Since its founding in 1974 by the late Jean "Moebius" Giraud, the legacy of the French comic magazine Metal Hurlant (known in English as Heavy Metal) has been deeply coded within the imagery of science fiction and fantasy. Demonstrating how comics can approach genre storytelling in a sophisticated, mature manner and through imaginative, disturbing visuals of alien worlds, the magazine has forever changed the perception of comics all over Europe, America, and Japan, influencing pretty much every significant genre blockbuster from Alien to Avatar, and playing a major role in the genesis of the entire cyberpunk subgenre, inspiring both Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984).
But the Metal Hurlant stories weren't as lucky when it came to direct adaptations, at least in the English-speaking world. The legacy of the Heavy Metal (1981) and Heavy Metal 2000 (2000) animated films is mostly the publicity they gave to their source material for its borderline (and sometimes downright) pornographic depictions of women.
Now comes Metal Hurlant Chronicles, a Franco-Belgian live action television series, produced in English, which adapts selected stories from the magazine. The show was produced in an anthology format, with each episode completely unrelated to the others, apparently attempting to present a variety of different visions from the original magazine. The problem is that with the great influence that the magazine has had on genre storytelling across all media in the last forty years, none of the show's episodes feel truly innovative. Of the six episodes, three are a total disaster in terms of writing and directing; the other three, while significantly better, still feel like something that would have been considered fresh had it aired two decades ago.
One thing can be said for two of the series's weaker episodes: while the way they treat female characters is disgraceful, at the very least it's downplayed, in large part because of the producers' seeming insistence on maintaining a PG-13 rating, not an easy task considering the source material. On the other hand, this gives the show—especially the weaker episodes—a rather toothless feeling. The series's opening episode, "King's Crown," is perhaps a prime example. Taking place in a tyrannical monarchy, where the dying, corrupt king lives in a high-tech flying palace while all his subjects live in pseudo-medieval poverty, the king's successor is to be chosen in a brutal sword-fighting tournament. This tournament, which takes a substantial chunk of the episode's twenty-minute runtime, fails miserably at generating any sense of danger or excitement. It's not only a bloodless affair, but the choreography is also completely unconvincing at creating the impression that the characters are actually trying to hit each other, and the determination of producer/director Guillaume Lubrano's (who directed all other episodes in the series as well) to squeeze in as many slow-motion shots as possible is just painful to watch. The fight scenes are surrounded by bad dialogue (an unfortunate staple of most of the series), and they lead to a weak twist ending (another unfortunate staple of most of the series). More than anything else, "King's Crown" feels like a bad sword-and-sorcery film from the 1980s.
The same is largely true of "Pledge of Anya," another of the series's weaker entries, which focuses on a warrior from an ancient era (Gregory Basso) who is sent forward in time by a his tribe's shaman (Rutger Hauer, in a criminal waste of a good actor) to eliminate a great coming evil. Much like "King's Crown," "Pledge of Anya" amounts to little more than a collection of overworked clichés, but while "King's Crown" at least had a feeling of something going on, "Pledge of Anya" is nothing but an uneventful snoozefest. Opening with an overlong religious ceremony and moving on to the protagonist's journey to his intended target—hiding, moving, hiding, moving, and so on for about fifteen minutes—and ending again with a crappy twist ending, "Pledge of Anya" is simply the worst episode in the series.
Both episodes, as noted above, make hilariously bad attempts at balancing their R-rated origins with their PG-13 approach. Other than the unconvincing portrayal of brutality in "King's Crown," the episode also gives us dressed-up porn in panoramic shots featuring the tyrant's harem, filled with scantily clad girls who have absolutely no role in the story (think of the sexposition scenes in Game of Thrones—only without the sex or nudity, and with even less of an excuse to be there). It gets even more ridiculous in "Pledge of Anya," in a scene featuring the protagonist being prepared for his mission by two girls who undress to their undergarments—and then move on to smear his body with paint (I'm not kidding). It all reflects badly not only on the series but also on its source material—take the sex and violence out of them, and it turns you're not left with much.
Then again, sex and violence return in the episode "Three on a Match," and I immediately wished they'd go away. The episode opens with a sequence of the kind that gave the Metal Hurlant magazine its bad reputation—a starship captain forces a crew member into sex slavery—which has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that happens next. The ship is hit by an asteroid, two elite soldiers and one maintenance worker find their way into a rescue ship, the oxygen supply is not enough so someone has to be thrown out, and viewers have absolutely no reason to care. From the disgusting sex scene to the violence on the rescue ship which, I'm sure, would have been shockingly brutal if it wasn't for Lubrano's clumsy handling of action scenes (again), "Three on a Match" feels like a twenty-minute-long, torturous ride with the most repulsive people you've ever met. The episode does have a redeeming feature, though—the handsome CGI shots actually give it something of an epic space adventure feeling, somewhat absent from the other two weak episodes of the show.
Slick visuals are also a strong aspect of two of the show's better episodes. A prime example is an episode that contains two stories—"Red Light" and "Cold Hard Facts." "Red Light" occupies most of the episode's runtime, and though it certainly favors style over substance, the style is more than enough to hold the audience's interest. The unnamed protagonist (played by David Belle) is one of the few human survivors of an alien invasion. Held prisoner in an underground dungeon, he fights his way out to fulfill his wish of seeing the outside world one last time before he dies. The episode quickly becomes little more than a series of video game-style violent encounters, with the protagonist finding ever more creative ways of dealing with prison guards while making his way outside, but at the very least it's a good-looking video game aesthetic: the action is miles away from the watered-down "King's Crown," and conveys the man's desperate struggle, mostly due to the claustrophobic corridors in which most of the story takes place, and which are dominated by a strong red light that gives the episode its unique look, recalling the art of Christian Gossett who drew the original story in its comics form. Other than being an exciting action story and a beautiful episode to look at, "Red Light" has a twist ending that is a nice departure from the rest of the series's disappointing attempts at surprising the audience.
Things get even better with the very short (roughly seven minutes) "Cold Hard Facts." Genre fans will probably feel familiar with the environment of this story, a Blade Runner-esque futuristic urban nightmare (though as noted above, Blade Runner drew much of its visual inspiration from the pages of Metal Hurlant), in which a man is awakened from cryo-sleep, only for his fate to be decided by the governing forces of this brave new world—should he be allowed to live, possessing no skills that are considered useful in the futuristic society he finds himself in?
Much like "Red Light," "Cold Hard Facts" is the story of a man's losing struggle against the world that surrounds him, and the story's short runtime works in its favor: the audience gets some nice flashy visuals of urban dystopia, hears some quick debates, and then it's off to the conclusion—which this time manages to be not only surprising but also clever. Both stories fit together into a very satisfying experience that closely mimics the original comic aesthetic.
The episode "Master of Destiny" also has its roots deep in the aesthetic of the original Metal Hurlant magazine. It opens with space pilot Hondo (Joe Flanigan from Stargate Atlantis in an appropriate square-jawed performance), who follows the words of a dying friend to the end of the universe, where he can learn how he is going to meet his end. Upon arriving, he finds much more: his prophesized destiny includes a heroic reputation, riches, and the woman of his dreams (Kelly Brook) . . . but also the knowledge that it's going to end in a rather messy way.
"Master of Destiny" is based on a story written by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and much like his other famous work The Incal it mixes elements of space opera and future noir that are taken to their pulpy extremes. It is here that the short runtime of the episode hurts most: the events in "Master of Destiny" feel too condensed, and its ending feels overstated. Given more time, I feel that the story would have better delivered Jodorowsky's love for the grand-epic absurd. Still, much like "Red Light"/"Cold Hard Facts," the episode benefits from the polished execution of its visuals, taking the audience on a grand journey from sleazy bars to distant planets. Its breathless pace and deliberately exaggerated dialogue and acting all come together to form an entertainingly self-aware yarn.
Of all the series's episodes, "Shelter Me" comes frustratingly close to what could have been an excellent piece of genre television. The episode follows Jen (Michelle Ryan of Merlin) after she wakes up in an atomic shelter built by her creepy neighbor Brad (Buffy's James Marsters), who informs her that a nuclear war has made the environment outside the shelter toxic, and that they are the only remaining survivors.
A complete departure from the other episodes' futuristic or fantastic setting, "Shelter Me" takes place in a small, claustrophobic contemporary environment that the episode presents through spartan set design and atmospheric cinematography that recall (and sometime directly refer to) the hatch from Lost. Ryan and Marsters are several leagues above the other actors cast in the show, and their excellent performances elevate the episode above the rest of the series; Ryan manages to portray the only female character in the show who actually feels like a real character rather than a pinup, and Marsters's shy, restrained performance keeps viewers guessing as to whether he is a savior or a psychopath.
Alas, the episode is also a victim of a rather predictable script that leads to the same problem that plagues the show's weaker episodes—a terrible twist ending.
Despite its very different setting, "Shelter Me" is a good example of everything that went wrong with Metal Hurlant Chronicles's bad episodes, and of what could have made the better episodes great had more attention been paid to their scripts. More work should have been done to fit the original comic stories for today's TV environment, where the Metal Hurlant material is just not as radical as it used to be. Still, the potential is there: hopefully, the second season—rumored to be in production—will build on the visual strengths of the show's better episodes, this time with better scripts.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.