Monday, February 6, 2012

Movie Review: "Heavy Metal" by David Pretty

Hey, Burnouts and Headbangers!

Here's a fool-proof way to determine if the movie you're watching might be considered "nostalgic".  Just ask yourself: "Could this film be made now?" and if the answer is a resounding "No!" then you've probably got yerself a gen-u-wine cultural artifact on your hands.

Heavy Metal is a product of its time and for it's time.  Such an animal would probably never even get bank-rolled now.  If it did, the studios would have fits trying to market it to a wide audience and if the wrong person went to see it they'd either walk out of the theater or be totally baffled.

In my opinion, this sort of "lightning in a bottle" alchemy is what makes Heavy Metal such an important, if flawed, film.  Like the graphic comic series that it's based upon, Heavy Metal knows it's audience and gives it exactly what it wants.  I believe this visionary commitment is what prevents the film from vanishing into obscurity like so many other "adult"-oriented animated features.

I humbly present Exhibit "A" - a trippy 4:3 aspect ratio trailer designed to promote the film's long-awaited arrival on home video:

The early Eighties was a pretty awesome time to be a kid.  Radios and personal stereos were awash with the dulcet strains of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne.  Dungeons & Dragons was a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.  Movies like Time Bandits, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman II were de rigueur in theaters.

What I'm trying to say is that there couldn't have been a more appropriate time for a film called Heavy Metal to be released.  I'm sure that it was probably the first film a lot of guys my age made an effort to sneak into when they were kids (not to mention the first film they ever watched while under the influence of a mind-altering substance).  Unapologetically sophomoric and completely dedicated to an eternal state of arrested development, Heavy Metal is aimed squarely at any red-blooded male aged thirteen to ninety-three.

Right from the opening segment, the film plays out like the giddy imaginings of a prepubescent teenage boy.  After an eerie bit of soundtrack sorcery which deliberately evokes shades of 1950's alien invasion flicks, we're introduced to a mysterious glowing green macguffin which is intended to tie all of these completely discordant stories together.  Then, all of a sudden, that stalwart and sober symbol of Eighties orbital  exploration, the space shuttle, quietly drifts overhead.

Moments later, the pod bay doors open up and we wait in anticipation to see what will emerge.  Will it be a weather satellite?  A long-distance sensor array?  The original and not-well-thought-out placement for the prototype Canadarm?  Hells, no, it's a white 1960 Corvette being driven/flown by a bad-ass astronaut rockin' out to the alliteriffic but otherwise prehistorically obscure tune Radar Rider by Riggs!  Wow!  I never saw Robert Crippen do that before!     

This presumably experimental NASA spacecraft lands on earth next to an isolated Gothic farm house.  The scientist emerges from the spacecar and removes his helmet, revealing that it's not David Lee Roth after all but some shlub who probably looks like 80% of the guys sitting in the theater watching this.  He walks into the building carrying a mysterious package along with him. 

It contains the aforementioned green orb which turns out to be sentient and pretty pissed off.  The orb spares no time melting the astronaut down like a dollar store candle and then proceeds to menace his daughter (as sentient green orbs are want to do).  Mercifully the orb is voiced by veteran Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez, who automatically made movie trailers and commercials back then 94% more awesome.

So Orbie starts bragging to this girl about how truly awesome he is, allowing the film-makers to segue into the pornographically suggestive first title: "Harry Canyon".  The vignette's titular character is a balding overweight shlub with appalling eating habits and terrible taste in clothing.  So, in essence, he probably looks like 80% of the guys sitting in the theater watching this.

Harry's a cab driver in a nightmarish future vision of New York City which seems to presume that Rudy Giuliani was never born.  It's filled with crime, filth, murderers, hookers, dope fiends, corrupt cops, peep show theaters, strip clubs and, thank fuck, not one Starbucks in sight.   All of this is brought to life in a tremendously lurid animation style which evokes shades of Moebius and Geof Darrow.

Anyway, scruffy, laconic, world-weary Harry just so happens to be driving by when the scientist custodian of the Loc-Nar gets murdered by a gangsters.  He rescues the scientist's daughter, a nubile and impossibly-dressed hottie whom he hauls back to his apartment.  Despite the fact that she just watched her father get gunned down in cold blood and Harry is about as attractive as a genital wart, she strips, crawls into his bed and then rides him like Elizabeth Berkley humped Kyle MacLachlan in Showgirls.

Duly smitten, Harry agrees to help the girl pawn the Loc-Nar to THE BAD GUYS, who are led by a thinly-veiled Marlon Brando parody named Rudnick.  After the exchange (and Rudnick proves that it's really difficult to keep your hands off your balls) there are some predictable shenanigans, all leading up to an ending that would be perfectly at home in a junior high short story assignment.

If "Harry Canyon" is wish fulfillment for balding middle-aged losers then the Richard Corben-inspired  segment, "Den" is perfect stroke material for awkward teenage geeks.  The late, great John Candy voices the titular hero, an eighteen year old dweeb who just so happens to stumble across the Loc-Nar on his way home one day and blithely decides to add it to his rock collection.

Juiced up by an electrical storm later that night, the Loc-Nar teleports Den into a John Carter-style sci-fi / fantasy realm.  It also has the good graces to transmogrify him into a bald, muscle-bound barbarian.  "The new body worked great!" Den enthuses, obviously delighted to finally be liberated from his retainer, acne medicine, coke bottle glasses, chronic asthma and orthopedic shoes. 

He soon comes to the rescue of a buxom young woman on the verge of sacrifice.  Oh, by the way, you might as well get used to reading that sort of description since all the gals in Heavy Metal probably suffer from chronic back pain.  Despite the fact that the young woman is completely devoid of  clothing, Den politely observes that "she had the most beautiful eyes" and then finds himself "asking the same old stupid questions" in the form of "Um, are you from around here?"

But since this is a fantasy film, the girl tells him that her name is Katherine, she's British and she's from Gibraltar (!) which constitutes the most female character development we've seen thus far in the movie.  Just as she's about to thank Den via the only method at her disposal (figure it out), they're captured and taken before Ard, the self-proclaimed Supreme Leader of The Revolution, Next Ruler of The World and what we in modern parlance would refer to as a "closet case".    

Like every other misguided twat in this film, the seemingly invulnerable and decidedly effeminate Ard is obsessed with possessing the Loc-Nar.  Using Katherine as a bargaining chip, he demands that Den steal it away from the Queen.  After the script forces Den to ask "What if I refuse?" the screen-writers quickly atone for this by having a bored and clearly sexually frustrated Ard snap back "If you refuse, you die; she dies... everybody dies!"  Hey, how about a bowl of Meow Mix, there, Supreme Leader?  

Den leads a team of Ard's men into her castle via the catacombs.  During the raid Den is captured and brought before the well-endowed Queen, who unexpectedly offers to spare his life should he willingly take up THE QUEST FOR THE HOLY G-SPOT.  Now, to me this is kinda like punishing a starving dog by offering him Beggin' Strips, but whatever.  Needless to say, our erstwhile hero is soon heard to exclaim: "Eighteen years of nothing and now twice in once day.  Whatta place!"

Unfortunately, Den is forced to engage in some escapus interuptus when the queen's guards discover his allies making off with the Loc-Nar.  The Queen and her army strike back against Ard, who's desperately trying to use the Loc-Nar to summon an invincible ally: the all-powerful but otherwise nebulous Uhluhtc (a name which is about as clever as "Alucard" by the way).

After much head-bashery and trippy visuals, Den must decide which realm he will remain in.  I think it's safe to say that no male viewers will be shocked after he chooses to remain in the place where got laid twice in one day.  Sure, everything is lethal, but really, let's put things in perspective, shall we? 

The next few segments are a lot shorter.  "Captain Sternn" proves that it's always wise to trust the homely guy with the piercings and tattoos over lantern-jawed douchebag authority figures.  Despite his respectable countenance, the titular character is on trial for "twelve counts of murder in the first degree, fourteen counts of armed theft of Federation property, twenty-two counts of piracy in high space, eighteen counts of fraud, thirty-seven counts of rape and one moving violation."
Although the story is little more then connective tissue, it does contain a line which I try to work into everyday conversation as much as I can.  After the accused enters a straight-faced "Not Guilty" plea, his lawyer promptly goes completely ballistic.  "Take it easy Charlie. I've got an angle," Sternn repeatedly re-assures him in his best baritone voice.  I try and use this same line whenever I'm about to say or do something completely stupid, which usually happens approximately four to six times a week.   

This "angle" in question is called to stand in the form of jug-headed Hanover Fiste, a bought and paid for character witness.  What Sternn doesn't know, however, is that Fiste is under the influence of the now marble-sized Loc-Nor.  At first this causes him to blurt out Tourette's-style confessionals ("Sternn never did... anything that was... illegal.  Unless you count all the times he sold dope disguised as a nun!") but eventually he transforms into a Hulk-like creature of pure rage who pursues the accused until the screenwriters apparently got bored and just ended it.

The next sequence, "B-17" is another one of my favorites.  After the crew of the "Pacific Pearl" gets decimated in a bombing raid, a glowing green foo fighter (I.E. the Loc-Nar) intercepts the battered aircraft.  Just for shits and giggles, it resurrects the dead airmen who then proceed to stalk and devour the surviving pilots.  One lone dude manages to parachute out of the plane but he ends up on an island littered with derelict aircraft, which are all crewed by their own restless dead.  This cool, creepy little sequence is based on a story by Dan O'Bannon of Alien and Return of the Living Dead fame and it really evokes the spirit of those hoary old E.C. comic books.  

"So Beautiful and So Dangerous" may feel like filler but it really grounds Heavy Metal into the era in which it was produced.  A scientist arrives at the Pentagon looking to debunk the rising phenomenon of physical mutation amongst the general populace.  During his meeting with the military brass he completely freaks out after noticing that the pendant worn by the top-heavy secretary is actually the Loc-Nar.  Meanwhile, a vessel which makes the Visitor's ship in V  look like a Smart Car appears over the Pentagon and swoops up the scientist as well as Gloria, the secretary.  What follows has virtually nothing to do with what I just set up. 

Turns out the egghead was actually a glitchy spy-bot, which draws the ire of the ship's only robotic crew member. The robot's temper is assuaged considerably when Gloria drops into his midst.  And so, since we haven't seen any grossly disproportionate animated boobs in about twenty minutes, we're get the classic "robot begs girl for sex, girl has sex with robot, robot proposes to girl, girl eventually agrees to marry robot as long as it's a Jewish ceremony" story.       
But what really hash-tags the sequence as an  80's relic is the side-plot involving the two alien pilots voiced by Eugene Levy and Harold Ramis.  Honestly, they might as well be Cheech and Chong with tentacles.  They get wasted on plutonian nyborg (which, I've been assured, is not habit-forming), watch the last five minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey en route back home and then crash-land their ship inside an even bigger star base.  Drop curtain.      

"Taarna" ends the film on a different sort of high.  The Loc-Nar arrives in a generic sci-fi / fantasy world and then lands in a volcano, which immediately begins ooze some sort of magical green evil lava-goo.  A passing band of nomads get swarmed by the stuff and are immediately transformed into a pack of war-mongering, savages.  They decide to sack a peaceful city, wisely employing Black Sabbath's "Mob Rules" as their theme song.

The city elders are right in the middle of summoning help when a battering ram modeled after Dave Navarro's penis comes crashing through the front door.  Just before everyone in the town is slaughtered, their final despirate plea reaches the ears of the last remaining guardian from an ancient warrior race, who, coincidentally, has a rack big enough to shelter a small boy scout troop.

In response to their call, Taarna sternly but dutifully disrobes and then swims out to her picturesque but otherwise useless dressing room.  It's here that we're treated to a languid and completely gratuitous scene in which the warrior woman assumes the most laughably impractical battle gear ever imagined.  I suspect that the sour look on her face probably has more to do with wearing armor designed by a snickering committee of fifteen year old boys versus having a job where she's on call twenty-four seven.   

After wasting all that precious time swimming across Lake Superior and then getting dressed in slow-motion, Taarna unsurprisingly arrives too late to help the villagers.  Instead she turns her keen detective eye towards tracking down their attackers.  Her overconfident approach initially leads to disaster and she's captured, beaten and nearly killed.  Thanks to her inexplicable flying mount (which resembles a plucked pigeon with a thyroid problem), she finally manages to escape and challenges their leader to a one-on-one duel to the death.

 "Goddammit, I knew I shouldn't have commissioned that told pervert to make a suit of armor for me!  Cripes, CHER wouldn't even be caught dead in this thing!" 

As you might be able to gather from my CLASS-5 level of snark, Heavy Metal really isn't a tremendous film.  For one, the animation runs really hot and cold.  Compared to the stellar "Harry Canyon" segment, the day-go palette used in "Den" is like a stomach-churning fusion between Ralph Bakshi's turgid Lord of the Rings and Rocket Robin Hood.  And then you get something like "Captain Sternn", which really doesn't even try to be visually compelling.   

And then there's the unmistakable pall of rotoscoping which casts it's unfortunate shadow over my favorite sequences.  The bombers in "B-17", for example, look pretty heinous since the animator was trying to trace as much consistent frame by frame surface detail before he eventually went nuts and had to be replaced with some other guy.  The effect is even worse in "Taarna" when she's flying over an impossibly intricate landscape.  Despite the best efforts of the artists, artifacts appear and disappear constantly and it really damages the otherwise stellar illusion.      

Despite these stylistic choices (which, in defense of the film-makers was in vogue at the time) I absolutely love the sheer artistry of the character designs, backdrops and all the other wacky (and likely chemically induced) visuals.  And when you start to consider that this is skool-style, hand drawn, non-computer-assisted animation, then complaints about the rotoscoping seems churlish.  

I also love the cast.  With Martin Lavut, Susan Roman,  John Candy, Marilyn Lightstone, Joe Flaherty, Ivan Reitman, Eugene Levy, Percy Rodriguez and Al "King of Kensington" Waxman as Rudnick all present and accounted for, I can't help but think of Heavy Metal as Canada's national contribution to sci-fi/fantasy.  

With it's open drug references, gonzo soundtrack and blatant sexism a large segment of the population will consider Heavy Metal to be unremittingly dated.  Yes, the characterization and dialogue are all puerile and amateurish.  And yes, the stories seem to be written by glue-sniffing, hormonal teenage boys for the entertainment value of glue-sniffing, hormonal boys of all ages.

But, ye gods, is it fun.  Fun because it never feels like a homogenized product pooped into existence by our modern big-studio assembly line.  While watching Heavy Metal you get the sense that no-one cared how "bankable" it was, what demographics it would spike or how to tweak it after a test-screening.

Heavy Metal is unabashedly lewd, rude, crude and tattooed. If you've read this review you've probably already seen it.  See it again (on Blu-Ray if you can). 

If you've read this review and you haven't seen it, then hop into your 1960 space corvette and try not to burn up on re-entry! 

Tilt: W-a-a-a-a-a-y up.

Heavy Metal [Blu-ray]

No comments:

Post a Comment