Friday, July 8, 2011

Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn

The jury is still out on whether the current trend of 3-D films is merely a fad or here to stay. The debate continues to rage on but people should remember that we went through this in the early to mid-1980’s with the likes of Friday the 13th Part III (1982), Jaws 3-D (1983), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (1983) among several others. Included in this crop of films was Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983), a Road Warrior (1981) rip-off directed by Charles Band, the B-movie mogul behind Empire Pictures and later Full Moon Features. He had first tested the 3-D waters with the science fiction horror film Parasite (1982) but Metalstorm was a much more ambitious undertaking with a significantly larger budget, utilizing state-of-the-art 3-D technology, and a major Hollywood studio willing to distribute it in more theaters than any of his previous efforts had enjoyed. Bolstered by this, Band got a little too ambitious for his own good, planning merchandise tie-ins and even envisioning a trilogy of films. Metalstorm was released and almost immediately savaged by critics and ignored by audiences thereby relegating it to cult film status. To be fair, it’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but it does have its moments.


We meet Dogen (Jeffrey Byron), a space ranger traveling through the desolate wastelands of the planet Lemuria. In fact, Band wastes the first four minutes just showing the protagonist driving around before we finally get some action as a flying craft of some sort attacks our hero. The purpose of this sequence is to show what a badass Dogen is and one can’t help but notice the startling similarities in what Jeffrey Byron is wearing with Mel Gibson’s black leather outfit in Mad Max (1979), right down to sporting the same cool, unshaven look.

A prospector and his young daughter Dhyana (Kelly Preston) are working in an abandoned mine in Nomad territory and find a big crystal that appears to be very valuable. However, they run afoul of Baal (R. David Smith) and his minions. He is the half-cyborg son of Jared-Syn (Michael Preston), an intergalactic criminal with supernatural abilities. Baal has this cool mechanical arm that extends (in 3-D this looked rather impressive) and shoots out funky green liquid that causes the victim to hallucinate a bizarre dream-state where they encounter Jared-Syn. He possesses a powerful red crystal that kills them upon contact. Fortunately, Dhyana manages to hide but her father isn’t so lucky.

Dogen encounters Dhyana and informs her that a treaty has been broken and Jared-Syn is inciting the Nomads to do his bidding. Band even attempts to orchestrate a poignant moment when she mourns the loss of her father. It is Dogen’s mission to hunt down and stop both Syn and Baal. With her father dead, Dhyana joins Dogen on his mission. However, when she is kidnapped by Syn (and conveniently teleported away), Dogen seeks out Rhodes (Tim Thomerson), an ex-ranger now a grizzled, washed-up alcoholic, as a guide to the Lost City – the bad guy’s lair.

The cast does their best with the clichéd dialogue and manage to sell all the mythology exposition stuff with a straight face. Jeffrey Byron plays the Mad Max-esque Dogen like the lone gunslinger archetype he’s obviously based on. The actor has the look and intensity of a young William Petersen just not with the same acting chops – a bland carbon copy but to be fair he’s not given much to work with. A young, pre-John Travolta Kelly Preston is the beautiful and independently-minded love interest who is kidnapped early on by Jared-Syn and then disappears for most of the film only to pop up towards the end as a damsel in distress. Baal is definitely the coolest character in the film with his mechanical arm and cyborg appearance. He even sports a distorted, metallic-sounding voice which made quite an impression on me at the young age I first saw the film. The always watchable Tim Thomerson has fun playing the burnt-out ex-soldier who claims not to give a damn about anything but when it comes down to it, steps up to help out our hero. At times, Rhodes also provides a much-needed comic relief. Also of note is a pre-Night Court Richard Moll who shows up as the leader of the Cyclops and who challenges Dogen to gladiatorial combat at one point during the film.

For a low-budget film such as Metalstorm, the production values are surprisingly decent with attention paid to the costumes and cool prosthetic makeup effects of the Cyclop nomads. The hallucination sequences are definitely the strongest parts of the film and have a nightmarish quality to them enhanced by Richard Band’s otherworldly music. The special effects actually hold up pretty well because they were done practically with optics and models, giving them a realness even if sometimes they look a little cheesy but given the small budget it is not surprisingly while also becoming part of the film’s charm.

Producer/director Charles Band originally conceived of Metalstorm as a low-budget follow-up to his previous 3-D film Parasite. However, he got excited about the story and decided to expand its scope and budget to $2.5 million, which seems like peanuts but was a big chunk of change for someone like Band. This necessitated more crew members to be brought on board forcing Band and the film’s screenwriter and co-producer Alan J. Adler to give up their salaries in lieu of deferments. This also allowed them more creative control: “If the majors financed this thing, a car full of guys in suits could drive up with some crazy idea, and we would have to do it,” Adler said in an interview with Cinefantastique magazine.

Adler originally saw the film as a western with “a lot of American Indian mythology.” He read everything he could find in the library and wrote a treatment, basing the setting and time on many of his ideas of the legend of Atlantis.” He set out to write as little dialogue as possible because “3-D is a dynamic visual medium, and dialogue seems to stop the action,” which may explain the end result.

Principal photography took place in the Simi Valley and the Vasquez Rock formations outside of Los Angeles over seven weeks. Adler was on the set every day, standing next to Band, making suggestions while the director re-wrote scenes. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg remembers that initially the production had a 3-D consultant, “but we got rid of him because he was such a pain in the neck.” Apparently, the consultant wanted Band and Ahlberg to follow the “standard” 3-D rules: long cuts, static cameras and an avoidance of high-contrast scenes. The two men ignored them all and were still able to achieve the results they wanted. However, shooting in 3-D required extreme precision. For example, some shots required multiple cameras and extra care was required for the composition and calibration of convergence in each camera. Ahlberg also had to be aware of how a sequence might be edited while he was filming it. He had to compose the picture so that the audience looked at what they were supposed to, “because if they look at the wrong things they definitely get eye pain.” He tried to have a continuity of convergence so as to avoid this unfortunate side effect. Although, he ultimately found 3-D “so boring, so uninteresting.”

Makeup Effects Labs did the film’s makeup effects, including the creation of Baal. All of the character’s appliances and props took five hours each day to apply. There were seven appliances for the face and skull, which resembled surgically-implanted metal but was actually latex foam painted in silver pigments. Baal was played by accomplished mime R. David Smith who was born without a left arm, perfect for the pneumatically-operated mechanical arm that shoots a green hallucinatory liquid. Three versions of the arm were built: one that extended, one that was rigged to be torn off, and one that shot the green liquid.

Metalstorm’s visual effects included rotoscope animation and complex blue-screen composites that combined up to five elements in a single shot. For example, there was a model of a vehicle flying through the air, going through a background of a shot of a canyon while at the same time there might be a live-action shot of an actor in a vehicle shooting rotoscoped lasers. The challenge came with the 3-D and the precise positioning required of different elements within the frame at any one moment. A lot of the effects work required rotoscope animation for lasers, glowing energy crystals and the climactic hyperspace tunnel. It took a lot of time to achieve them and as a result three different animation crews were brought in during post-production.

After principal photography ended, editor Brad Arensman assembled a 3-D demo reel for film buyers at the Cannes Film Festival with Charles Band and actor Jeffrey Byron accompanying the footage. Band returned to L.A. and screened the reel for several domestic distributors. Universal Pictures took an interest as their executives were worried about the financial prospects of Jaws 3-D. They saw Metalstorm as an inexpensive follow-up that could be screened in theaters that had already altered their projection equipment for Jaws 3-D. However, they wanted Metalstorm to come out three weeks after Jaws opened which left Band and his crew less than two months to shoot some much-needed pick-up shots, finish the optical and to cut, loop, score and mix the film. Weeks before the release, Band had high hopes that his film would be a big hit. Adler began working on a script for a sequel and even envisioned a trilogy. Despite almost recouping their budget over the opening weekend, grosses dropped off quickly. Band was candid about his shortcomings as a director. He spent too much time shooting the dream sequences and a few others and then found he only had half a day to shoot other scenes and raced through them due to the short shooting schedule. The result was a wildly uneven film.

When it was released in theaters, Metalstorm was barely reviewed and those critics that did, hated it. In his review for The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote, “No contradiction is forthcoming here. Metalstorm is a slow-moving, thoroughly derivative movie that makes little use of the possibilities of 3-D.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold concurred: “Metalstorm recalls movies such as Robot Monster. While more elaborate, it also exudes the aroma of something desperately hustled onto celluloid one afternoon on location with limited stock and non-pros in the leads.” Finally, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Matthew Fraser wrote, “But the amateurish direction, hilariously silly dialogue, and inadvertently fatuous character delineation in Metalstorm make a comparison to the old Flash Gordon series just as appropriate.”

Metalstorm is basically a futuristic western with motorized vehicles standing in for horses and with gunslinger-type characters and shoot-outs in frontier-type towns. Band’s film was one of many at the time that tried to capitalize on the success of The Road Warrior right down to the casting of Michael Preston as Jared-Syn (he was also in The Road Warrior) but he gets little to do except for the hallucination sequences and the final showdown. Like most films that came after, Metalstorm was a pale imitation so it tried to also fuse elements of sorcery and dystopia science fiction onto the story in an attempt to make it somewhat different. It is never a dull film – Band’s B-action movie instincts are good – but it’s not an extraordinary one either. The action sequences are certainly lively and nicely orchestrated with the requisite slow motion shots of vehicular carnage. It’s just that one can’t help but feel we’ve seen this all before and done better.


SOURCES


Wolter, Charlotte. “Metalstorm.” Cinefantastique. Vol 13 No. 6 / Vol. 14 No. 1

7 comments:

  1. Holy Cow, a review of Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn was the last thing I expected to read this lovely Friday morning.

    But I'm glad I read your excellent retrospective. I haven't seen the film in a long time (a decade, maybe?) and now I must absolutely rectify that.

    In my memory, I always seem to associate Metalstorm with Spacehunter. Both were in 3-D; both were sort of Mad Max-style efforts, and both bombed with critics and audiences.

    When I watched Spacehunter again not too long ago to review, I liked it much more than I had remembered from the theatrical experience. I wonder if I'll feel the same way about Metalstorm?

    You're very upfront about the film's flaws, but also do a good job of excavating what interesting qualities it possesses.

    Again, I really feel the need to see Metalstorm again thanks to your great write up.

    best,
    John Kenneth Muir

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  2. Was this the film where a guy is riding a motorcycle and then he takes off on it and flies throught the skies and the lands on a plane or something? Funny stuff! I saw that clip on You Tube and it had me rolling!

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  3. This was such a surprising find here at Radiator Heaven J.D. not because you never cease to surprise us with your film choices, but because I had completely fogotten about the film's existence. Parasite as well.

    A very interesting sci-fi choice.

    I don't know about 3-D. Back in the day it always seemed like a gimmick and immediately you were put on notice that you were about to see a bad film, a film that sucked, in 3-D. The 3-D almost seemed like it would make it all a little more palatable. Instead it was a distracting technology. I never liked it then.

    While Avatar was pretty impressive in 3D I'm still not in love with it and again it has been used in a gimmicky way to sell movie tickets to less than impressive films or films that haven't used the technology correctly and thus interest in it is waning once again. I'm far from sold on 3-D.

    Having said that, your review has me wondering if I wouldn't enjoy a vintage tale like this one circa the 80s a la Krull or something.

    Thanks to you I now know where Kelly PReston got her start. She is fine.

    Also, I have Byron to look forward to in Wonder Woman and Bionic Ever After. : )

    The costumes and prosthetics do look alluring for a self-professed sci-fi fan.

    I will say cliched dialogue or poor dialogue is one thing, but little of it can work beautifully in the hands of the right director, say Ridley Scott's Blade Runner as an example or even Mad Max or The Road Warrior as you mentioned.

    With classics like the aforementioned and Star Wars around you can imagine Metalstorm would not fare well, but I'm curious if I would enjoy this.

    Your coverage is amazing on this film and I learned far more than I ever would have thought I would about it in this lifetime. : )

    I'm sure we have seen much better, but this was a fun and unexpected treat on TGIF! You give us loads of history and just the right comparisons and contrasts. all the best, sff

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  4. I always thought the title killed its box office chances. Loved this period of 80's 3-D exploitation. Where to see PARASITE in 3D now?

    I met Charles Band in my local cafe once, he was very surprised and seemed happy that I recognized him.

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  5. John Kenneth Muir:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words, my friend. I know what you mean about associating METALSTORM with SPACEHUNTER. Both came out very close togetehr and were in 3-D, adopted that ROAD WARRIOR look and were commercial and critical bombs. But both also have soft spots in my heart probably because I saw them at a young, impressionable age.

    I hope you do get a chance to see it again. It was on Netflix and has been released on DVD, unfortunately both are full screen but what can you do? I'd be curious to get your opinion on this one after all these years.


    The Film Connoisseur:

    "Was this the film where a guy is riding a motorcycle and then he takes off on it and flies throught the skies and the lands on a plane or something? Funny stuff! I saw that clip on You Tube and it had me rolling!"

    I believe that is MEGAFORCE you are thinking of and yes, that is a funny movie - so bad! But I remember liking it as a child. I'm sure it has aged badly now.


    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Yeah, METALSTORM is a long forgotten film and probably with good reason but I still dig it.

    I'm not crazy about 3-D either. It was used very well in AVATAR but that film has a strong, story, direction, characterization, etc. so that it can easily be watched and enjoyed on plain ol' 2-D as well. I think that's the crucial bit: if you're placing a heavy emphasis on 3-D over everything else chances are you've got a weak film. I think that, for the most part, people just don't want to keep paying huge ticket prices to go see a 3-D film, esp. with the way the economy is.

    Thanks for the compliments. And you might dig this film. Like KRULL, it has its flaws but there is fun, B-movie sensibility that I can appreciate.


    christian:

    Yeah, the loooong, misleading title probably didn't help this film's chances! Man, I'd love to see PARASITE in 3-D.

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  6. Was hoping to see a review of this ever since you mentioned it in passing, I think in regard to SPACEHUNTER. Gotta love Charles Band thinking he's Cecil B. DeMille or something- when low-budge producers bite off more than they can chew, the results are often exhilarating! Glad to see Thomerson still on the Full Moon payroll, too. And I think Richard Band has always been undervalued as a composer.

    Thanks for another fine and informative review!

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  7. Sean Gill:

    You are more than welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed my review!

    Yeah, I dig Band if only for him giving guys like Stuart Gordon money to realize their crazy visions. And Thomerson pretty much steals every scene he's in. Not too hard but watching this again made me want to check out the TRANCERS series again.

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