This Canadian project was mounted in the post-Star Wars (1977) science-fiction/fantasy boom. It features as producer a young Ivan Reitman, who would go onto success as a mainstream comedy director with the likes of Ghostbusters (1984), Twins (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), Six Days Seven Nights (1998) and Evolution (2001). The script featured story contributions from Dan OBannon, fresh from turning in the script for the hit Alien (1979). Segment directors included Industrial Light and Magic art director John Bruno, who would later premiere as live-action director of Virus (1999); John Halas who made the first ever British animated film Animal Farm (1954); Jimmy T. Murikami who previously made Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) for Roger Corman and would later make the excellent nuclear holocaust animated film When the Wind Blows (1986); and Belgian animator Pino van Lamsweerde. Overall director Gerald Potterton never went onto anything of note, bar several video releases based on various of L. Frank Baums Oz stories.
Many of the original comic-book artists work on their own material here. (The opening, Harry Canyon, B-17 and Taarna segments are original material but all the others stories are adapted from the magazine). As with any anthology film, the segments vary in quality. The overarching structure is not particularly well connected to the stories the Captain Sternn and So Beautiful, So Dangerous segments have to strain to find relevance to the Locknar story. Den is an amusing parody of a sword-and-sorcery adventure with its muscular barbarian being incongruously voiced in gawky teenage idiom. Harry Canyon is an amusingly cynical pre-Cyberpunk story of future New York. B-17 contains some nicely grisly moments but the double twist ending that seems to reveal it as some part of an alien videogame is incomprehensible. Captain Sterrn is little more than a tale with a shaggy dog twist. The So Beautiful, So Dangerous segment offers some trippy spacial vistas but the plot staggers about as incoherently as its two Cheech and Chong modeled stoner alien pilots before abruptly coming to a sudden halt. Taarna is the most lavishly animated of the segments but the longest drawn out.
There is a trippy cult hallucinatory quality to Heavy Metal. At its best it conjures some nice vistas of space and other worlds. However, there is never any of the truly alien landscapes that pop up in the magazine version and the works of Richard Corben. (The French animated film Fantastic Planet (1973) is a far better representation of Metal Hurlants sheer alienness). The film also seems to embody far too much of what was criticized about the Robert E. Howard school of barbarian sword-and-sorcery of being little more than a teenage empowerment fantasy of brawn and strength, available curvaceous women who disrobe at the drop of a hat and softcore bondage. The films appeal at times seems little above that of a John Norman novel.
Heavy Metal has attained a cult popularity and is a midnight screening favourite. Its video release was held up for many years because copyright had expired on several of the songs on the soundtrack. The film could only be seen in cinematic release, which contributed to its cultiness. It has since been released on video/dvd, the problem of copyright being remedied by redubbing a new soundtrack with different artists. There have been attempts in the last two decades since to mount various animated and live-action sequels, which finally eventuated in the disappointing Heavy Metal 2000 (2000).