Heavy Metal (1981)

Art by Chris Achilleos

Heavy Metal (1981): adapted from a metric shit-ton of Heavy Metal magazine stories along with a few pieces original to this movie; directed by a lot of people; starring the voices of fine Canadians and quasi-Canadians (Joe Flaherty! Harold Ramis!) who I hope got paid well like Al Waxman, Don Francks, John Candy (as Den!), Marilyn Lightstone, Jackie Burroughs, August Schellenberg, John Vernon, and Eugene Levy: Heavy Metal used so much SCTV voice talent that it pretty much qualifies as an SCTV movie. And it is pretty funny, though the comedy comes almost entirely unintentionally while the intentional comedy bits are disastrously unfunny.

There are more than a half-dozen stories animated by different teams and held together by a completely goofy frame narrative. Most originally appeared as stories in Heavy Metal magazine back in the day. Heavy Metal was the English-language version of the French Metal Hurlant. The French version was better because it had the works of great French cartoonists such as Moebius and Phillipe Druillet in the original French and not in the terrible French-to-English translations that were a staple of the American magazine.

And as a terrific South Park parody noted, to say that the animation in Heavy Metal makes most of the naked women look… weird… is to state the obvious. They wiggle and jiggle but they don’t fall down. And many of the animators have major problems animating a woman walking, much less swinging a sword.

As to what we get story-wise…. hmm.

  • The opening sequence is made completely ludicrous by an attempt to weave it into the frame story. I’ll explain no more about that.
  • The frame story is stupid and makes no sense in relation to the selection of several of the stories.
  • The “Harry Canyon” story about a mercenary future cabbie is dumb, more misogynist than the rest of the movie, and mostly unpleasant.
  • The “Gremlins” piece is nicely animated and plays like a fairly decent EC Comics horror short.
  • The adaptation of Richard Corben’s “Den” covers up Den’s giant dong, provides some really weird looking giant boobs, and has some nice background visuals cribbed from Corben’s original art. The voice work from John Candy as unlikely sword-and-sorcery hero Den is weirdly awesome.
  • The section adapted from an Angus McKie piece keeps the one striking visual of a giant spaceship from that piece. Then… coke-sniffing aliens and women having sex with robots voiced by John Candy! I think this section was supposed to be hilarious. They sniff so much coke they have to deploy it in giant lines on the floor from some sort of cocaine reverse-vacuum cleaner. Hilarious!
  • The “Captain Sternn” sequence at least looks for the most part like the Berni Wrightson original. Eugene Levy’s voicework as Sternn is a masterpiece of some sort, though not a good one. “I got an angle.” Yes, Captain Sternn, yes you do!
  • And then there’s “Taarna,” which supplied the movie poster with its scantily clad, white-haired warrior woman brandishing a sword while riding a giant bird/pterodactyl thing. I thought this sequence was adapted from either a Moebius story (because of the rendition of characters in the foreground) or perhaps a Moebius collaboration with Phillipe Druillet (because of the design of many of the background and static elements). Nope! It’s clearly meant to evoke those two seminal French Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant artists. Did they sue? I don’t know. “Taarna” is a watchable half-hour of science fantasy with a lot of animated female nudity. Gratifyingly, the rape scene I feared throughout never materialized. And hey, a sexy female hero! And the animation on Taarna’s either nude or scantily clad body is mostly fine, with the exception of the animators’ inability to get her to swing a sword believably. The backgrounds, especially a couple of giant, broody, Druillet-esque statues, are really nice.


Overall: Heavy Metal is such a fascinating study in ambition, crappiness, the late 1970’s, the early 1980’s, adolescent boy fantasies, and weirdly animated female bodies that I honestly have to recommend it. That’s not the same as saying it’s good, but it certainly held my interest. And Taarna has such a smokin’ bod!

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