An animated sci-fi/fantasy anthology film, Heavy Metal (1981) is the perfect salute to its namesake magazine. It’s about as deep as a paper plate, and consists of seven mediocre stories that end at arbitrary points; it embraces the laziest genre clichés and emphasizes T&A over dialogue or characterization (or, well, anything). At the same time, it’s full of gorgeous, imaginative art that more than redeems its needlessly gratuitous violence and pitiful attempts at comedy. It may be the ultimate treat for stoned teenagers, but it has a few nuggets for the rest of us, too, in the form of spectacular alien vistas and good-on-evil battle royales.
Does this make up for Heavy Metal‘s many weaknesses? That’s contingent on the viewer. Can you endure its casual sexism and total disregard for good storytelling in exchange for the occasional eye candy? I only have limited experience with the comics magazine it’s loosely based on, but watching Heavy Metal: The Movie is a lot like browsing through a yellowed back issue on a musty store shelf. You get the general ideas, you understand that the creators had a deep affection for Golden Age sci-fi or Robert Howard-style sword-and-sorcery, but you don’t have time to linger; eventually, you have to stop browsing and move on.
In the movie, there’s nothing much to linger on. It’s just a blaze of sensory impressions—some awesome, others lacking, a few infuriating. The weakest segments, for example, are probably around the middle: “Captain Sternn,” “B-17,” and “So Beautiful and So Dangerous.” Each of them has only a single idea to sustain it, whether slightly funny or slightly scary, and also has no story arc to speak of. In theory, yes, zombies running amok on a B-17 in World War 2 is cool, but that’s all there is here. Similarly, aliens, robots, and a naked woman on a spaceship sounds like a promising set-up… but “So Beautiful” sucks nonetheless, because it’s nothing but that set-up, realized with the voices of Second City Television alumni.
The more successful segments are “Harry Canyon,” “Den,” and “Taarna.” Although their stories are raw homage with little to no original thought, they’re still lovingly rendered, hinting at the kind of bizarre worlds that can come to life when underground comics meet adult animation. “Harry Canyon,” probably the best of the lot, takes place in a dystopian New York of the future, as the titular cab driver reckons with gangsters and a femme fatale. As usual, the writing is negligible, but the segment’s urban hellscapes are brimming with life and untold stories. The animation’s rarely perfect, but it’s still cool and inventive.
Overall, that’s pretty much the only reason to watch Heavy Metal. It’s an hour-and-a-half-long genre fiction wet dream that screams, “Hey! Look at this groovy dragon I drew! Wanna see it eat somebody? Also, TITS!” To be fair, both “Den” and “Taarna” have some groovy dragons, and the film as a whole has occasional moments of utter weirdness or inspiration, all delivered in the most grandiose of tones. It’s far from the thrilling something-for-everyone epic it makes itself out to be, and it’s also not really “adult” animation; adolescent animation might be a better label. But you wanna see some dragons, tits, and spaceships? Heavy Metal will not disappoint.