[28 February 2003]
Anyone who knows the prolific output—92 B-movies since 1990!—of cult goddess Julie Strain is aware that she knows dick very well. Her career has been built on that six-foot-one Jessica Rabbit-meets-Xena body, and it would be nearly impossible to count the number of male members that have saluted her presence on film, or the pages of horror and fantasy magazines devoted to her. She’s a Star Trek-type fan industry unto herself.
The prototype for Strain’s stacked assets first appeared within the pages of Heavy Metal, the groundbreaking adult comic, since it started showing up on the magazine racks in 1977. Heavy Metal was a guilty pleasure for every adolescent male growing up in the following decades, as well as one of the first major comics to successfully mix sex, gore, and sci-fi for an aging audience quickly tiring of the bland Archie mold.
This much was realized by Leonard Mogel, at the time the publisher of National Lampoon, as he set about building a brand that would later launch the initial Heavy Metal movie. The first film, released in 1978, was a moderate success until music copyright issues forced it into a legal morass (ironic, considering the soundtrack, starring lightweight ‘70s AOR staples like Sammy Hagar, Journey, Don Felder, and Blue Oyster Cult, is the very thing about the film that hasn’t stood the test of time).
The magazine went through a variety of troubles until Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-creator Kevin Eastman threw his growing fortunes into the ring and bought it, slightly before crushing the hearts of nerds worldwide when he married Strain. And although the couple’s plan to position Strain as “The Queen of All Media” might not hold true in places other than the pages of Playboy, Penthouse, and Fangoria, when it came to Heavy Metal, this was a marketing marriage made in heaven. In other words, Strain and Eastman both know dick. Very well.
Enter Heavy Metal 2000, the second installment of the magazine’s cinematic counterpart. While it does not follow the former film’s episodic, rambling narrative blueprint, it is just as horny, violent, and action-packed. To the chagrin of pre-pubes across Earth, it has about the same amount of nudity but less actual sex. And, hey, these kids can see Strain naked whenever they want—they don’t need to see her animated doppelganger in the nude to get off. In other words, the violence (lots of it) wins out here, which I suppose is more in line with today’s Generation X-Box, one that can snatch graphic pornography off of the Internet whenever it wants. The world of adult entertainment is not what it was in 1978.
The plot is relatively simple, but highly charged with erotic meaning, as it should be given its legacy. A distant planet of so-called wise men lord over a “chamber” containing the fount of immortality, the phallic key to which they have not so wisely flung into space to be found by any miscreant with a drill. Get it?
Sure enough, a brute named Tyler (Michael Ironside) is drilling—yes, drilling—one day, when he is possessed by madness the minute he uncovers the key. Shortly after, he’s laid gory waste to everything in his path—including an entire Gaia-style agrarian society home to Julie (Strain)—on an Ahabian mission to possess the chamber of immortality. The fact that the key allows Tyler to regenerate whenever he’s shot, stabbed or torn makes it hard for anyone to counter his sadistic and homicidal acts. Even so, Julie goes Rambo in an attempt to avenge the death of her people.
For all the violence, the film’s sexual iconography remains its major attraction, and that is mostly because it is everywhere: Strain’s clothes become thinner and thinner; monstrously phallic guns tear massive crimson holes into bodies ad nauseam; the key to the chamber of immortality looks like a glowing white penis; Tyler’s insatiable thirst for violence is tempered only by his overwhelmingly violent sexual hunger, which, of course, only Julie can satisfy as she tries to get close enough to assassinate him (with a phallus, I mean, a long blade of her own); the hall in which the chamber is held looks like a huge vagina; the list goes on and on.
Indeed, it is in laying out these many sexual signifiers that Heavy Metal 2000 is most effective. The animation is erratic, vacillating between compelling hand-drawings and clunky, obsolete computer graphics, and the dialogue and voice-overs are by-the-numbers. (That said, Julie thankfully starts out a foul-mouthed bad-ass and stays one, while Tyler starts out an asshole and stays one too). And the music, while miles ahead of that found on the first film, juts uncomfortably up against the action rather than seamlessly blending into it. There are only so many times that speed metal can be used as background for a marching army or wanton pillage, even if it is Queens of the Stone Age or Puya, before it gets old.
In other words, Heavy Metal 2000 is a movie built, like Strain, to satisfy dick. Its depth, as postmodernists used to enjoy arguing, lies on the surface; that’s where its signifiers float and that’s where the horny gaze lands. Cahiers du Cinema aficionados need not apply (although they might sneak in under cover of a trenchcoat), unless they’re engaged by gratuitous gore, soft-core nudity, and more Freudian red flags than Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch. But the usual slew of testosterone-driven headbangers should feel right at home here, warm and safe between Julie Strain’s animated assets. That’s all they’re really asking for anyway.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/heavy-metal-2000/