Over the weekend of 7-9 April, 2017, in collaboration with the Comic Studies department at the University of Dundee, overseen by the world’s only Professor of Comics Dr. Chris Murray, and the city’s very own festival of geekdom Dee Con, Dundee Contemporary Arts is running Sequence, a series of films inspired by comic books and animation.
The first film of the mini-festival was Heavy Metal, the cult 1981 adaptation based upon the magazine of the same name, which was itself based on a French-language publication called Métal hurlant. The movie is an anthology of various versions of stories which appeared in the comic book, written by various science fiction and fantasy authors, most notably Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter of Alien, Dark Star, Lifeforce and Total Recall. It covers a broad and ecletic mix of tones, styles and settings, blending grimy sci-fi, Howard-esque fantasy, and gratuitous sex and violence. All of this is set to a fantastic soundtrack of (unsurprisingly) heavy metal tracks and a dramatic orchestral score.
Heavy Metal is lauded as being one of the first Western animated films to cater to a mature audience, but only if one uses a very specific definition of “mature”. The movie interprets being adult in the way that a teenage boy might, eschewing moral complexity or depth of character in favour of graphic brutality and a ridiculous view of sexuality. Characters are vapourised, impaled and dismembered with gay abandon, accompanied by lashings of blood, only some of it green. While there is a considerable diversity and creativity in the men, every grown woman is built according to a very similar template. Each one resembles Jessica Rabbit without any of the subtlety, impossibly proportioned to the point that one worries about the structural integrity of their spines, and they all share an aversion to clothes bordering on the pathological. The one thing that shields the film from accusations of outright misogyny is the overwhelming impression that this design is simply incredibly immature. Speaking for last night’s audience, the heaving breasts and copious nudity were a cause of mirth more than titillation.
While some of the film’s design choices are rather laughable, the artwork in general is of a very high standard. A variety of techniques are used to create the movie’s look, from rotoscoping to stop-motion animation, collage to beautifully hand-painted environments. While some of the character models look a little dead-eyed and unnatural, the worlds around them are incredibly detailed and filled with visual information and jokes. The influences are clear. You can find DNA from The Road Warrior, Star Trek and Conan the Barbarian within the strange planets and dimensions visited by the various vignettes.
The film is comprised of eight different stories, all loosely linked together by a framing device involvinga young woman menaced by a glowing green orb known as the Loc-Nar. This framing device is easily the film’s weakest element, and is utterly pointless. Apparently in most versions of the movie, the Loc-Nar has an ominous voice, explaining its purpose as a source of ultimate evil and relaying to both the audience and its terrified victim the history of how it has travelled the cosmos. This was not present in the print as screened, turning these cut-backs between episodes into silent and baffling interruptions. Even the film forgets about it for a portion of the running time, transitioning seamlessly from one short to the next, and this method of progression is infinitely preferable. By all means keep the common element of the sinister artifact haunting every tale, but these breaks in the action are nothing but a detriment, ending in a denouement that fails to impress.
The eight segments of the movie span comedy and drama, some of it intentional and well-executed, some of it inadvertently laughable. There is novelty in each one, but there are certainly peaks and troughs in quality. The weakest in the film is “B-17”, an underwritten tale of zombies aboard a stricken bomber. This is somewhat ironic considering the image of the rotoscoped plane with the accompanying track, “Heavy Metal (Takin’ A Ride)” by Don Felder, is one of the most iconic images from the film. The narrative does not justify its renown. Another clanger follows immediately in “So Beautiful and So Dangerous”, which is only entertaining to the extent that a woman having sex with a wise-cracking robot while two alien pilots snort absurd amounts of space-coke is funny. At the other end of the spectrum there is “Den”, a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which a teenage nerd is warped into the body of a Herculean saviour, and immediately gets lucky with every woman in the vicinity. Thoroughly self-aware and truly hilarious (upon seeing his buxom love interest disrobe, Den thinks to himself, “She has such beautiful eyes!”), this was the funniest section by far, largely because it was supposed to be funny. Happily the film’s last scenario is also a strong one, and features the only female character who is not portrayed as a doe-eyed bimbo. “Taarka” is named for its heroine, the last member of a proud warrior race who takes bloody vengeance upon the demonic soldiers of the Loc-Nar. Silent and stoic, she is a one-woman death machine who, while her costume is at least as impractical as it is revealing, is one of the most memorable characters of the whole piece, and gains major points for her mount, an adorably gigantic pterodactyl.
It is easy to see why this film became a cult classic. It is far too flawed to ever be considered objectively great, but there is a great deal to love here. If the rather juvenile tone can be forgiven, the settings are diverse and well-realised, showcasing a huge variety in places and in people. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a soundtrack boasting Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Devo, Nazareth and Cheap Trick. For those in the centre of a Venn diagram comprising “science fiction/fantasy fanatic”, “metalhead” and “connoisseur of gigantic, gravity-defying mammaries”, this might be the perfect movie.
Directed by Gerald Potterton, Jimmy T. Murakami, John Bruno, Pino Van Lamsweerde, Jack Stokes, Julian Harris, Paul Sebella, Barrie Nelson and John Halas
Written by Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum, Dan O’Bannon, Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson and Angus McKie
Starring Harvey Atkin, Jackie Burroughs and John Candy