shorten the running time) is incomprehensible when you consider some of the stuff that made it's way into the film. In the IMAGINING HEAVY METAL documentary, when one filmmaker asks rhetorically 'Are we nuts?' for having deleted the scene, you want to yell out an emphatic 'Yes!'

Also of interest is an earlier, superior linking sequence, centered on a merry-go-round. Each object on the ride was to suggest an image from each of the stories, which were being related by Grimaldi to his daughter, who was to empathize more and more with the events until morphing into the new defender against evil at the end. The scenes perhaps lacked the threat of the talking green ball that melts Grimaldi almost immediately in the final version, but at least they weren't as silly. (I mean, why does Loc Nar keeping talking to the girl if she represents such a threat to him/it? Why not just melt her down and get it over with?)

The fairly entertaining documentary, IMAGINING HEAVY METAL, gives some insight into the intent of the filmmakers, including producer Ivan Reitman and writers Dan Golberg and Len Blum, but there is an excessive amount of self-backpatting and no acknowledgement that the final work is a mediocre piece enlivened by a handful of good moments. One illuminating section details the 'Tarrna' sequence, including the rotoscoping of a live model donning the costume of the cartoon defender. Everyone involved is thrilled with the work that went into the long scene, yet no one involved seems to realize how badly it mars the episode: Tarrna is supposed to rushing to defend a city under attack, but instead the film dwells leisurely on the details of her suiting up. By the time she arrives on the scene of carnage, only to find everyone dead, the story has been reduced to a bad joke.

The film's audio option allows you to hear Macek's reading of his book HEAVY METAL: THE MOVIE. The text contains some information not in the documentary, especially concerning director Gerald Potterton who goes otherwise underrepresented, but the text doesn't synch up with the film at all, creating a rather disorienting experience. More fruitful is watching the film's so-called rough cut, which has a Macek commentary recorded specifically for the DVD. The rough cut itself is actually more of an assembly, consisting of early pencil renderings and some near-completed sequences. The running order is different, and there are a few interesting moments that didn't make it into the final cut; in order to hear the dialogue for these scenes, you have to turn off the voiceover commentary, but these moments are so few and far between that they're almost not worth the effort. However, those interested in the process of making an animated film should find this version of the film, along with the narration, quite educational.

Still, the overall impression left by this handsome DVD presentation is that the film hardly warrants such treatment. Even at the time of its initial release, HEAVY METAL was more unusual than original (Ralph Bakshi had already given us FRITZ THE CAT, WIZARDS, and LORD OF THE RINGS). Eighteen years later, the film's adult elements have lost some of their shock appeal; more than ever, this is a work clearly meant to appeal (as the filmmakers admit) to the inner 14-year-old boy. With the explosion of adult-oriented animation from Japan, HEAVY METAL is now almost tame: lots of nudity, some fondling, very little actual sex. If you really want to see something that will knock your eyes out, catch up with the anime classics WICKED CITY or UROTSUKI-DOJI. As for HEAVY METAL, this new edition is mostly worthwhile for the curiosity value. If you're a fan, you've probably already bought the disc; if you're not, then save your money and find a store that rents DVDs.

Columbia Pictures Collector's Series, DVD release 12/99. HEAVY METAL produced by Ivan Reitman, directed by Gerald Potterton, scripted by Dan Goldberg & Len Blum, based on stories and artwork by Richard Corben, Angus McKie, Dan O'Bannon, and Thomas Warkentin. Orchestra score composed by Elmer Bernstein. Songs by Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, Donald Fagen, Don Felder, Grand Funk Railroad, Sammy Hagar, Journey, Nazareth, Stevie Nicks, Riggs, and Trust. Running time: 90 mins. Rated R. Voices: John Candy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, John Vernon.

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