HEAVY METAL: Louder and Nastier Than Ever on 4K UHD! (Review/Unboxing)

The Animated Anthology proves to be timeless on UHD

Easily one of my most anticipated 4K UHD releases of 2022 was Gerald Potterton’s 1981 animated cult classic Heavy Metal. When the film was released here in the U.S., there really wasn’t a home video market, and because of that the language for the music rights wasn’t exactly baked into the contracts. The film would languish in a sort of purgatory and wouldn’t see a proper home release until 1996, when the rights to the music would finally be untangled. In the meantime, the film would screen at a few midnight repertoire screenings, and, oddly enough, on HBO, where I caught it one fateful night. The film fried my tiny 8 year old brain, which had been fed on a steady diet of Masters of the Universe, GI Joe and Transformers. Heavy Metal had a visceral power then that it still has almost 40 years later.

Producer Ivan Reitman first became aware of Heavy Metal, which was the American flavor of the French science-fantasy comic magazine Métal Hurlant, while working with National Lampoon on Animal House. He thought the eclectic mix of action, sci-fi and horror with adult themes would translate well to American cinemas at the time — keep in mind, this was really before the proliferation of anime, with animated films still very much associated with kids fare. Like the magazine, Reitman decided to make the project an anthology and hand picked stories by the likes of Moebius, Dan O’Bannon, Richard Corben, and Bernie Wrightson, while producing the film in Canada and subletting each story out to a different studio. This also helped maintain the feel of the magazine by allowing each studio to tailor their story to the artistic style of the original.

The best judge of any anthology is its weakest link, and to be honest, there simply isn’t one here. With a lean 90-minute runtime and eight stories, each tale does what it needs to do while not lingering too much as to overstay its welcome. If a style or genre of story really isn’t your bag, you only have a few minutes until you’re on to the next. We have among the stories a neo-noir, a fantasy epic, a sci-fi courtroom drama, and a zombie gorefest. Every story is a satisfying and visually stunning foray that manages to tie into the wrap-around story. One story includes a mystical green sphere called the Loc-Nar, which is the encapsulation of evil, recanting to a young girl who is its hostage how its dark influence has driven the narrative engine in each tale into chaos.

Just like the magazine, each story varies in storytelling device and visual style. Some segments enjoy a detailed and refined look, while some almost feel like sketches imbued with life thanks to the chaotic power of the Loc-Nar itself. They’re sometimes surreal and almost avant-garde and only heightens the violence and gratuitous nudity making the film even more garish and salacious. The final tale of the glowing green orb, “Taarna,” has to be my favorite, with its odd Moebius inspired rotoscoped post-apocalyptic world on the verge of collapse after the arrival of a meteor-sized Loc-Nar crashes into a mountain. The wasteland’s only salvation is a white-haired Amazonian who is the last of her race. Taarna is fantastic, not only because of how it plugs into the wraparound story, but also because of how it injects a ray of hope into the Loc-Nar’s cycle of evil that seeps into the final moments of the film.

Music-wise, some may fault the film for its lack of namesake heavy metal music, but I think the direction they went picking popular bands at the time—with such iconic rockers as Sammy Hagar, Devo, Blue Öyster Cult, Journey, Cheap Trick, and Stevie Nicks—only further delivers a timelessness coupled with the experimental nature of the animation. This all works to create an iconic soundtrack now, which might amount to the budget of most indie films today. The same applies to the voice talent behind the film, which, thanks to Reitman, have aged equally well given the film’s Canadian production that leans heavily north, featuring the likes of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis, and Eugene Levy. It’s an embarrassment of riches and a pool of talent that now seems almost surreal given the project, which even at the time was a huge gamble.

Also included in the set is Heavy Metal 2000 on its own separate Blu-ray, a film I wish could say has aged as well. Heavy Metal 2000 takes everything that worked in the original and tosses it out the window for a muddy direct-to-video cash-in that feels stagnant and just plain too horny for its own good. The film was based on a single graphic novel by Kevin Eastman (the Ninja Turtle guy) that never actually ran in the magainze until after the fact. Eastman had purchased the rights to the magazine and decided to feature his own singular story in the film with a protagonist based on his wife, Julie Strain. She’s not the problem here, but it’s a simple lack of understanding of the assignment. Coupled with a soundtrack of ‘90s rock, this choice makes the film just as forgettable as its animation style, which feels very much like your standard ‘90s TV fare.

For Heavy Metal, the transfer here is sharp and appears as if it was pulled straight off the original negative. (It might be the same source used for the Blu-ray a few years ago.) It’s obviously been heavily cleaned up and restored; there’s just enough grain left on the image to feel film-like, but not so much to distract from the animation. The new clarity also really allows the hand-drawn quality to shine through, adding a charm in some of the more abstract or rough segments. This new visual presentation is polished off with Dolby Vision HDR channel, which is used to amp up the color palette of these otherworldly stories and bump up the contrast in some of the darker tales. This is definitely most noticeable in “B-17,” for fans of that story—the darkness never envelopes the image and the backgrounds never lose their detail.

The sound here, however, is where this UHD truly elevates the presentation, with a new 7.1 Atmos track personally supervised by Ivan Reitman himself. The track is super aggressive, as expected, but also much more nuanced and pronounced than previous releases. The music is loud and re-mixed throughout the soundfield, and the team uses the sound stage in some interesting ways to bring the viewer more into the film. One scene in particular that literally made me recoil was in “Taarna,” when you hear a sizzling off the screen—that is, until Taarna walking across the frame comes across a corpse with a bubbling wound, the source of the sound. It’s definitely an upgrade from the previous 5.1 track, featuring some creative choices and some fun uses of the new technology.

So, is this disc worth the upgrade for those that have the previous Blu-ray? Most definitely. The original scan that was made for this release is recent enough that it still feels on par with most current releases, especially coupled with the HDR and new Atmos track. It’s the kind of upgrade that delivers on the home cinematic presentation in ways that are only now available to cinephiles who have the means to view it. But this upgrade also allows Heavy Metal to really transcend time for those checking it out for the first time out of curiosity. Thanks to the choice to make this an anthology and the upgraded sound mix, the new release adds a timelessness to the visuals that still hold up, with themes that feel as relevant as ever in their age-old tale of good versus evil. Heavy Metal in 4K is louder and nastier than ever and the original hasn’t lost any of its viscera. Heavy Metal 2000, however, has been relegated to nothing more than a bizarre footnote in the history of the series and is here a bonus feature.

The package from Steelbook.

Bonus Features:

  • Feature presented in 4K resolution with Dolby Vision, reviewed and approved by director Ivan Reitman
  • New 2022 Dolby Atmos soundtrack: A brand new, immersive experience utilizing enhanced sound effects and much more, supervised by producer Reitman
  • The 2022 mix in 5.1 and the original 1981 theatrical Dolby Stereo audio
  • Special Feature: Heavy Metal: A Look Back: An all new retrospective featuring re­flections from Reitman, famous fans Kevin Smith and Norman Reedus, and more
  • Movies Anywhere digital copies of both films

Blu-ray disc:

  • Feature presented in high definition with 5.1 audio
  • Original feature-length rough cut with optional commentary by writer Carl Macek
  • Imagining Heavy Metal documentary
  • Deleted scenes
  • Alternate framing story with commentary

Heavy Metal 2000 Blu-ray disc:

  • Feature presented in newly remastered high definition with 5.1 audio
  • Special features include “Julie Strain: Super Goddess,” voice talent, animation tests, and animation comparisons

The package is available to purchase from online retailers.

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