I saw the first GI Joe movie in the theaters. I’m not exactly 100% proud of it. When the movie ended I dubbed it “awesomely ridiculous and ridiculously awesome,” citing the moment with the ninja Snake Eyes bungee jumps out of a helicopter while shooting a crossbow in a laser fight.
Heavy Metal (1981) starts out with a space shuttle orbiting Earth and a freakin’ corvette pops out of the belly of the shuttle. You read that right. The shuttle pops out the corvette, driven by an astronaut (who else?), ridden through space (yep), and down into the atmosphere. The car lands on a road (where else?) and drives through cornfields, parking at a house. The astronaut exits the car, carrying a briefcase. He walks in and is greeted by his daughter, who asks him what he’s brought her while out in space. He opens the case to show her a green orb and is promptly melted.
This is all within the first thirty seconds of the movie. Your move, GI Joe.
Featuring the voice talents of Don Francks, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, Susan Roman, August Schellenberg, and Harold Ramis, Heavy Metal is an animated film unlike any other. It’s a science fiction abstraction, a conglomeration of weirdness and base instincts, and the burning of what animation is “supposed” to do.
The murderous orb from space corners a young girl and tells her several stories, each revolving around people and aliens encountering the orb. Although every story has a clear foundation in science fiction, other genres creep in as well: the first story has a film noir bent involving a femme fatale and a mob deal gone wrong. The second contains fantasy elements. The third, a comedy of errors. The list goes on.
Every story centers on the glowing green orb—the dreaded Loc-Nar, who describes itself as “sum of all evils. Look carefully. My power infests all times, all galaxies, all dimensions. But many still seek me out; a green jewel they must possess. But see how I destroy their lives.” The Loc-Nar may be just a framing device for the film, but as the ultimate evil, it’s more than that: the Loc-Nar represents fear, anger—the negative qualities we see both within and outside ourselves. The orb is a sight to behold and to conquer.
The animation will appear dated because—gasp—it’s drawn. The smooth CGI lines of The Incredibles or Toy Story are years and years away from 1981. Fans of the brilliant American Pop will be right at home with the mixture of rotoscoping, matte backgrounds, and rear projection. There are a couple of brief shots of early computer animation, mostly in the form of vector drawings. No, it doesn’t look perfect—but it is a milestone in film and animation history.
Any movie titled “Heavy Metal” should probably have a great soundtrack. And although it’s a bit dated, if you’re looking for a perfect encapsulation of the strange post-Zeppellin pre-synth pop era that was the late 70s, look no further: bands like the always-excellent Blue Oyster Cult, the guilty-pleasure that is Journey, Cheap Trick, the criminally-forgotten Nazareth, Black Sabbath, and Devo pepper the soundtrack (although I still wonder why a Canadian film production like this lacks an appearance by the greatest Canuck band of all time, Rush). Sammy Hagar performs the title track, and if you’re familiar with both his solo work and his life in Van Halen, then you’ll understand this period in music history perfectly.
Heavy Metal holds a special place in my heart. It’s not the pinnacle of animation nor is it especially well written. Certainly, it’s good. But I remember it as the movie I rebelled with. Clearly, I wasn’t exactly a troubled kid. That said, Heavy Metal isn’t exactly kids’ faire. “It’s just a sci-fi cartoon” smoothed things over, but that’s only a half-truth. Heavy Metal earned its R rating. There’s more than a fair share of sex, violence, and language. But there’s also really daring, experimental stories that are still daring more than three decades later. Heavy Metal pushed the bounds of what animation could do, what it was meant to do, and how to go about that. It’s certainly not Pixar, and that’s kind of the point.