At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Heavy Metal “81”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Adult Animated Sci-Fi Fantasy Anthology/Voices of: Rodger Bumpass, Jackie Burroughs, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Don Francks, Martin Lavut, Marilyn Lightstone, Eugene Levy, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, Percy Rodriguez, Susan Roman, Richard Romanus, August Schellenberg, John Vernon, Zal Yanovsky/Runtime: 90 minutes

Well….it might not be the long-hair waving, head-rocking, speaker-blasting kind of material that the Surgeon General would say will make you hard of hearing by the age of 35 to say nothing of blind due to being scrawled all over in bright neon lettering, but the 1981 slice of cinema that is Heavy Metal is still a highly energetic, rock-out worthy animated slice of cinema that is as much a product of the 1980s as it is just plain fun (or at least in the eyes of this reviewer). Indeed one of the best embodiments of that distinct collection of cinema known as “cult classics” to say nothing of a cartoon for adults that manages to be quite audacious and disclosing in equal measure, Heavy Metal is a persistently gonzo slice of cinema that seemingly has no genuine reason for existing in the world of movie magic save to fill the screen to the brim with as many surreal visuals, grisly action beats, and well-endowed women as it possibly can. Suffice it to say this slice of cinema knows exactly what it is aiming for and goes all-in on those items with each of the sextet of individual stories contained herein. Yet whilst every story focuses on an eerie green orb that, dependent on its usage, rewards or punishes those who use it, we also see that the stories also brilliantly strive to look at the idea of humanity through a few distinct groups including loyalty, one’s level of inner bravery, integrity, combat, leisure time, and degree of devotion. Of course, for a lot of people the thematic components on display are most likely not the first (or even tenth) reason why they feel you should give this slice of cinema a view. Yes a lot of people who’ve seen this might tell you this is one slice of cinema that should be watched whilst imbibing certain substances whose legality is a tad bit in question. At the same time however, I also feel that even a viewer who is clear of mind and/or liver might still be able to respect just how courageous this film is to say nothing of the manner in which it conducts itself. Indeed an equal mix of quirky, gonzo, brave, and intriguingly as astute as it manages to be engaging, Heavy Metal most definitely is not a movie for everyone, but if you are a film viewer who has a fondness for the weird and/or unusual then this is one that is definitely right up your alley and should be on your list of ones to check out ASAP.

The plot is as follows: So following a prologue which establishes the enigmatic emerald orb at the center of everything courtesy of an astronaut riding back to Earth in a 1960s Corvette presenting it to his daughter and quickly meeting a fairly grisly end, the film immediately thrusts us forward into a future where New York City (seriously what was with the NYC beef in 1981?) has become a literal hell on Earth. Indeed equal parts filthy, rundown, crime-stricken, and filled to the brim with literal illegal extraterrestrials, it is safe to say that the Big Apple really has become rotten to the core (pun intended). Yet whilst things will soon get way more perilous due to a rather familiar looking green orb being housed at a museum in town there is one person who isn’t fazed by any of this. That being a cabbie by the name of Harry Canyon and honestly why should he be? After all not only is his cab safer than 99.9% of other vehicles on the road, but he also has no qualms about dispatching with anyone or anything that threatens to make him non-existent. Things change however when our intrepid hero is a witness to a homicide just outside the museum and he becomes the savior of the victim’s well-endowed daughter. A daughter incidentally with whom he soon engages in a rather distinct “partnership” of sorts to keep her late father’s prized possession, 5 guesses and the first 4 don’t count as to what that is, safe at all costs. Yet whilst the pair avoid trouble yet make things lively in certain other parts of the house we are soon left to wonder if the orb and its power will let our couple have their happily ever after or is their bond about to undergo some extreme changes?

From there we see that the green orb makes its way to a nerdy young boy by the name of Dan who erroneously assumes it to be a meteorite and decides to include it in an experiment he is conducting that night involving electricity. However when a bolt of lightning strikes the orb, we see that Dan is quickly taken to another place in space where he has quickly become a fairly handsome member of the male gender. Of course it isn’t long before he saves a well-endowed female also from Earth by the name of Katherine who he soon forms a….attachment with. Yet it’s not long thereafter that we see that Katherine is snatched by a group of henchmen for a creature by the name of Ard who wants to utilize the orb in order to cement his self-proclaimed standing as lord of all. Suffice it to say that it will be up to our boy wonder, now calling himself Den, to not only rescue his lady love, but also thwart Ard and his dastardly machinations.

From there, the orb makes its way to the farthest reaches of space where we see an organism by the name of Hanover Fiste is about to be a key witness in the trial of a space captain named Captain Sternn who is being accused of a plethora of charges including homicide, stealing things, fraud, rape….oh and a moving violation (mustn’t forget that one). Yet whilst his exasperated lawyer just wants him to plead guilty, the quite ruthless Sternn, we soon learn, has decided to plea the opposite due to having arranged for Fiste to be paid off in exchange for providing him with overwhelmingly positive testimony that will make him look like a saint in the eyes of the jury and thus securing his release. Yet although things start out great, it isn’t long before the orb intervenes in this farce and decides to bring a form of justice into this scenario that no upstanding court could ever hope to execute.

From there, we go back in time to the midst of the 2nd World War as a group of Allied bombers desperately try to drop bombs on key Axis-controlled targets. Yet as one critically damaged American bomber makes its way to where its bomb is to be dropped, we see that the majority of her crew is cut down. Thus, upon getting out of the proverbial combat zone, we see the plane’s co-pilot go into the rest of the aircraft to take stock of the situation. Yet things soon take a turn for the weird when a very familiar looking green orb makes its way into the plane and brings the crew back to life…..kind of. You see dear reader when the orb brought them back it did so as zombies who really just want to eat the flesh of the living for sustenance. Suffice it to say that in the ensuing chaos one of the pilots is able to get out of there only to find themselves on a tiny little island that has a secret that might be just as perilous as the undead he just escaped if not worse.

Moving ahead in time, we arrive at a version of Earth where a collection of unusual mutations has been occurring and where a solemn member of the scientific community is engaged in a meeting with key officials at the Pentagon about what is going on. Yet although this scientist claims that what is happening has slim to no odds of being tied to aliens in any way, we soon see this challenged when an alien ship flies overhead and quickly snatches up both the scientist and a beautiful secretary who is wearing the orb as part of a necklace. However whilst the scientist shows up onboard in a rather interesting manner, the girl at least appears to be safe even if some of her clothes seem to be missing. Thus whilst exploring the ship we see our heroine cross paths not only with a robot who seems to have a thing for her, but also a pair of humanoid extraterrestrials who wish they could be as smooth as their robot pal yet are just as content to get the ship back into space so they can enjoy some choice recreational substances of their own if you get my drift.

Finally, the orb at last makes its way to a volcano on a far-off planet where a group of people head to see it for themselves. Unfortunately, the orb sends a green slimy ooze to meet them which swiftly changes them into a carnivorous swarm of creatures who seemingly exist only to kill anyone and everyone who stands in their way. As a result, we see a vulnerable city and its inhabitants quickly and horrifically wiped from existence. Yet unbeknownst to these agents of the orb, this city has in place a long-standing oath with a legendary race of warriors known as the Taarakians to protect them at any cost. However though this race of warriors was thought to have died out long ago, we soon see that a single member still remains. A fierce fighter by the name of Taarna who, upon learning of the town’s plight, endeavors to fly her winged beast into combat and get revenge for those who have been tragically cut down by this pack of blood thirsty creatures whatever the cost.

Now it should be mentioned that the aforementioned series of six stories are what make up the heart of this slice of cinema even if they are packaged in between an aforementioned prologue and epilogue that not only get the narrative going, but also wrap it up at the end even if it seems that the final story is *without going into spoilers* the most crucial for comprehending the story to begin with. Even with that in mind however, there is no denying that the rest of the stories are still fun tiny anecdotes that will have something for everyone. It is also worth mentioning that although this slice of cinema is constructed on the realm of fantasy with extra ingredients inserted into each story for good measure, this film at its core is very much about individuals being given the opportunity to acquire gifts that a mortal is typically unable to only to then be either lifted up by these gifts or be absolutely annihilated by a combination of them and their own inner darkness instead. Now from a style point of view, there is no denying that Heavy Metal is without question a product of the time period in which it came out. Indeed not only does the vast majority of it look like something you would see in an epic music video from the 80s, but the animation is very low-brow even when comparing it to animated efforts done by Disney in say Fantasia from 1940. Having said that though, it is the fact that the animation is that amateur, that unyielding, and yes darn near close to that repulsive in design that really goes quite a ways towards making the movie work. No this slice of cinema is also not pretty from a narrative and thematic perspective since it is showing how inherently ugly people can be on the inside, but it should be argued that the movie does a fairly wonderful job of blending together that repulsiveness with the idea of good vs. evil and, surprise surprise, how blessed its female characters are and how heroic some characters turn out to be thus providing this slice of cinema a distinct mix of the gorgeous and the grotesque. Yes I know there are a lot of people who will make the argument, and rightfully so, that it seems like the only things this slice of cinema are even remotely rooted in are over the top amounts of sex and brutality. At the same time though those two elements actually work to the favor of the film since, yes it might seem like well-endowed women and copious amounts of blood might be the only reasons this slice of cinema got made despite the presence of a fairly strong vocal cast (some of whom would later go on to do bigger things in the land of movie magic). At the same time however, these components still manage to emerge in a seemingly organic manner from the narratives themselves and perhaps even flow naturally from the stories and expectedly given the very adult trappings that they are told in. Thus this slice of cinema might be a distinct and potent film, but it also most assuredly is not entirely trashy nor is it completely without quality. Indeed it might a slice of cinema that plays to a specific audience, but as an example of an animated film made for adults it’s actually not that bad.

All in all the 1981 slice of cinema that is Heavy Metal is one that is very much a hidden gem. Indeed it might be a weird little film that is rough in nearly every aspect, but that’s exactly what the filmmakers intended. Indeed through a rather unique take on the time honored thematic concept of good vs. evil, this slice of cinema is able to turn its microscope onto humanity through the prism of the fantastic and otherworldly and gives us a novel source of power/narrator who permits those who find it to let their own inner values determine whether they live or perish whilst not really having a care in the world either way. Indeed the gritty animation, unique narratives, over the top amounts of blood and bosoms, the distinct destinations, and the intriguing cast of characters (to say nothing of a truly rocking soundtrack) all combine here to take part in a novel movie going experience. One that is quite immersive on a thematic level, but which the movie downplays so the other elements can lure people in and permit this slice of cinema to be viewed regardless of how you approach it. Indeed Heavy Metal is a fairly well-done slice of cinema and no it’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I can promise you will have a fair amount to talk about when it’s over and honestly if that’s not a sign that this slice of cinema is a work of art then I don’t know what is. Make of that what you will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Heavy Metal “81” a solid 3.5 out of 5.

 

 

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