Metal Hurlant magazine, better known to U.S. readers as Heavy Metal, has been a mainstay of magazine racks since the late ‘70s, offering a distinctly adult take on horror, sci-fi and fantasy genres. Fanciful art, boundary-pushing sex and violence and twist endings all figure prominently in the magazine’s house style. It’s natural that such a commercial mixture of elements would inspire interest from other areas of showbiz and Heavy Metal quickly inspired an animated midnight movie classic (and much later, a lesser sequel).
Other filmmakers have threatened to revive the magazine in film form for years but it took a French filmmaker to revive it via another medium: Guillaume Lubrano created a television show inspired by the magazine, Metal Hurlant Chronicles, which ran for two seasons in Europe and played in the U.S. on SyFy. The results are technically impressive — but they also reveal the dangers of being too deeply in thrall to source material from another medium.
The titles sequence of Metal Hurlant Chronicles sets up the linking device that unites its array of individual stories: a chunk of a dead planet hurtles through space, causing chaos on any planet or spaceship that crosses paths with it. The stories that follow take place in fantasy kingdoms, on distant planets and occasionally on Earth itself. Lubrano gets in a few genre-friendly faces to populate the tales — Michael Biehn, Scott Adkins, John Rhys-Davies, Michael Jai White — and his choice of Metal Hurlant stories includes a few tales penned by filmmaker-turned-comics-scribe Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Lubrano’s greatest asset as a director is his visual sense: Metal Hurlant Chronicles deploys CGI effects with confidence, most of them quite good, and boasts strong production design and makeup effects. Perhaps the best all-around episode in capturing these skills is “The Endomorphe, ” which features White as a military leader whose ever-dwindling squad is trying to usher a child who might save humanity from a cyborg rebellion to a safe zone. The sophisticated blend of CGI and carefully-lit sets creates a convincing apocalyptic feel and Lubrano keeps it afloat with plenty of action and a compelling lead performance from White.
However, Lubrano has problems getting a consistent level of believable acting. With the exception of the aforementioned guest stars, Metal Hurlant Chronicles is filled with an array of French actors who deliver stiff, one-note performances further hurt by a weak grasp of the English language. Give actors like this kitschy comic book dialogue and the result often pulls you out of the show’s visual pleasures.
Lubrano also goes too far in being faithful to his comic book tales. For example, comic book dialogue is different from film/t.v. dialogue and the show’s refusal to consider this results in a lot of clinker-heavy dialogue. On a deeper level, Lubrano takes stories that usually occupy just a few pages in an issue of Metal Hurlant and strains to pad them out to a 20 to 25 minute length. As a result, a simple tale of castle intrigue like “Second Son” should take about 10 minutes to tell but runs on twice as long. Also, the reliance of gimmicky twist endings results in groaner-style codas that you can guess long before they run their course (the one in “Pledge Of Anya” will induce eye-rolls).
That said, a few stories emerge from the pack as memorable. For example, “Whisky In The Jar” is an intriguingly macabre blend of western and supernatural elements anchored by a believably world-weary performance from Michael Biehn and, despite some pacing issues, “Master Of Destiny” is the best of the show’s two Jodorowsky adaptations, mixing space opera visuals with a meditation on life’s surprising twists of fate.
Overall, Metal Hurlant Chronicles is a mixed bag that is stronger on visual design than it is on translating Metal Hurlant to a live-action medium. Fans of the magazine will appreciate the show’s fidelity to the source material but others are likely to find it an awkward translation on more than one front.
Blu-Ray Notes: Both seasons have been released in the U.S. on a 3-blu-ray set by Shout Factory. Picture quality is excellent, doing well by the CGI-laced digital imagery, and the lossless 5.1 stereo mixes deliver plenty of oomph and multi-channel activity.
Each disc also features plentiful extras. Disc one includes featurettes for the first two episodes that offer plentiful on-the-set footage along with interview snippets. There are also three interviews, all with cast members from the “King’s Ransom” episode (including fan faves Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White). The second disc offers an additional five featurettes on that disc’s episodes, all with plentiful behind-the-scenes footage that gives an insight into how ambitious this series undertaking was.
Disc three is entirely devoted to extras. First up are four episodes in French language versions: English subtitles are included for all. There is also a panel discussion from San Diego ComicCon that features Lubrano, White and other cast and crew discussing the challenges of shooting a technically complex show cheaply and quickly. They all show a genuine love for geek culture that is charming.
However, the best inclusion on this disc is thirteen motion comics of the original stories used for the show’s episodes, presented in French with English subtitles. They’re all candy for the eye and offer fans a chance to study how the show expanded these short tales into their live-action counterparts. All in all, this is a fine set from Shout Factory and offers excellent value for the money.