Revisiting Mature Sci Fi/Fantasy Cult Classic ‘Heavy Metal’ at 40 in 4 Slices

Julien Neaves, Editor

Greetings Red Mango Readers, Sci Fi fans or people who thought this was a music article and accidentally clicked on the link. I’ll take the views however I get ’em. If you are reading on August 7 then today is the 40th anniversary of (deep breath) cult classic adult animated Sci Fi fantasy horror anthology film Heavy Metal (exhale).

It was produced by Ivan Reitman (director of Stripes, Ghostbusters I and II) and Leonard Mogel, the publisher of Sci Fi/fantasy comic magazine Heavy Metal upon which the film is based. There are also stories from French comics anthology Métal hurlant and other sources. The film features the voice talents of John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis and the most rocking of soundtracks that included Sammy Hagar, Devo, Blue Öyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Journey, Black Sabbath and Stevie Nicks.

I watched this wild film with its loads of graphic violence and gratuitous nudity many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, with many of the images remaining with me to this day. And I did have a good time with it during my rewatch for this article. Because its an anthology I will be breaking down the vignettes into four parts and also making brief comments on its 2000 sequel Heavy Metal 2000 as well its reboot Love, Death & Robots. With that said, and a giant green glowing evil mountain of a SPOILER ALERT, let’s retro review Heavy Metal in four slices:

Slice 1: Soft Landing/Grimaldi/Harry Canyon

Dang. These NASA budget cuts are serious

The film opens with Soft Landing, a brief sequence in which an astronaut exits a space shuttle in a white Corvette and proceeds to float down to Earth. It is trippy and very early MTV and completely different from anything else that follows. I read it was written by the late Dan O’Bannon and based on the comic of the same name by him and Thomas Warkentin. I thought the name O’Bannon looked familiar and it should because this is the guy who wrote iconic Sci Fi and horror films like Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce and Total Recall.

Soft Landing transitions into Grimaldi, where the titular Corvette-riding astronaut shows his young daughter a “gift”, a glowing green crystalline orb called the Loc-Nar which promptly disintegrates him. Loc-Nar introduces himself to the terrified girl as “the sum of all evils” and his tales of his evil influence through time and space and dimensions becomes the framing device for the remainder of the vignettes. Now it’s a little weird that this supremely powerful being would take time to tell anecdotes from its life’s story to a scared little girl. But maybe it wanted to frighten her to prevent her taking up her destiny as a warrior. Or maybe it was just your usual egotistical supervillain and couldn’t stop itself from monologuing. Loc-Nar was voiced by Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez and he does powerful work infusing an orb with such grandiose menace.

HARRY INNER MONOLOGUE: Looking at her I could tell two things: one, this was a classy, outta town broad, and two, she had a real nice rack

Loc-Nar kicks off his McGuffin work in the first main vignette Harry Canyon, which is based on the comic The Long Tomorrow by the goodly Mr O’Bannon and illustrated by French artist, cartoonist, and writer Jean “Moebius” Giraud. It is the year 2031 and the titular cynical New York cab driver has to work in a crime-infested city so corrupt you have to pay cops to do their job. Things are so bad Harry has a secret disintegration device installed in his cab which saves his life on multiple occasions. When he rescues the daughter of a murdered scientist that discovered the Loc-Nar he has to protect them both from some vicious gangsters intent on acquiring the powerful item.

This Sci Fi noir tale is my second favourite of all the stories in Heavy Metal. I love the gritty animation style that looks like a comic in motion and Richard Romanus’ dry delivery as Harry is spot on. I also love the wry comedy including Harry commenting “g-damn illegal aliens” when he sees a literal illegal alien being arrested. The gangsters all have cool looks and there was some decent action and suspense. The unnamed scientist’s daughter, however, is a bit flat and just serves to sex things up. “Harry can I sleep with you?” What’s he gonna say? No? But her betraying Harry at the end was a cool femme fatale twist and her disintegration felt like film noir perfection. Really good stuff.

Slice 2: Den/Captain Sternn/B-17

I’m sorry Den. Seems like you’ve got your hands full. What? Sometimes you gotta grab the low-hanging fruit. I’ll stop now

Things get lighter and sillier with Den. In this one, a nerdy kid named Dan finds old Loc-Nar after it fell from the sky and after an experiment with lightning goes wrong Dan is transported into an alien world called Neverwhere and is transformed into a bald, muscular, well-endowed he-man called Den. He becomes entangled in a plot involving two powerful factions seeking the power of Loc-Nar and attempts to rescue a beautiful woman named Katherine who was also taken from Earth.

Imagine He-Man with a lot of nudity, some graphic violence and a tongue-in-cheek tone and you have a good idea of what you’re in for with Den. John Candy both voices the manly-sounding Den and uses his own voice for Den’s narration and his running commentary is hilarious. When he sleeps with the well-endowed alien queen he comments, “Eighteen years of nothing and now twice in on day? What a place!” There is some interesting animation work here as the backgrounds are these undulating, brightly-coloured lava lamp-like things. Totally trippy man. Den is supremely fun from start to finish and is my third favourite of the stories.

You really need to lay off the ‘roids, dude

Now we get to my two least favourite stories. Captain Sternn follows crooked space station captain Lincoln F Sternn who is on trial for numerous serious charges consisting of 12 counts of murder on the first degree, 14 counts of armed theft of Federation property, 22 counts of piracy in high space, 18 counts of fraud, 37 counts of rape — and one moving violation. During his trial a meek-looking defence witness named Hanover Fist suddenly transforms into a hulking brute and chases Sternn all over the station. It is later revealed that it was all a set-up and he paid Fist to create a distraction for him to escape. While I liked the Saturday morning cartoon-style of the animation and there was a decent twist this one didn’t work for me. I found the comedy flat and a little too irreverent; a joke about a pre-school prostitute ring was just not for me. And the majority of the story is Fist chasing Sternn which was kind of dull.

The next story is B-17 where a World War II B-17 bomber “Pacific Pearl” is severely damaged during a bombing run and most of the crew is killed. That old prankster Loc-Nar floats on to the ship and starts resurrecting the crew as ghastly ghouls. Now this one has some gorgeous animation and a rocking tune in Heavy Metal (Takin’ a ride) by Don Felder. It is also the sole horror story among the anthology. But it lacks even the barest of character development which severely reduces the horror. Heck, the co-pilot doesn’t even seem to care when he finds the bullet-riddled bodies of his crewmates, so why should I care when their reanimated corpses attack him? B-17 was written by O’Bannon as well but there was nothing here that truly stood out plot-wise. It was so unmemorable I actually forgot it existed until I rewatched the film.

Slice 3: So Beautiful & So Dangerous and Taarna

You guys gotta help me. That robot is a nymphomaniac. And he never takes breaks! I’m not a machine, you know

We go from super dark to super wacky with the next story, So Beautiful & So Dangerous, based on the comic of the same name by British artist Angus McKie. Loc-Nar is chilling out in the locket of beautiful and buxom Pentagon stenographer Gloria. Prominent scientist Dr Anrak, who has been called in to discuss strange mutations among the population, sees the locket and then in a frenzy jumps on Gloria and sexually assaults her. Both Anrak and Gloria are then transported up into an alien ship shaped like a giant smiley face and it is revealed that Anrak is actually a malfunctioning android in the service of two stoner aliens and an amorous, mouse-looking robot.

We never find out why the aliens had Anrak on Earth in the first place and the mutations storyline never goes anywhere, though it may be some subtle foreshadowing for the next story. John Candy voices the Robot and he is unsurprisingly quite funny in the role. The Robot sex/marriage proposal subplot with Gloria is easily the best aspect of this one. The stoner aliens snorting up an entire floor of a powdered drug called Plutonian Nyborg (pretty much space coke) is good visually if not all that funny, and them almost crashing the ship into a spaceport was somewhat anticlimactic. Still, this one is some goofy fun with a couple of memorable scenes. In terms of quality it’s right in the middle—better than B-17 and Captain Sternn but not as good as Den, Harry Canyon or my favourite story, Taarna.

‘Tis but a flesh wound!

This is it folks. The big one. The one on the cover. The one everyone remembers when they think of Heavy Metal. Taarna. Based on Azrach, the comic book collection of four wordless short stories by Moebius, the high fantasy story focuses on the titular character, a beautiful warrioress and the last of the Taarakians, a once powerful but declining warrior race. She is summoned to action when the dastardly Loc-Nar, which has grown to the size of a meteor, crashes into a mountain. It erupts a green lava-like substance on a clan of curious humans and transforms them into vicious, warmongering, green-skinned mutants. When the mutants attack a city of peaceful scholars they summon Taarna for help but by the time she arrives she finds only bodies and decapitated elder. She then embarks on a quest to destroy the mutants and the source of their power.

How can you not love Taarna? And by that, I mean both the character and the story. Sure, like all the other female characters in Heavy Metal she is hypersexualised and when not nude she is wearing the skimpiest and most impractical of warrior outfits. But there is just such a power and strength in this silent, white-haired warrior that she elevates above simple sexual object and into the realm of fearsome force of nature. And her design is so striking, especially when riding atop her avian mount. There is aless actual fighting than I remembered and we only get to see her skills while decapitating three mutants in a bar and in the final, bloody battle with the mutant leader. And of course she has to sacrifice herself and her noble mount to destroy the nasty Loc-Nar once and for all.

But I didn’t mind the lack of action as I just enjoyed this super cool character and her wild fantasy world so very much. And this story also has some very good music, namely E5150 and The Mob rules by Black Sabbath and Through Being Cool by Devo. Just fantastic stuff all around.

Slice 4: Epilogue and Heavy Metal 2000

And another thing—there is no Santa Claus!

The film ends with the Epilogue where the girl from Grimaldi escapes and we see Loc-Nar explode the house in a cool mix of animation and live action model. Then the girl discovers an avian mount, flies off with it and her hair turns white, showing that she will also become a Taarakian warrioress dedicated to combatting evil. A good way of wrapping things up and tying everything together.

Forty years on I think Heavy Metal holds up quite well. The various animation styles are very good, the stories range from decent to excellent, and I may not be the biggest music or heavy metal fan but I can still appreciate how very good this soundtrack is. So if I had to rate Heavy Metal as a film I would give it an 8 out of 10.

When you order Taarna from Wish

I mentioned above there was a sequel in 2000 called Heavy Metal 2000, and while I had heard of it I never watched it until just today for this article. And yeah, I wasn’t missing much. Firstly, this is not an anthology but a single story. A lowly space miner named Tyler (worst bad guy name ever!) discovers a cosmic key to immortality and is transformed into an insane crimelord. After brutally murdering his coworker, stealing a ship and recruiting some mercenaries he attacks a planet called Eden aka F.A.K.K.² which has traces of an immortality liquid he uses to repeatedly resurrect himself. He kills almost everyone in a village and kidnaps a young woman named Kerrie. Her sister Julie, a fierce warrior, then embarks on an intergalactic quest for vengeance.

Heavy Metal 2000 falls short of the original in every respect. Sure there’s the usual boobs and blood and Sci Fi and fantasy aspects but everything feels watered down. The soundtrack, which includes acts like Pantera, System of a Down, Insane Clown Posse, Queens of the Stone Age and Billy Idol (who also voices the alien character Odin), is just not as epic. The story is supremely generic and inexplicably switches from Sci Fi action to high fantasy and even inexplicably rips off Taarna’s costume scene and Terminator a bit. On the positive side there is a lot of decent, bloody action and genre veteran Michael Ironside does seem to be having fun as big bad Tyler. But there is not a lot here I haven’t seen before and after awhile I was looking at the clock. And the final nail in the coffin is some horrendous CGI in the climax that is so bad PS1 characters pointed and laughed at it.

So while there are flavours of the original here the final dish is less than appetising. I will not be revisiting this one again and I can’t recommend it. It’s a 4 out of 10 for me. But if are jonesing for more graphically violent and hypersexual Sci Fi content then I would recommend the film’s reboot/reimagining Love, Death & Robots by the supremely talented Tim Miller and David Fincher.

So are you a fan of Heavy Metal? The film, not the musical genre. What’s your favourite story? And you can check out more adult animated content below:

ALL 8 EPISODES OF LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS VOLUME 2 RANKED
CLASSIC ANIME ‘VAMPIRE HUNTER D’ QUICK BITE
B0FC059B-BBEE-47CF-90E4-D588C1BACD93

Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.