“The ‘key’ to the ‘chamber’ of immortality looks like a glowing white penis”
Contrary to the title of this review, anyone who knows the prolific output – 92 B-movies since 1990! – of cult goddess Julie Strain is aware that she, in fact, knows dick very well. Her entire 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, the side of Zippo lighters (or any other product you can imagine), the pages of horror and fantasy magazines, or onstage at your most recent comics convention. In short, she’s a Star Trek-type fan industry unto herself.
But the prototype for Strain’s stacked assets has been lying around within the pages of Heavy Metal, the groundbreaking adult comic lifer, since it started showing up on the magazine racks in 1977, which also happened to be the year Star Wars reopened the sci-fi market for good. Heavy Metal was a guilty pleasure for every straight 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 Leonard Mogel, at the time the publisher of National Lampoon, realized 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 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 Heavy Metal, slightly before crushing the hearts of nerds worldwide when he married Strain later on. 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 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. But 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 more 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 and is possessed by madness the minute he uncovers it. Shortly after, he’s laid gory waste to everything in his path – including an entire Gaia-style agrarian society home to Julie (Strain, using her own name) – on an Ahab-like mission to possess the chamber of immortality. The fact that the key he carries allows him to regenerate whenever he’s shot, stabbed, or torn makes it hard for anyone to counter his excessively sadistic and homicidal acts, even Julie who goes Rambo for the entire film in an attempt to avenge the death of her people.
But that would be too easy, getting back to the title of this review. Like the magazine from which it came, Heavy Metal 2000 is all about phalluses and receptacles, intercourse and violence, and the fine friction between. It is, in fact, all about dick, although there are plenty of breasts to go around.
The sexual iconography of the film is its major attraction, and that is mostly because it is everywhere: Strain’s clothes grow thinner and thinner the longer the film progresses; 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, one which, of course, only Strain can satisfy as she tries to get close enough to assassinate him (with a phallus, I mean, a long blade of her own); Tyler’s later murderous obsessions are prefigured by his previous professional one (he drills for a living); the hall in which the chamber is held looks like a huge vagina; the list goes on and on.
Indeed, it is in spotting these seemingly endless sexual signifiers that Heavy Metal 2000 lives up to its true promise, because the animation is a wild card, considering its awkward vacillation between compelling hand-drawings and clunky, obsolete computer graphics. Similarly, the dialogue and voiceovers are by-the-numbers, although Strain thankfully starts out a foul-mouthed badass and stays one (Ironside, true to form, 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 the pleasure of our friend, 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 eyeballs land. 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 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.