Heavy Metal was originally released on August 7, 1981, and in several respects was a ground-breaking piece of animation. The movie consists of eight stories linked together by the "Loc-Nar," a glowing sphere, unbounded by time or space, that represents "the sum of all evils." In each story, the Loc-Nar demonstrates its capacity for evil, and its malevolent influence and manipulation of human affairs.
The plethora of reviews of this movie have been far from uniform (see reviews and user comments at the Internet Movie Database), but many viewers have expressed the opinion that the longest and final story, The Legend of Taarna, directed by John Bruno, was well-executed and entertaining. I concur in this judgment.
Taarna captivated me when I first saw Heavy Metal at the impressionable age of seventeen. My interest, which had remained dormant for twenty years, was rekindled when the DVD was released in 1999.
To some, even perhaps to most of those who have reviewed the movie, Taarna is merely an overly endowed sex object in a dominatrix outfit. This conclusion could easily be justified if one considered only the undeniably male, adolescent orientation of Heavy Metal, with its liberal dosage of sex, drug use, and rock music. I feel, however, that Taarna cannot fairly be bound to this shallow image. In her I perceive certain qualities which, in my opinion, cause her tale to eclipse all of the others, and make her character worthy of praise. Hence, perhaps being a lone voice in the wilderness, I have constructed this encomium to Taarna, and herein set out the elements that shape my views.
First, The Legend of Taarna was dramatically juxtaposed against the other stories in the film. The humorous aspects of earlier segments, such as "Den," "Captain Sternn," and "So Beautiful, So Dangerous" disappeared, and the movie got down to business in a savage conflict between good and evil. The sequence's lack of frivolity dovetailed well with the somber attitude of its main character.
The Loc-Nar's seemingly unstoppable trail of death and destruction climaxed with the devastation of a peaceful city at the beginning of the sequence. By the time this was over, I was primed to see someone who would finally defeat the Loc-Nar. Taarna was the proffered challenger, but her identity was at first concealed.
Initially, all that is seen is a cloaked, human figure riding a bird-like creature across a barren and ever-shifting landscape. This was the second thing that grabbed my attention: the flight sequence, which ends in a spectral, underground temple, simply blew me away. In 1981, no one had ever done anything like it in animation.
Furthermore, Elmer Bernstein's score during this portion of the story is awesomely uplifting. To me, it was spine-tingling, a piece of music that makes you shiver from head to toe. This is most particularly true of the driving chorus as Taarna passes through a gargantuan maze of pipes to reach her hidden destination. The images and music combined to evoke an incipient power of goodness and light, promising the advent of something triumphant and unconquerable.
Taarna herself was the third element to which I responded, and was everything that the flight sequence had promised. Emerging from the shadows, the Defender was at last revealed to be not a hero, but a heroine. And she was no ordinary heroine, but rather, possessed of a unique kind of upright and noble bearing which is hard to define, and even harder, one might think, to be conveyed through the medium of animation. In looking for parallels one might consider apt Milton's opening description of Adam and Eve from Paradise Lost:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honour clad
In naked majesty seemed lords of all,
And worthy seemed, for in the looks divine
The image of their glorious maker shone,
Truth, Wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe but in true filial freedom placed;
Whence true authority in men.
Much of the commentary about Heavy Metal has focused on its negative portrayal of women, and rightly so; but Taarna must be set apart from the rest. In marked contrast to the promiscuity of female characters in earlier vignettes, she was portrayed with dignity.
The nobility of Taarna's character did not entail, however, the denial of her femininity. To the contrary, she was quite distinctly a woman, and this quality achieved nearly mystical dimensions in the "rotation sequence," the controversial, rotoscoped brainchild of John Bruno. Furthermore, while her beauty could easily have been reduced to prurience, it was instead, in a way that perhaps could only have been achieved through animation, elevated to art by a silent and serious demeanor set to a crystalline, hauntingly evocative soundtrack. The images of Taarna in this part of the sequence are not lustful, but rather provoke, like a fine piece of sculpture, a powerful appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of the human body. While not a connoisseur of animation, I have never seen anything like it, before or since.
This leads to the fourth and most complex element, that which struck me most powerfully: Taarna's heroism and pathos. Here, at last, stepped forth a solitary individual with a relentless, single-minded determination to destroy the Loc-Nar. She was courageous and not to be trifled with--deadly and possessing a silent, steely resolve. Her intentionality brings to mind a high velocity bullet spinning in a flat trajectory toward its target.
For centuries, men and women alike have been fascinated by the woman warrior. The social and cultural reasons for this merit consideration. Several excellent books have explored the subject, and detailed the lives of women who have fought their way through the pages of history since the time of the Amazons. David E. Jones' work, Women Warriors--A History is a good example; Antonia Fraser's The Warrior Queens is another. There are also numerous informative web sites. What explains the enduring interest in such women? I will hazard a guess.
It seems to be a facet of man's nature to seek domination and control over his environment and other persons. Yet, paradoxically, man will often respect and declare beautiful precisely that which he cannot bring under his power. We are fascinated by sharks: streamlined and powerful, deadly yet beautiful, superior in their watery domain. Or, think of a thoroughbred, muscular and magnificent, galloping through a meadow: we stand in awe; the horse, by its very form, commands love and admiration. Creatures such as these serve to remind us that we are not the measure of all things, and kindle in the contemplative heart an appreciation of the fact that there are immaculate beings in the world that originate from something transcendent; from a Mind that knows and can create Beauty in its most perfect sense. As written by Dio Chrysostom,
For he is indeed the first and most perfect artificer, who has taken as his coadjutor in his art . . . the entire material of the entire universe.
So, in a mysterious but even more wonderful way, it can be with women when spiritual freedom and beauty merge. A woman who is self-assured and independent from a firm grounding in Faith and Love can be infinitely compelling. A man will respect and adore such a woman because he sees in her heart the noble spirit of Man at its most primal and powerful; perhaps even at its most beautiful. Theseus' love of Antiope in Steven Pressfield's Last of the Amazons grasps at this powerful feeling, so strongly felt, yet so hard to define. The Greeks of this story both love and are repulsed by the warrioresses whom Pressfield describes so vividly: "She held, as in a dream, mounted upon Daybreak. I could see the horse's breastplate of ox-hide lapped with bronze. Selene wore no helmet. Feathers of eagle and osprey adorned her hair; her face was painted vermilion and black. She came on the run. My bride, I thought. I longed only to fly to her arms. I saw her elevated axe and heard her war cry. The blood drained to my soles."
As a parochial, midwestern teenager, I was unaware (with the exception of Joan of Arc) of the martial history of women when I saw The Legend of Taarna, and had not given much thought to such matters. All I knew was that I saw a woman who was focused entirely on defeating evil, and to accomplish it, died.
This, finally, is Taarna's pathos. Her mortality raised her above a mere Amazon and all other heroines of popular culture, for Taarna was not a comicbook superhero--far from it. She was touchingly, painfully human, and what occurred to her was not childish or comical: captivity, suffering, wounding, and torture. Finally, she offered herself up for sacrifice, willingly and without hesitation. Stated simply, I found her martyrdom heart-breaking; in it there was something both terrible and beautiful to which I responded. Her unwavering procession to death is why she remains emblazoned on my memory.
The melding of these qualities into a single, beautiful female remains unique. So powerful was the combination to me that it overbore the fact that Taarna was animated, that she was dressed in a completely unbefitting outfit, and that the Loc-Nar was an obvious linking device. While I know that evil does not manifest itself in the form of glowing green spheres, and that in our own lives the struggle with evil is much more subtle and complex, I remain impressed with Taarna's peculiar blend of virtues. With boldness and courage of heart she took a stand for something, raising in my mind a question well worth reflection: for whom or what would I lay down my life? When push comes to shove, do we truly stand firm against Evil?
Some say that Heavy Metal caters to a misogynist mindset. I believe that to the contrary, Taarna can only engender an admiration for women, or for any person with the personal qualities which make her character redeemable. In a way, she reaffirms the importance of cultivating beauty not merely on the surface, but within one's own self, and in how we carry out our lives. As Marcus Aurelius wrote some 18 centuries ago, "If you find in human life anything better than justice, truth, temperance, [and] fortitude, . . . turn to it with all your soul, and enjoy that which you have found to be best. But if nothing appears to you better than the divinity planted within you, . . . give way to nothing else." Thus, although she is only an idea, because of what Taarna stands for--the beauty of the human spirit persevering against extreme adversity in the courageous pursuit of justice--she holds a very special place in my heart. Herein, at the risk of much personal embarrassment, I openly declare my love for her.
Like many things in life, one's view of Taarna will be a product of one's age, experience, and personal perspective. I invite you to look beneath the animator's larger-than-life story of vengeance, forget the skimpy outfit, and see instead a human spirit endowed with the admirable qualities of selflessness and devotion to duty. The story which emerges is timeless, and one whose historical antecedents are very real and extend down through the centuries to the present: the power of one person, committed in faith and love, to change the world. Perhaps it is foolish to ascribe importance to a 30-minute animated sequence in Heavy Metal. But in this age of darkness and nihilism, I believe virtue and beauty should be credited wherever found, even in the most unusual places. In St. Paul's words, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Philippians 4:8. I find this a fitting description for Taarna, and I hope that you will find her story edifying, uplifting, and a source of inspiration as I did 27 years ago, and still do today.
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This site has six features:
The Legend of Taarna retold. (There are 17 chapters; if you would like to read the story offline, you may download it in Adobe Reader format.) I have strived to bring an enriching depth to her character, making her less iconistic and more human than might be possible to convey in a 35-minute, animated sequence.
Images of Taarna, consisting of cels from the film, model sheets, or illustrations. With some of the images I have included photographs of Canadian model Carol Desbiens, who was rotoscoped to assist in the animation process. Warning: for those unfamiliar with the movie, there is frontal nudity in some of the images. Movie clips of Taarna from You Tube may also be seen here.
Interesting information about how The Legend of Taarna was made.
Favorable viewer comments on the Taarna sequence, and on Elmer Bernstein's score. In the interests of balance, I have also included unflattering commentary here.
Taarna is fiction, but her discipline, singleness of purpose, and selflessness are not. If you have wondered whether any women in history have shared her spirit, consider these examples.
Finally, here are some links to other web sites about Taarna, or about Heavy Metal.