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Heavy/Lite:
Heavy Metal
Heavy Metal 2000

reviews by Rob Gonsalves

DIRECTOR
Gerald Potterton

SCREENWRITERS
Len Blum
Dan Goldberg
based on stories by
Richard Corben
Juan Giménez
Angus McKie
Dan O'Bannon
Thomas Warkentin
Bernie Wrightson

PRODUCER
Ivan Reitman

CINEMATOGRAPHER
Brian Tufano

MUSIC
Elmer Bernstein

EDITORS
Janice Brown
Mick Manning
Gerald Tripp


CAST (VOICES)

Rodger Bumpass (Hanover Fiste)
Jackie Burroughs
(Katherine)
John Candy
(Dan/Den/Robot)
Joe Flaherty
(Lawyer/General)
Don Francks
(Grimaldi)
Douglas Kenney
(Regolian)
Eugene Levy
(Sternn)
Harold Ramis
(Zeke)
Richard Romanus
(Harry Canyon)
John Vernon
(Prosecutor)
Al Waxman
(Rudnick)


MPAA rating: R
Running time: 90m
U.S. release: August 7, 1981
Video availability: VHS - DVD
Official site


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


DIRECTORS
Michael Coldewey
Michel Lemire

SCREENWRITER
Robert Payne Cabeen
based on the graphic novel
The Melting Pot by
Simon Bisley
Kevin Eastman
Eric Talbot

PRODUCER
Michel Lemire

CINEMATOGRAPHER
Bruno Philip

MUSIC
Frederic Talgorn

EDITOR
Brigitte Breault


CAST (VOICES)

Michael Ironside (Tyler)
Julie Strain Eastman
(Julie)
Billy Idol
(Odin)
Pier Kohl
(Germain St. Germain)
Sonja Ball
(Kerrie)
Brady Moffatt
(Lambert)
Rick Jones
(Zeek)
Arthur Holden
(Dr. Schechter)


MPAA rating: R
Running time: 88m
U.S. release: July 10, 2000
Video availability: VHS - DVD


When Heavy Metal was released in 1981, no less an entity than Variety called it a "classy anthology." Anthology, yes; classy, no. I seriously doubt that any of the movie's many fans (of which I am one) would confuse its adolescent, retro charm with class. To understand that, maybe you'd need a brief course in Heavy Metal 101. The magazine Heavy Metal, first published in 1977 by the same house that gave you National Lampoon, was an Americanized version of the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant. The American version did publish international artists (often in amusingly awkward translations), some of whom, like Moebius and Guido Crepax, really did aspire to and achieve Heavy Metal's stated goal of "adult fantasy." However, the magazine also devoted itself more and more to routine adventure stories with T&A and gore; some of the stuff was like a softcore version of Conan or your choice of Marvel comic.

Not surprisingly, the major-motion-picture version of Heavy Metal -- produced by Ivan Reitman and written by Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, featuring voices by Harold Ramis, John Candy, and Joe Flaherty (all five of whom had a hit that same summer with Stripes) -- is an unabashed crowd-pleaser. Whenever possible, it goes for the fight scene, the sex joke, the jiggly breasts, and, in one case, drug humor (in the form of two aliens who snort up ropelike lines of cocaine, like an extraterrestrial Cheech & Chong). The movie's secret, I think -- what makes it so beloved, instead of a largely forgotten failure like its contemporaries Rock and Rule or Fire and Ice (though those movies have their fans) -- is that it generally doesn't take itself very seriously; essentially, it's a comedy. It presents the standard adolescent power fantasies, but with a nudge and a wink.

Take "Den," for instance. As originally conceived by Richard Corben, it was more or less a straight Conan rip-off. Adapted for the movie, it becomes a two-tiered satire in which Dan, a dorky teenager (voiced by John Candy), gets magically whisked away to another dimension, where he finds himself made over into a beefy bald warrior named Den, great in battle and even better in the sack. Though Candy also does Den's gruff voice ("Where is the girl?", etc.), he continues to do Dan's dorky voice in narration, sounding goggle-eyed in awe over his excellent adventure. Den's chief adversary is an obvious swishy stereotype, your usual decadent king who has a buxom queen but probably doesn't look at her very often (which is why she falls so readily into bed with Den, one assumes); but he's also been given an amusing New York inflection in which, say, "die" becomes "doy" -- "She doys, you doy, everybody doys." Odd little touches like that connect this world with that of Ralph Bakshi.

Bakshi's influence can also be felt in "Harry Canyon," the movie's first story, prepared by scripters Blum and Goldberg for the film -- it's one of three tales not derived from anything that appeared in the magazine. That's not to say it isn't derivative, though; it's a clearcut film noir homage, complete with hard-boiled narration by the eponymous taxi-driving hero (voiced by Richard Romanus, who did a lot of work for Bakshi's urban toons), an obese gangster who wants something the hero has, a femme fatale -- what we have here is a cyberpunk remix of The Maltese Falcon.

The McGuffin here, though, is a mysterious glowing green ball that figures in all the segments, representing the undying force of evil. The ball (called the Loc-Nar in "Den" and "Harry Canyon") seems to corrupt or destroy anyone who comes into contact with it; the ball, in fact, is telling the stories we're watching. The movie begins with an astronaut coming down to Earth in a white convertible (this is unquestionably one of the coolest opening scenes in film history); the astronaut enters a house and greets a little girl, showing her a green ball he's brought back for her. The ball, expectedly, disintegrates the poor astronaut and backs the terrified girl up against a wall, gloating over how powerful it is, and we occasionally return to the house so that the ball can gloat some more and set up another story.

The ball, and the evil it embodies, seem to have the least to do with the penultimate segment, "So Beautiful, So Dangerous," based on an Angus McKie story. This is the one with the two doper aliens, as well as a horny robot and a buxom redhead (there are no flat chests in the Heavy Metal universe). True to the artist it's adapting, the segment is entertaining but meandering, arriving at a stop without actually having arrived at a point -- it represents the magazine at its most self-indulgent. A much tighter tale, with perhaps the movie's best animation, is the preceding segment, Dan O'Bannon's "B-17." In 1981, Creepshow had not yet come out, so "B-17" was the first time in years that movie audiences got a taste of the ghastly EC Comics of the '50s. When you watch this segment, which is chillingly well done (it concerns a bomber full of dead airmen who become zombies), you may laugh and realize that the movie's creators are determined to take us through the history of disreputable pulp comics -- or as much as they can in 90 minutes. Given Dan O'Bannon's best-known films (Alien, which he wrote, and Return of the Living Dead, which he wrote and directed), the segment also functions as a best-of-O'Bannon in miniature.

The ball also doesn't have a lot to do with "Captain Sternn" (based on a story by comics legend Berni Wrightson), though it seems to at first. An openly parodic treatment of the typical big-jawed space-cowboy hero (the titular character looks pretty noble to us until we hear the long list of charges brought against him, of which he's apparently guilty as sin), this segment also benefits from the best timing, comic and otherwise, of any story in the film. The confident Sternn's dialogue with his worried lawyer ("The best we can hope for is that you'll get a secret burial so's they can't defile your body!" "I told you, Charlie ... I got an angle") has the back-and-forth rhythm of classic stage comedy (Eugene Levy was the voice of Sternn, Joe Flaherty is his lawyer), and when Sternn's "star witness" Hanover Fiste morphs into a psychotic hulk there's a terrific sequence when he corners Sternn, slamming the walls on either side of him into tatters as he walks.

The final, longest sequence is "Taarna," which may be taken as a refutation of the decidedly pre-feminist women (damsels in distress, whores, bitches, bimbos) who have populated the rest of the movie. Taarna, a mute warrior, seeks revenge on the evil hordes (corrupted by the ball, what else?) that decimated her people. This is the segment that should have been called "So Beautiful, So Dangerous," but never mind. Being one of the movie's few characters to be rotoscoped from a live model (a favorite Bakshi technique), Taarna moves with considerably more grace than anyone else in the film. The movie seems to genuinely respect her, and when she's captured and nude, waiting to be whipped by her nemesis, the scene ends before it can satisfy any whip devotees in the audience. Ironically, the "Whip It" boys themselves, Devo, appear in a tavern sequence here, performing "Through Being Cool." The soundtrack by itself is worth owning, ranging from the popular (Cheap Trick, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult) to the obscure (Riggs, Nazareth, Trust).

It's fitting, in a perverse way, that this boy's-club confection of wanking, winking softcore pulp should end on a dual note of female empowerment. I think that without "Taarna," the movie would seem much shallower; the elegance of the final sequence restores some balance. "See," the movie is saying, "women can kick ass too, and do all the stuff you saw Den doing before." (Significantly, she doesn't have sex. It might've been too much to ask in 1981 for the moviemakers to create a sexual woman who could still kick ass. It's often still too much to ask.) After all, the movie doesn't climax with the adolescent power trip "Den" -- it ends with "Taarna." (And technically it begins with Taarna, too, if the ending is any indication.) When the movie was released, there were two ad design concepts floating around: a Corben painting of the muscles-on-top-of-muscles Den (and his woman kneeling at his feet), and a triumphant portrait of Taarna riding her endearing giant bird-creature. Guess which design was adopted for the soundtrack cover, the re-release poster art, and the home-video cover art. Similar artwork adorns the video and DVD cover art for Heavy Metal 2000, but don't be fooled.


If the Heavy Metal movies offer any message for mankind, it's that anything green and glowing can't be good. In the insipid Heavy Metal 2000, the embodiment of evil is not a green, glowing ball but a green, glowing crystal -- a key to immortalizing waters. Slight catch: If you touch this key, you go insane. Thus, an ordinary space pilot named Tyler (voiced by Michael Ironside) gets his meathooks on the key and suddenly becomes rabidly homicidal (he also suddenly gets fangs and a mane of black hair). This is not unlike what happened to the ordinary townspeople of "Taarna" when they were engulfed by green glowing lava and became evil. The rest of Heavy Metal 2000 is not unlike "Taarna," either. Indeed, it's more or less an 88-minute rehash of that story, without the original's brevity or grandeur.

Tyler commandeers a spacecraft and lays waste to a place called Eden, where people don't age as quickly. One person who survives the massacre is Julie, a strapping six-footer much like the B-movie actress who voices her, Julie Strain. Tyler has killed her father and kidnapped her sister, so Julie goes into vengeful overdrive along with a goofball pilot, a little guy made of stone, and a mysterious mentor named Odin (voice by Billy Idol). As a spiritual sister to Taarna, Julie looks the part, but Taarna didn't speak; unfortunately, Julie does.

Julie Strain, whose comic-book-mogul husband Kevin Eastman shaped this movie for her (he co-created the graphic novel The Melting Pot on which it's loosely based), seems like a nice enough person, but she's not a natural actress under the best of circumstances. In the clips I've seen, her line delivery is weirdly flat and amateurish, like the delivery of the most conscientious untalented student in acting class; what saves her is her presence -- she really is six-foot-one -- and her vibrant off-camera personality, which peeks through the empty posturing she usually has to do. As just a voice, though, Strain is, well, strained. Not that even the best actress could do much with Robert Payne Cabeen's script, heavy on dialogue like "Don't talk, don't touch, don't move, don't breathe -- or I'll kill you!"

The original Heavy Metal's animation may look crude to some viewers today, but at least it was alive and kicking; it owed its inspiration to Ralph Bakshi more than anyone. Heavy Metal 2000's character design takes a page from the bland humanoids who populate some of the weaker Disney/Don Bluth/DreamWorks toons. (There were very few human characters in the original Heavy Metal who looked like they would've belonged anywhere near a Disney film.) The filmmakers were reportedly concerned about avoiding a "Saturday-morning-cartoon" look, but that's pretty much what they ended up with. As if to offset this, the directors (Michel Lemire and Michael Coldewey, both of whom would do well to leave this off their resumés) stuff backgrounds and incidental scenes with computer-animated spaceships, debris, and so on. The film should be seen by animation students as a textbook example of how not to integrate computer animation with old-school cel animation.

The story is old-school, too. Did Kevin Eastman not realize that the core audience for this film would have seen, and remembered with pleasure, the original movie's final segment? Eastman, the '80s precursor to Todd McFarlane (he and Peter Laird created Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which made them millionaires), has said that he wanted to tell a story with a strong heroine -- as if TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena, and La Femme Nikita hadn't been doing that for years; as if "Taarna" hadn't done it 19 years ago. Here he falls back on the usual fanboy idea of strong womanhood -- the scowling bitch-babe with tits out to here. Taarna was that, too, to a certain extent, but the original Heavy Metal was a joking compendium of fanboy fantasies, and Taarna was a definite advance in 1981. Julie is a step back, at certain points disrobing so gratuitously that I was put in the odd position of feeling offended on behalf of an animated character.

Michael Ironside and Billy Idol have fun hamming it up, and there's one funny moment when a robot sex doll activates itself and goes to town on Julie's hapless pilot sidekick during a space battle. But overall, this is a joyless trudge through decades-old clichés, with about twenty gallons more gore than in the original (the MPAA must be more lenient towards animated bloodshed; the same violence, if done as live-action, would not have slipped by with an R rating). Even musically, Heavy Metal 2000 can't touch its predecessor, which found room for the calming Donald Fagen and Stevie Nicks as well as the pumping Black Sabbath and Sammy Hagar; this movie's soundtrack is almost all grinding techno-thrash gibberish -- I call it music to be constipated to -- and it heightens the project's general cheesiness. This is the sort of movie in which the evil Tyler pulls out one of his loose incisors and you know, absolutely know, that in later shots he won't be missing any teeth. The movie is pretty toothless itself; it gums its story like the pablum it is.




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