“Heavy Metal” – 1981

Film Review:

“Heavy Metal” – the 1981 animated feature film based on the comic / prototype graphic novel “Heavy Metal”, a U.S imprint of the original French language “Metal Hurlant” – has a found a temporary home on Netflix and I watched it over lockdown.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the film and although I was just starting to work in animation in London in 1981, having recently graduated and I was certainly aware of the film, for a number of reasons I avoided it.

Up to that time I was a regular consumer of fanzines – the internet of the day in terms of keeping abreast of what was going on in films, comics and animation – and in particular of “Heavy Metal” – in fact, anything that I could get a hold of in newsagents that featured reviews and all important pictures of films etc.

“Heavy Metal” magazine certainly influenced my graduation film – a 7 minute adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story whose sole character was based perhaps too closely on Phillipe Druillet’s “Lone Sloane” strip that first appeared in “Metal Hurlant”.

It has to be said that apart from scouring the shelves of fantasy magazine shops like “Forbidden Planet” I spent most of my time at college with my head in the clouds – all my researches never led to discovering where films like “Heavy Metal” were being made. Hollywood was a world away and film companies / studios were a closed shop for the likes of me, or so it seemed at the time.

Given my student film, it would have made perfect sense to sniff out the film had I known that part of it was made in the U.K, but I was only made aware of this much later after talking to various animators who I subsequently worked with.

However, what I did know about the film, based on stills printed in various magazines, didn’t fill me with much hope – while the magazine was geared very much toward an adult, and mostly male, audience, it never allowed literary pretensions to get in the way of entertainment value, although this was balanced by a high level of draftsmanship.

Roughly three quarters of the film version – basically a cobbled together portmanteau style narrative penned by “Alien” scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon based on particular stories from “Heavy Metal” and with a woven-in linking thread involving a mysterious green ball – is quite poorly realized, and I don’t mean this in the context of the quality of contemporary animation – it’s just really quite badly drawn and animated suggesting a rushed schedule or revealing the fact that the film was made across several continents by different studios struggling with adapting to the styles of various artists like Richard Corben and Bernie Wrightson, with the inevitable resulting mismatch between the quality of draftsmanship in the magazine and in the film being very noticeable.

Another reason for avoiding the film at the time, when I suppose I should have welcomed any new animated features that challenged Disney’s dominance of the field, especially in the area of more mature themes and especially in science fiction, was that I didn’t want it to overly influence my graduation film, which ended up being a massive solo effort – added to the feeling that I had somehow been pipped to the post.

The film also illustrates how the term “adult” was interpreted at the time, something it obviously has in common with the magazine –  the Underground Comic movement that gave birth to “Heavy Metal” / “Metal Hurlant” tended to be more transgressive and adventurous, challenging the status quo etc but seen now, in the context of the film, the violence and badly drawn large breasted women that feature in most of the stories just seems clunky, although I appreciate that for animation it must have seemed very novel and just different – a welcome relief to a more grown-up audience tired of fluffy bunnies and jolly musical interludes.

Something I was vaguely aware of and reminded of when Googling the film is the “sequel” – “Heavy Metal – 2000”, which a cursory glance of suggested that it hadn’t really evolved away from the original – the same sword-wielding muscular physiques and buxom leggy women feature but then perhaps the magazine itself still caters to those adolescent male fantasies – I don’t know, I stopped buying it in the late 80’s.

The film saves itself with “Taarna” – supposedly and very obviously based visually on Jean Girauds’ / Moebius’ “Arzach” graphic novel – Giraud was one of the founders of “Heavy Metal”, possibly its key founder, so in some respects giving the story prominence makes sense, however it’s length and the quality of the animation, which is far better than the previous segments, makes the film bottom-heavy – in fact the disparity in quality between the earlier segments and “Taarna” is what undermines the film – you have to struggle through a lot of badly-drawn Corben, Wrightson etc to get to it.

Technically speaking the film pushes 2D animation and rostrum work to the limits of what was available to film-makers at the time and there are even some segments involving early 3D computer vector graphics – it is sci-fi after all – and a live-action filmed exploding miniature house at the very end but all these betray the inaccuracies of the human hand at work, as was the case with a lot of animation at the time when animators – myself included – were tasked with trying to match the precision of computers with hand-drawn work – ultimately it all adds to the texture of the film and is interesting.

Netflix seems to have paid homage to “Heavy Metal” in its recent original commissioned series of animated sci-fi shorts “Love, Death and Robots” inspired by the work of various graphic novel creators and pulp sci-fi short stories, so it seems that it’s the natural home for the film – however, though some of that series was very good, it still leaned heavily towards the same adolescent males themes and suggests that nothing much has really changed in terms of audience tastes since “Heavy Metal” the film – mature sci-fi in animation doesn’t *have* to be that way but then that’s just my personal opinion.

I think the “Taarna” segment could stand on it’s own as a short film without the rest, and it’s kind of telling that it was used prominently in posters for the film, something that might have been galling for many of the artists involved in the film, some of whom, like Michael Dudok de Wit, have gone on to score Oscar winning films later in their careers.

Ravi Swami 2020.