Directed By: Gerald Potterton
Starring: Richard Romanus, John Candy, Joe Flaherty
Tagline for this film: "A Step Beyond Science Fiction"
Trivia: This film's production was expedited by having several animation houses work simultaneously on different segments
Released in 1981, Heavy Metal is an anthology of animated shorts, all inspired by Heavy Metal magazine, a monthly publication that first hit U.S. newsstands in 1977, blending sci-fi and fantasy with a nice helping of erotica. Featuring the voice talents of stars like John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis, and with a few segments penned by Dan O’Bannon (of Alien and Return of the Living Dead fame), Heavy Metal is adult animation at its very best.
Having just returned home from a mission, an Astronaut (voiced by Don Francks) surprises his teenage daughter (Catherine Semple) with a beautiful green sphere, which he found in outer space. The moment he takes it out of its protective case, the sphere gives off a brilliant light, which promptly melts the astronaut, killing him instantly. Cornering the daughter, the sphere then reveals its name is Loc-Nar (Percy Rodriguez), and that it is the personification of pure evil. In order to frighten the girl, Loc-Nar recalls some of the beings it’s tormented over the years, including Harry Canyon (Richard Romanus), a New York cab driver who, in 2031, met a girl (Susan Roman) whose father had found Loc-Nar, and was killed by those looking to possess it themselves. Also on earth, Loc-Nar once encountered a boy named David Ellis Norman (John Candy), who, after trying to retrieve what he thought was a glowing green meteorite, was hurled into space, where he transformed into a muscular man who assumed the moniker “Den” (David’s initials). Abducted by the sinister overlord Ard (Martin Lavut), Den is ordered to retrieve Loc-Nar from the Queen (Marilyn Lightstone), who refuses to part with it.
There were others who felt the wrath of Loc-Nar, including Hanover Fiste (Rodger Bumpass), who found the sphere just before testifying in court on behalf of his commander, space pirate Captain Sternn (Eugene Levy); the crew of a B-17 bomber on their way back from a raid; and aliens / dope fiends Edsel (Levy) and Zeke (Harold Ramis), whose robot companion (Candy) convinces a buxom beauty (Alice Playten) to have sex with him. Rounding out the tales is the story of Taarna, a peace-loving society whose entire population was wiped out by mutated human soldiers (all of whom were altered by Loc-Nar). To get her revenge, the lone remaining Taarakian, a warrior maiden, tries to destroy the mutants, but encounters several obstacles along the way that may prevent her from achieving her goal.
I’ve always been impressed with how wildly imaginative Heavy Metal is, and while the animation definitely gives off an ‘80s vibe, it’s still the perfect complement for the film’s various stories. Each tale has something unique to offer: So Beautiful and So Dangerous, the segment featuring the doped-out aliens and the horny robot, is easily the most humorous of the bunch, followed closely by the Captain Sternn sequence. Den combines action and sex to tell its story of a boy turned into a man, and B-17, one of two segments written by Dan O’Bannon, is arguably the darkest, most violent entry. My two favorites, though, have always been Harry Canyon (primarily because I like its dystopian setting, giving us a New York City where the U.N. Building has been transformed into a low-rent housing project) and Taarna, the longest of the sequences, which tells a fascinating tale of genocide and revenge (the image of the Taarakian maiden, astride her winged mount, also served as the film’s now-iconic poster art). Then, of course, there’s the rock music that accompanies each entry, with songs by Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Devo, Sammy Hagar and many others adding yet another layer of cool to an already kick-ass production.
Admittedly, I did find the voicework a bit distracting this time around, mostly because I could tell when John Candy and Harold Ramis were behind the mic (their voices were so distinctive). Still, this is a minor quibble, and didn’t detract from the overall experience. Thirty-plus years later, Heavy Metal is as inventive, inspiring, and entertaining as ever.