I can honestly say that Metallica: Through the Never—the new flick from the rockers that is three-quarters-concert film, one-quarter-disaster epic—is the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. I can say with equal honesty that those who are not fans of the metal heads will likely be befuddled, bored, and bereft of hearing by the end of film.
But, then again, they kind of have it coming. If you’re not a fan of the band, why are you shelling out upwards of $20 to watch Metallica in IMAX 3D?
Unlike Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the documentary that showed the band teetering on the edge of a breakup and displayed in full view some of their more annoying tics, Metallica: Through the Never is a straight-ahead concert flick that grafts on a visually intriguing if slightly frustrating short film.
The film opens with a hoodie-wearing, bandanna-masked, roadie (Trip, played mutely by Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan) arriving to the show a few hours before the lights go down. As he tours the backstage, we see the band members prowling about and prepping themselves: Robert Trujillo is testing his bone-rattling bass; Kirk Hammet’s guitar appears to be bleeding; singer James Hetfield is tooling around the venue’s garage in an extremely metal custom car; and Lars Ulrich is scowling, surrounded by flunkies, trying very hard to appear hard.
Trip then heads out to the stands, which fill up in time-lapse as "The Ecstasy of Gold"—the song that opens every Metallica concert—wafts over the PA system. The band launches into a rousing rendition of "Creeping Death" and we’re off. By song’s end, Trip is grabbed by one of the senior stagehands and sent on an important mission to retrieve some piece of desperately needed equipment from a truck that never made it to the arena. From here the film splits into two pieces: concert footage on the one hand, Trip’s adventure (overlain with Metallica tracks, naturally) on the other.
The concert footage is amazing. The film was shot in 3D (rather than being converted in post-production to a 3D-like simulacrum) and you can occasionally see cameramen running around the stage with the complicated rigs. From a purely technical point of view, this is a pretty impressive accomplishment. These are not easy cameras to operate and a concert stage is a sea of anarchy: Hetfield, Trujillo, and Hammet are in constant motion. Pyrotechnics are constantly going off, and props on the stage are being assembled and removed as the show goes on.
The set list, though relatively brief at 90 minutes, deftly intersperses classics such as "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Ride the Lightning," "One," and "Hit the Lights" with newer fare like "The Memory Remains" and "Cyanide." Say what you will about Metallica and the disastrous PR they have engendered in recent years—their fully justified war on Napster won them few friends; fans and casual observers alike mocked the neuroses on display in Some Kind of Monster; and many were left scratching their heads by the band’s decision to play with an orchestra for the CD and film, Metallica: S & M—one thing no one can deny is that the band still knows how to put on a show. The footage perfectly captures the band in their natural habitat: strutting, rocking, and surrounded by tens of thousands of screaming, head-banging fans.
As readers of this column know, I’m not terribly fond of 3D. But this is one you have to experience in IMAX 3D. The screen dominates your field of vision, essentially putting you on the stage with larger-than-life rock gods and the "laser-aligned" sound provides a perfect aural experience. It’s not as loud as a Metallica concert, but it’s pretty close.
As for the narrative accompaniment … well, I’m not quire sure what to make of it. It is perhaps best understood as an impressionistic take of the anarchic power of rock and roll, or some such. Trip, sent to recover the mysterious bit of equipment the band desperately needs, emerges from the arena to find the streets empty. Bloodstains smear bus stop shelters. The few people he does encounter are panicked, desperately fleeing some unseen apocalypse—an apocalypse directly in Trip’s path.
When he finally finds the conflagration, things get no clearer. The police are confronting a group of bandanna-masked protesters that look like rejects from an anti-globalization protest. And one of the cops is wearing a WWI-era gas mask and hanging people from bridges. And then the cops and the anarchists band together to attack Trip who uses the power of Metallica to defeat them. I think.
It’s a bit silly, but nevertheless strangely compelling. And it helps Metallica: Through the Never transcend its simple concert film origins. I imagine most audience members will happily tolerate the interruptions of the concert, if not actively embrace them.