Year: 1981 Company: Columbia Pictures Runtime: 90′
Director: Gerald Potterton Writers: Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum, Dan O’Bannon,
Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Angus McKie, Jean Giraud
Music: Elmer Bernstein, Riggs, Blue Oyster Cult, Donald Fagen, Stevie Nicks, Journey,
Cheap Trick, Nazareth, Don Felder, Sammy Hagar, Trust, Black Sabbath, Devo
Cast: Rodger Bumpass, John Candy, Jackie Burroughs, Joe Flaherty, Don Francks, Martin Lavut,
Marilyn Lightstone, Eugene Levy, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, Susan Roman, August Schellenberg,
Richard Romanus, John Vernon, Caroline Semple, Al Waxman, Harvey Atkin, Glenis Wootton Gross
Disc company: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Video: 1080p 1.85:1
Audio: DTS HD-MA 5.1 English, DTS HD-MA 5.1 French Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French
Disc: BD50 (All Region) Release Date: 06/14/2011 Available for purchase through Amazon.com
The Wtf-Film Guide to Essential Blu-ray is the record of one man’s eclectic journey to uncover the very best of the weird and wonderful that Blu-ray has to offer. This edition is also our contribution to the Skeletons in the Closet roundtable, the inaugural group-think event of online pop culture consortium M.O.S.S.
A fleet of bombers slice through occupied airspace in the last Great War, ack-ack blooming about them and fighter fire riddling them, and their unfortunate crews, with holes. The bomb bay doors open, the payload is dropped, and the bombers – crippled and leaden with the dead-weight of expended flesh – creep back towards the safety of Allied territory. We focus in on one bomber in particular, in which all but the pilot and co-pilot have been killed. As the co-pilot inspects the damage a strange, green-glowing sphere approaches and enters the plane, bathing the dead crewmen in its unnatural, unholy radiation. We see one of the dead men’s hands in close-up – it boils and bursts, oozing fluids and dissolved flesh until only a menacing skeletal claw remains. As the co-pilot makes his way back to the cockpit he realizes that the bodies of his comrades have vanished, leaving no trace of themselves behind. Where could they possibly have gone, and how?
When he hears a rustling in the bomber’s central ball turret his curiosity gets the better of him. He opens the hatch, expecting one of his fellow men to emerge. Instead he is grappled by a pair of monstrous arms, and his body splattered lifeless about the turret’s walls. The pilot, suspecting too late that something is wrong, opens the cockpit door to see what has become of his fellow soldiers – on the other side he is greeted by a gang of inhuman things, piles of bones and organs stuffed into bomber jackets and creeping with grim determination towards his position. The pilot slams the door to isolate himself from the horror and fires his side arm into the approaching horde, but it’s no use. The creatures pummel the door to pieces, and as it falls from its hinges a mass of zombified flesh-hungry ghouls spill into the cockpit. The pilot survives only barely, escaping the doomed bomber by parachute in the nick of time. As the plane plummets into the Pacific he lands safely on the shores of a tropical atoll – but the safety is only illusory. Awaiting him is a graveyard of aircraft of all generations, as well as the damnable creatures their passengers have become. The pilot screams, but it’s too late. The beasts surround him, leaving no possibility for escape…
These images, etched indelibly into my brain during my impressionable youth, were my first encounter with the alternative animated 1981 vignette-epic Heavy Metal - as they filtered out of my family’s seemingly monolithic tube set (a 32″ Sharp in an oversized black plastic box – huge to me at the time, but soon replaced with a 54″ monstrosity) into my unsuspecting, unprepared mind, I was horrified. I’d never seen anything like it before, and nor had I expected to, particularly not from a cartoon. As the scene’s nihilistic conclusion loomed I slammed my prepubescent fist into the power button, thus saving myself from what promised to be more such terror. Even at that young age I knew I had seen something strange and different, and something I knew darn well I shouldn’t have. One thing I could hardly have fathomed was that, had I only left the television running, I’d have likely seen a few other things that would have blown my growing male mind1…
It is only with the above experience related that one should judge the unflappable adoration the present I holds for Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel’s alternately crude, juvenile, prurient, and fantastic production – itself modeled on Mogel’s magazine of the same name, the domestic answer to the French publication Metal Hurlant. Reitman and Mogel’s Heavy Metal was hardly the first alternative animation to burst forth into the American social consciousness (I can only imagine what things might have replaced the writings on these pages had I chanced first upon Ralph Bakshi’s Felix the Cat or Coonskin instead) but it remains one of the most accessible and popular, likely a result of its sidestepping of the sharp satire and cultural observations of Bakshi’s work in favor of knock-down drag-out pulp madness. More than once have I earned perplexed glares from Disney fans after they discover that my favorite of the studio’s work is the grim live action fantasy DragonSlayer - how much more disgusted those reactions might have been had those same people only known that my favorite animated film was Heavy Metal!
So beautiful and so dangerous. Who could ever say no to a face like that?
Comprised of a series of stand-alone vignettes, some original and some adapted from stories which had appeared in the magazine, Heavy Metal flirts with a variety of styles and genres – science fiction, film noir, western, fantasy, horror – with little but an overriding sense of adolescent glee holding it all together. The individual segments – each farmed out to its own team of talented independent animators – are never quite in harmony with one another, even though a framing device in which an evil green orb relates the film’s six stories certainly tries, but the incongruousness of it all quickly becomes part of the film’s charm. Heavy Metal shifts willfully and wildly in tone and style from one segment to the next, from the eroticized Burroughs-ian universe of Den to the futuristic scum-metropolis of Harry Canyon to the vast, inhospitable fantasy wastes of Taarna, and yet it works, both as an oddball assortment of self-contained narratives and as a jubilant celebration of genre excesses. The sum experience is the cinematic equivalent of thumbing through the magazine from which the film takes its name – no more and no less than what Reitman and Mogel had always intended – and, much like the ancient Loc-Nar, the magnitude of its appeal and influence should not be underestimated.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the future-noir Harry Canyon. Set in the rundown sprawl of New York, New York circa 2031, the story follows a world-weary street-smart cabbie who runs afoul of the Venusian mob after saving a red-headed show stopper from a shootout on the front steps of the Museum of Natural History. The mobsters want the ancient Loc-Nar, the red-head wants to sell it, and Canyon just wants her. The story by Daniel Goldberg (Cannibal Girls) and Len Blum (Stripes) is a 10-15 minute reduction of the narrative sensibilities of Taxi Driver and the MacGuffin-fueled drama of The Maltese Falcon with plenty of fantastic violence, raunchy cartoon sex and contemporary rock tracks thrown in for good measure. If the story – a cab driver and a red-head on the run from unseemly elements on the hunt for an ancient artifact in future New York – sounds familiar, it should. Whether credited or not, Harry Canyon plays like a step-by-step blueprint for much of Luc Besson’s later pop sci-fi epic The Fifth Element - a film which also prominently features a talking orb that is the embodiment evil. Recently Heavy Metal ‘s influence has been glimpsed in other high-profile projects, notably in the bleak and over-contrived SuckerPunch (whose writer and director, among others, has been mentioned in association with a new Heavy Metal feature) and, more directly, in the 12th season South Park parody Major Boobage.
To that latter end, Heavy Metal is often negatively criticized for its decidedly adolescent sensibilities, including its grade school attention span and subject matter that seems culled straight from the doodlings of a 14 year old boy. While I can hardly argue with the point – this is, after all, an exceedingly adolescent film - I’m similarly hard pressed to see it as a burden to the production. Heavy Metal is a film in which cars drive home from outer space, cheeky alien robots have sexual affairs with Earth secretaries, and a pair of intergalactic hippies take a stoned-out trip around the Universe in a giant flying smiley face. It’s an out and out celebration of whooshing rockets, spurting blood, and bouncing bare breasts – the very staples of the young male imagination brought to life in vivid, living color. I certainly can’t fault anyone for not liking it, but to hold Heavy Metal‘s juvenile proclivities against it, when they are the very thing it exists to serve, seems more than a little silly2.
Every bit as senseless as you could possibly imagine but more intelligently conceived than you likely thought, this one makes about as good an argument as can be made for smart people making dumb entertainment. The fun factor here is through the roof even twenty years on, and I’m sure that producers Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel are plenty pleased with their crass animated legacy. The late Dan O’Bannon’s short horror segment B-17 still appeals to me most here, if only for the childhood memories it recalls, but there are more than enough fantastic developments along the way to appeal to genre fanatics of all kinds. One could go on interminably about how Heavy Metal isn’t for all tastes, but that’s really the point of it all. I say give it a try – the worst you can do is hate it.
1 Live and learn, I suppose, but the thin static haze separating family fun from outright pornography in old-school satellite programming would expose me to that other forbidden world soon enough…
2 Yes, I know. I’m sure I’ve made similar arguments against other films. Then again, I never said I wasn’t silly.
Heavy Metal was actually the first DVD I ever purchased, and to be perfectly honest that 1999 Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment edition has held up pretty well over the years with its decent anamorphic image, healthy encode, and substantial slate of supplemental content. While I’ll be keeping that disc on the shelf for nostalgia’s sake it’s safe to say that it’s not going to be getting much play in the future – this Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Blu-ray blows it right out of the water. Originally released as a Best Buy exclusive, the disc is now out in wide release and well worth picking up.
Given the highly variable nature of its animation, all of which was produced outside of any major film animation outlets, I had very grounded expectations going into Heavy Metal‘s Blu-ray debut, but I needn’t have worried. Presented in 1080p at its original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this new HD transfer is a modern marvel as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the upgrade is the color reproduction, with both saturation and the depth of hues taking some huge steps forward – the 1999 DVD can look quite faded and yellow in comparison. The colors here really have some pop (just look at the sky in the first comparison or Taarna’s lips in the final one below), and are backed by a richer, darker contrast and a substantial uptick in clarity and detail. Each segment is a revelation, from the trash-noir Harry Canyon to the brilliantly bizarre Den to the all-too-brief B-17, and while the crudeness of some sequences is all the more obvious the more awesome moments shine all the brighter.
The overall quality of the film elements seems to have improved a bit as well, and while there is still some damage to contend with (mostly speckling and dust, much of it a product of the original animation and effects process, still more the result of age) the image here is considerably cleaner than on the DVD edition. The delicious texture of the original photography is also maintained, much to my delight, with variable levels of legitimate film grain present throughout. It’s refreshing to see that Sony haven’t skimped on the technical front, either. The AVC-encoded image receives substantial bitrate support at an average of 34.2 Mbps, and the feature spreads comfortably into dual-layer territory. I noted nothing in the way of artifacting or other encode troubles, and the image retains its lovely film-like aesthetic even under close examination. The bottom line is that Heavy Metal looks better here than I’d have ever thought it could, and I doubt most theatrical screenings could touch it.
For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool. After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x. DVD screenshots were captured in .png format in VLC from the 1999 Columbia Tristar Home Video edition (I don’t own the Superbit edition to compare), upconverted to 1920×1080 in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%. In the five comparisons below DVD screen shots appear first, followed by the Blu-ray. The rest should be self-explanatory.
More Blu-ray screenshots:
The all-important audio receives a healthy bump to DTS HD-MA 5.1 in the original English (a second DTS HD-MA 5.1 track in dubbed French is also included), and I’ve never heard Heavy Metal sound better. The crude sound effects have a wonderful vintage about them, and sound very much of their time, as does the voice recording. The HD track offers considerably more breathing room than on past editions, sounding neither so muffled as the Dolby Surround 2.0 stereo track or as frail as the Dolby Digital 5.1 included on the 1999 DVD, and feels considerably more substantial for the trouble. The vintage rock tracks have great punch, with Felder’s Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride) and Hagar’s Heavy Metal both sounding hilariously awesome in their lossless iterations. Benefiting even more so from the bump is Elmer Bernstein’s tremendous score, which offers some of the best genre work of its kind in segments Den and Taarna. Heavy Metal finally sounds as big as it should on home video, and while I’d have loved a lossless track in the original stereo for posterity’s sake I’m hard-pressed to complain. The disc comes with a decent array of subtitling options – English, English SDH, French and Spanish – and, according to the back of the case, should be playable in all Blu-ray regions.
The only area in which the disc seems to be lacking is in the supplemental department, and those who already own the Collector’s Series edition from 1999 won’t find anything new here. Included is the original feature-length rough cut of Heavy Metal, which runs 90 minutes in 480p and is available both with or without commentary from Carl Macek, a small selection of deleted scenes – the unfinished Neverwhere Land sequence (3 minutes, 480p) and the alternate carousel framing story (2:38, 480p, and with or without Carl Macek commentary) – and the excellent documentary featurette Imagining Heavy Metal (36 minutes, 480p). While all this is retained, a large selection of material was also left behind. Lost, but available on the 1999 DVD, are a host of image galleries, including portfolios of pencil art, cell animation, production photos, and a massive gallery of Heavy Metal magazine covers spanning from 1977 to 1999, as well as an audio recording of Carl Macek reading from his book The Art of Heavy Metal: Animation for the Eighties that originally accompanied the feature presentation.
While Sony Pictures Home Entertainment have clearly skimped on the supplements, which is a real shame with regards to the art galleries (these would have looked fantastic bumped to HD), they have spared no expense with regards to the feature presentation, and given the low price this release currently commands that’s more than enough for me. If I had my way this disc would be sitting on a shelf in every home in America, but finding myself in the absence of godly powers of influence I’ve added it to our shortlist of Blu-ray essentials instead. So there you have it. Heavy Metal on Blu-ray is an essential. That means you have to buy it, right?
Film: Awesome Video: Excellent Audio: Excellent Supplements: Good +
Harrumphs: Limited supplemental weight.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.