Start with the title. Metalstorm! Maybe it’s not as cool as Bonestorm but still, that’s pretty badass. And what’s this, a subtitle? The Destruction Of Jared-Syn! Ok, this is assuming a familiarity with this Jared-Syn guy that I probably don’t have (shades of all-time “what, you don’t KNOW?” title Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever) but damn, he’s getting destroyed! Probably by the Metalstorm? And then there’s the art:
A spaceship, a dune buggy, space itself, a glowering baddie, a gruff hero with a… glowy thing, a tough dame, another flying ship, a robot claw monster, a guy bringing a gun to a knife fight. Some awesome stuff is going down here. It says 3-D but the painting here pops off the VHS box on its own accord. It has the montage of multiple elements on multiple planes that defined sci-fi/fantasy posters of the time but also the box art covering 1983’s Atari game cartridges. That art was designed to spark the imagination, to bridge the gap between pixels and the story they conveyed. Everything on the surface of Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn promises something awesome; the bridge here might be too far.
By 1983, Charles Band had directed three cheap-ass movies and produced a dozen, including MST3K favorite Laserblast. Writing about the post-Star Wars flood of shoddy sci-fi in the late, great Laser Age, Keith Phipps described Laserblast as a “strange, ugly movie” but also “the sort of bad movie that gets reprocessed as tomorrow’s nightmares.” Metalstorm is different, repurposing memorable ideas into half-digested tropes, a crucial point in the ecosystem that creates cliché. There’s no Frankensteinian pretension to the creation of this cobbled-together monster, just a canny recognition of stuff that people like and a cheerful disregard of the scars that come with stitching those parts — Star Wars, The Road Warrior, Dune, etc. — together.
That stitching takes place from the get-go — a horn-heavy theme that has at least picked the pocket of John Williams if not robbed him outright plays as our hero Dogen drives along in a dune buggy/go-kart that was left in the dust by the much more boss vehicles of The Road Warrior. He’s driving through the desert waste of the planet Lemuria, which is clearly Californian scrub — a far cry from the arid alien deserts of Morocco standing in for Tatooine. He’s on the hunt for our buddy Jared-Syn, a known bad guy (you can tell because he’s wearing that kind of armor that comes with pre-molded pecs) who is trying to unite the planet’s Cyclopean species for nefarious ends, and while this movie came out at the same time as Krull, it still feels like it’s ripping it off somehow.
The movie occasionally lurches into the condensed weirdness that is the particular flavor of cheapo fantasy/sci-fi. Jared-Syn has a son named Baal who is a deformed cyborg (the props/makeup are low-tech but well-done). Early in the movie, Baal shoots acid from his clamp arm and sends an old man to a dreamworld where Jared-Syn uses a phallic red crystal to steal his soul. This doesn’t have a lot of context. But read those words again — do they need it? Later, Jared-Syn pulls out what appears to be a crude action figure and zaps it with a raygun. This both teleports it over to Dogen and turns it into a large rotoscoped monster (I think the telezap-fight sequence was stolen by Power Rangers a decade later). Didn’t see that coming.
But these sequences are rare. More common are tedious travel shots, the better to slowly zoom in on a tree that is COMING RIGHT AT YOU in 3-D but is just a damn tree on my VHS. And while Band Productions vet Tim Thomerson (as Han Solo) and future Night Court stalwart Richard Moll (as a cyclops) bring commitment and panache to their roles, the leads are as tedious as a dolly in on a cactus. Kelly Preston’s dame Dhyana is a nothing of a character to begin with and Jeffrey Byron’s Jared-Syn isn’t campy enough to make a full meal of lines like “Soon these fools will crown me king and I will tap into the crystal! We’ll be kings of our land again!” And Mike Preston as Dogen is the real dud; his two modes of blankness — vacuous and wide-eyed — fail to set the screen ablaze. These aren’t characters, they’re avatars — Hero, Love Interest, Villain. At least a guy like Baal is genuinely weird.
And these cut-outs are placed in situations cut out from other films. I enjoy “futuristic” dune buggies crashing into each other and models of said buggies being hucked off a cliff and lit on fire, I am only human, but these exist because George Miller did it first, and better. A walk among the Cyclopean tombstones leads to an attack by sand snakes, but they’re more adorable than frightening and more derivative than anything. There’s a duel to the death between Dogen and Moll’s cyclops war chief Hulok — will these honorable enemies become friends? Will the connection between Dogen and Dhyana blossom into love, and will that love itself be a weapon against hate? Will Jared-Syn overplay his hand? The lasers are blasted, the boxes are ticked.
There is one more surprise to come, though. After Dogen thwarts Jared-Syn’s plans to suck energy into a mega-crystal (there are far more crystals than metal in this, just saying), he pursues the dastard in a miniplane dogfight that probably did not make viewers in 1983 forget the speeder bike scenes in Return of the Jedi. But Jared-Syn has a trick up his sleeve — he opens a portal to the Laser Floyd dimension, full of flashing lights and trippy FX, and … escapes? No, really, he flies away and Dogen and the gang say “dang, that sucks” and promise to get him next time and blow up his mega-crystal and the movie ends.
It’s like Kurt Vonnegut so sagely wrote: No damn Metalstorm, no damn destruction of Jared-Syn. And while all that stuff on the box was technically there, it was nowhere near as cool as the art made it out to be (for one thing, Dogen is far more lifelike). What the hell? Why did I watch this? Why was it made? That last one is probably easiest to answer. Writing about genre in general and gothic in particular, Genevieve Valentine talks about how “the more often a beat is used, the more recognizable it becomes, until it can be taken out of context to provide narrative as well as visual impact.” A movie like Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn is so confident in the sturdiness and recognizability of the beats it lifts that it can lie to your face. And they are comfortable enough to sink into, even if they’re indifferently played. In 1983, the sci-fi fantasy wave was cresting (and Atari was going under too). But there was enough for guys like Band to mine for a knockoff or two and a badass poster. Which would soon become a badass VHS cover. Forget crystals — now that is something that will imprint on your soul.
— To emphasize — while the movie is not good, no one dogs it in the makeup and effects department. Things might not cost a lot but they’re well-used, and my prejudice for tactile effects over computer ones doesn’t hurt either.
— While there is a lot of derivative stuff in the movie’s music, it’s still fairly rousing — when it doesn’t shift on a dime to moody synths for no discernible reason.
— Possible reason for the rousing — the score was conducted by the great Shirley Walker, who might be best known for composing a ton of the original music for Batman: The Animated Series.
— The lone preview on my VHS is for Conan The Barbarian. It is not a good idea to give audiences a taste of a better version of the thing you’re giving them.