Sunday, March 21, 2010

B-17 (Heavy Metal, 1981)

I was too young to be allowed to see Heavy Metal (produced by Ivan Reitman) in theaters when it first opened in 1981, but I remember being intrigued by the trailer and one-sheet art.... an R-rated animated fantasy anthology, that combined elements of the future (spaceships, robots) and past (swords, castles, dinosaur-like monsters). And I wondered what the (then) contemporary rock music of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and Journey, etc., had to do with any of it.

My favorite episode of the film (having finally seen it years later as a teenager, once it hit the midnight movie circuit) is B-17, a chilling segment based on an original story by sci-fi screenwriter Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, etc.) that could have come right out of an E.C. comic.

B-17 opens with several of the WWII-era bombers receiving and returning fire from an unseen enemy in a starry night sky. The animation of the planes (which appears rotoscoped) is striking and surreal.

Only one plane, the Pacific Pearl, survives the attack, and co-pilot Holden leaves the cockpit to check the damage.

All is quiet except for an eerie, howling wind. The entire crew has been killed, and the audience is not spared the gruesome horrors of war.

But an alien force that has stowed away on the craft transforms their corpses into lumbering zombies. They kill Holden, then force their way into the cockpit to take out the pilot, Skip.

Skip is able to eject, and parachutes safely to the jungle below.

But he appears to have set down in an airplane graveyard, littered with the wreckage of planes from various eras.

Skip soon finds himself surrounded by the ravenous pilots of the various ruined aircraft, who close in for the kill.

Apparently an earlier concept for B-17 had the plane being terrorized by monstrous versions of the legendary plane-sabotaging gremlins instead of undead zombies.

Disney had previously planned to do a cartoon on these same mythic creatures, using a story by Roald Dahl (of course, their version of the gremlins leaned toward the cute side).

When I said that B-17 was my favorite segment of the film, I should have qualified that by confiding that Heavy Metal, overall, really isn't my thing. While I thought the animation style was unique and sometimes quite beautiful, I found its shallow attempts at being "adult" (gratuitous nudity, sophomoric sex jokes, fetishistic costumes and violence) to be about as edgy as a pair of stripper-silhouetted mudflaps, and I just never went in for the whole macho strand of pulp fantasy that the bulk of the stories wallow in.

Stephen King, once commenting on low-brow sword and sorcery fiction, put it perfectly:
Mediocre fantasy fiction generally appeals to people who feel a decided shortage of power in their own lives and obtain a vicarious shot of it by reading stories of strong-thewed barbarians whose extraordinary prowess at fighting is only excelled by their extraordinary prowess at f---ing; in these stories we are apt to encounter a seven-foot-tall hero fighting his way up the alabaster stairs of some ruined temple, a flashing sword in one hand and a scantily clad beauty lolling over his free arm.

-Danse Macabre, pg.345

Still, B-17 got to me, and I'd recommend checking the film out for that segment alone.

3 comments:

FilmFather said...

Great post. I have a soft spot for Heavy Metal because it was something new and different circa 1981...and I was a budding teenager curious about why a cartoon was rated R (I wasn't that familiar with the magazine).

It's ironic that HM was rated R, since it's made for 14-year-old-boys. Revisiting it as an adult, it's definitely lacking in parts, though I still enjoy the B-17 segment and the one called Hanover Fist. I mean, Dean Wormer as the voice of the prosecutor? C'mon!

ClassicMovieLover said...

I wasn't even around when this first came out but the first time I saw it was on Television late at night and this was first thing I saw. Kinda scary watching this scene late at night am I right? This was my favorite scene because of several things:
1. The music, the intro "Takin a ride by Don Felder" and that onimous music when the zombies apear
2. The fact its in WW2 *I'm kinda a History lover*
3. The original style plot
4. The artwork and style they made this scene with

Oildale Jones said...

I was looking for the clip and found your post. I saw HM in the theater and this was my favorite vignette (other than Taarna getting naked).

The plane looks rotoscoped because it was. They built a big model B-17, shot it, and then animated over it. I like the "heat shimmer" effect it has.