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Gerald Potterton
Writing Credits:

A Step Beyond Science Fiction
Rated R.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
English, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $26.95
Release Date: 3/4/2003

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Heavy Metal: Superbit (1981)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 20, 2003)

When a film earns the sobriquet "classic," it can become a pretty meaningless appellation. So many movies are believed to qualify for that status by someone that the term lacks much significance. I'm sure someone out there thinks the Ernest movies are classics.

A somewhat scarier term is the "cult classic." This designation narrows things down quite a bit, since it almost always involves a movie that didn't do too well at the box office. It also usually involves a flick that's quirkier than the average mainstream film. It's a picture that eventually found a strongly devoted audience who then sustain its minor but significant popularity over a number of years.

Outside those commonalities, cult classics are radically dissimilar but I think some people believe it to be another kind of genre, one that unites these different films. Maybe, but all I know is that the cult classic appellation can be dangerous, since the films involved usually are backed with a great level of passion from their fans; the neophyte may receive some serious flack if he or she does not agree with that cult opinion.

As such, I'm fully prepared for some nasty comments in regard to my opinions about Heavy Metal. This is a film that fully qualifies for its cult classic status, as it apparently has a sizable following who simply adore the movie. Why this is so is absolutely beyond me. Heavy Metal is a largely amateurish, uninteresting and stupid collection of loosely connected animated vignettes, almost none of which offer anything compelling.

Frankly, I was shocked at how bad this movie was. I knew the music would bite - after all, the soundtrack mainly focused on the hard rock or metal from the late Seventies and early Eighties, and that stuff was genuinely terrible. Journey? Sammy Hagar? Nazareth? When Stevie Nicks and Black Sabbath – the post-Ozzy version of the band - are the acts that remain the biggest deal from your soundtrack, you know you're in trouble. For some strange reason, the phrase "pathetically dated music" springs to mind – not that any of this crap was good even back in the Eighties.

However, I wasn't quite prepared for the generally poor quality of the animation and the inane nature of the stories themselves. If you've read many of my reviews, you'll know I'm clearly not a snob; no one who liked films like The Mummy and Billy Madison could be described that way. I always enjoyed comic books as well, so it's not that I felt turned off by that aspect of the production.

Instead, it was simply the fact that all of these little vignettes were quite uninspired and dull. There's not a single interesting character or creative tale to be found in this mess. It's all the same old recycled silly teen fantasy material. Even the vocal talents of treasures like Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy and John Candy can't save this trash. Actually, I thought they all sounded vaguely embarrassed to be there, and I can't blame them.

Some of the storyline problems would be forgivable if the animation were of a higher quality, but this tripe made the whole bad dream turn into a nightmare. Not all of the animation is terrible; it ranges from God-awful to decent. For much of the film, I felt that the quality was on a Saturday morning cartoon level. No, it never sinks to the depths of something like Pokemon, but it never shows any flare or spark, and a stiffness inhabits so much of the animation that I felt even the good bits were tainted by the stench.

One thing that's done well here is the animated effects. While I found the motion and realism of the concluding “Taarna” segment to be very poor, it did feature some dazzling effects that helped raise the bar to a degree. Not that the rehashed Eastwood revenge fantasy storyline deserved anything special, though. I did enjoy all of the extravagantly drawn women as well, even if no one who looks like them exists in the real world.

And that's about it. I have little to say about Heavy Metal because there's not much that deserves comment. It's a tremendously lame and crudely done waste of cels that has maintained a strong cult following for nearly twenty years. I remain at a loss for an explanation as to the reasons for this. Lotsa people watched it while they got stoned and it seemed cool by association? Works for me.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio B+ (DTS), B (DD) / Bonus F

Heavy Metal appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This Superbit version marks the second DVD release of Heavy Metal; the original one came out in late 1999 and offered a very erratic picture. While the new one still showed some concerns, I felt it displayed a significant improvement over the first release.

Sharpness seemed consistently solid throughout the movie. The occasional soft shot cropped up here or there, but not with any frequency. Instead, the image remained nicely crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges created no concerns, and I also noticed no issues related to edge enhancement.

As one might expect from an animated flick, Heavy Metal boasted a varied and often vivid palette, and those hues came through quite nicely. The colors seemed solid and tight, and they occasionally presented vibrant tones that looked very good. Black levels also appeared deep and rich, and shadow detail was appropriately thick but not excessively dense.

Where Heavy Metal lost most of its points related to source flaws. The print demonstrated quite a few defects throughout the movie. I noticed occasionally heavy grain along with speckles, grit, general debris and small nicks. Much of the film passed without many problems, though, and some of the concerns related to the original work. It looked like they did a poor job of clean-up with the animation, and that resulted in a messier appearance. Even so, the picture displayed enough flaws for me to knock down my grade to a “B”.

Based on my comments from my original 1999 review, the new one demonstrated a significant improvement over the old release. Unfortunately, I got rid of that DVD years ago, so I couldn’t make direct comparisons between the two discs. Nonetheless, I believe that the Superbit version presented a significantly cleaner and superior image.

The audio of Heavy Metal largely appeared to remain the same, but that was a good thing, as the old DVD presented a fine auditory experience. The Superbit version adds a DTS 5.1 mix to the original’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track. I felt that the DTS version sounded moderately stronger than the Dolby one. I’ll discuss my impressions of the DTS track first and then compare the pair.

To my surprise, the soundfield seemed exceedingly active for a movie from 1981. The front side channels presented a lot of effects activity. With all the various vehicles and fights, the mix offered many opportunities for expanded audio, and the track took advantage of those. The elements seemed appropriately placed within the spectrum and they blended smoothly to create a solid soundscape.

Surround usage also came across as very positive. The rears actively contributed to the mix. From general atmospheric reinforcement to stronger elements, they involved me quite nicely. The track even boasted some splendid split surround material, as ships might pass from the front side to the rear side. The soundfield seemed solid for a modern movie, so I felt very pleased to get such an engrossing mix from an aging flick like this.

Metal lost some points due to audio quality, though it remained relatively strong in that department as well. Speech offered the most consistent aspect of the track. Dialogue came across as acceptably natural and distinct, and I noticed no issues related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects usually fared well, though they seemed inconsistent. Most of those elements sounded clean and reasonably accurate, but at times they appeared a bit shrill, and some of them manifested moderate distortion as well. Bass response was pretty loud and generally tight, though low-end occasionally came across as slightly boomy.

Given the film’s active use of music, I felt surprised that so many of the songs sounded bad. Elmer Bernstein’s score appeared fairly good, as it demonstrated acceptable range and clarity. The rock tunes worked much less well, unfortunately, as they sounded tepid and flat much of the time. Part of this resulted from the mix, which tended to bury the songs under the effects. Still, even when left on their own, the rock tracks were lackluster and thin.

Despite a few concerns, I felt that the DTS mix for Heavy Metal more than warranted a “B+”. Actually, I almost bumped it up to an “A-“, but I thought the different flaws seemed too substantial to merit that mark. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix generally resembled the DTS one, but the latter simply seemed more involving and dynamic. It presented a smoother soundfield, and it pumped stronger bass and appeared livelier in general. The Dolby track worked fine and remained very good for a movie from 1981, but the DTS one seemed like the clear winner.

(Note that although I believe the old disc offered the same Dolby mix found here, I gave it a “B+” in my older review. This score variation most likely represents my changing attitudes as a reviewer and should not indicate that the two mixes differ. Since I can’t compare the two directly, I can’t unequivocally say that both Dolby tracks are identical, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t. I thought about changing my grade in the old review to match this one’s “B”, but I didn’t feel comfortable altering a mark without direct comparison. As such, this may end up with an inconsistency, but I don’t think it’s fair to change an old review if I can’t check it out in person, so my original article remains unchanged.)

So far, comparisons between the old DVD and the Superbit show the latter to be the superior product, as it appears to offer improved picture and sound. Where the original disc clearly wins relates to its supplements. That package offered a stellar roster of extras, whereas the Superbit set includes absolutely nothing.

Which makes it tough for me in regard to recommendations. Of course, I can’t urge anyone who doesn’t already like the movie to watch it. I genuinely disliked this inane and poorly constructed flick. The DVD provides erratic but generally solid picture along with very good audio and not a single supplement.

Fans who already own the original DVD probably will want the Superbit version due to its quality improvements. For those who possess neither release, the issue becomes less clear. If you don’t care about supplements, the Superbit set is the way to go, but if you like those extras, you’re stuck with a dilemma: do you sacrifice picture and sound quality for bonus materials? I think the Superbit Heavy Metal provides a substantial enough improvement in picture – as well as a modest upgrade in sound – to make the choice tough. Personally, I’m such a supplements fan that I’d go with the original if I could own just one, but the Superbit definitely gives us the superior presentation of the movie itself.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.423 Stars Number of Votes: 26
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