This was my first entry into the world of Heavy Metal.
Having heard of the film for decades, I was well aware of the classic status amongst animation fans. Now, with the film’s restoration on 4K for the first time, this seemed as good a time as any to take the ride that people have been talking about for so long.
It’s a wild ride.
For others who may be unaware, Heavy Metal is an animated anthology that follows a glowing green orb that represents the ultimate in evil. Horrifying a young girl with wild stories of dark fantasy, the orb lays waste to the universe with increasing peril, ultimately leading to a final showdown on a faraway planet.
Based on the illustrated magazine of the same name, Heavy Metal is a wild, unruly animated romp that broke boundaries upon its release. Whereas R-rated animation has become more common in recent years, it was relatively unheard of on a mainstream level in the early 1980s. What’s more, the film is anchored by songs by Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, Grand Funk Railroad, Stevie Nicks and many more. As such, there’s a certain level of respect for the material that the film carries to this day.
What’s more, the film contains a shockingly solid cast of comedy icons. Produced by Ivan Reitman, the film is the very definition of Canadian content in the 70s and 80s by featuring voices such as Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Jackie Burroughs, Al Waxman and the late John Candy. (I have to admit that it felt a little emotional to hear Candy‘s voice again after all this time.)
Restored in 4K, one has to admit that the visuals look absolutely spectacular, giving the film a clarity and colour that is absolutely remarkable. Heavily influenced by anime, there is a certain sense of vibrancy to this sort of hand-drawn work that is often lost in a Pixar world. Stemming from the Don Bluth-era, this style of work is so well-crafted that it almost feels like rotoscope technology at times. As a result, Metal’s restoration infuses the film with new life and should satisfy the viewer with its vitality.
With this in mind though, while the animation remains stunning, the storytelling and themes have not aged as well. Each story is essentially a drug-infused male sexual fantasy, where men are valiant bad boys and buxom women are prepared to reward their heroes however they require. Fueled by graphic violence and sexuality, Metal is not for the faint of heart. For long-time fans of the film, this is of no surprise. However, for a first-time viewer such as myself, this sort of filmmaking may be jarring, especially in a post #MeToo world. (Taarna almost breaks this theory by giving a stronger female lead, but her hyper-sexualized appearance definitely stems from the male gaze.) While I hardly fault films for being a product of their time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that are relevant in the present. With its bravado and masculine dominance, I feel like this is likely the case with Heavy Metal.
Admittedly, the stories are definitely a mood. The noir-ish vibe of Harry Canyon almost feels like Blade Runnerin its prevalent darkness and corruption. Captain Stern is a dark comedy. Den’s silly heroism may be reminiscent of He-Man but it’s ritual sacrifice and violence give the episode a brutal edge. In each tale, darkness is a heavy weight that covers the land.
Tied together only by the dark power of an orb, each episode showcases a battle against the forces of evil. However, although the protagonists due their best, the power of evil grows consistently throughout. Until the final climax, Metal emphasizes the heaviness of oppression that marked 1980s cinema. In each narrative, the unnatural occurs with increasing authority. Corruption remains prevalent. Human sacrifices are made. The dead rise in a zombie apocalypse. In this animated universe, the forces of good are often kept at bay (or worse, remain silent). True heroes here are the ones willing to sacrifice themselves yet, frankly, few are found.
One way or another, Heavy Metal will leave its mark on the viewer. For fans of the franchise, there is little question that they will be thrilled with the amazing quality of the restoration. However, for newcomers such as myself, this Metal definitely doesn’t keep its shine.
Heavy Metal is available on 4K on Tuesday, April 19th, 2022.