IMAX was made for Metallica

I’m not a hardcore Metallica fan. Like many of you, I’d say I’m a fair weather fan, at best. I know the hits, I’ve seen the videos and I could identify one (maybe two) of the band members in a line-up. That’s about as deep as I go.

My first introduction to the band wasn’t even through their music. It was, of all things, through a t-shirt this kid Dustin used to wear all the time in the 6th grade. It was a black t-shirt with a picture of a toilet with a hand holding a dagger shooting from the bowl with the tagline “Metal up your ass!” Even before hearing one note from this group, I knew they must be hardcore.

I preface this because if you’re a diehard Metallica fan, you’re not going to read this (or any) review to decide if you want to see Metallica: Through the Never or not. Since the film has already opened exclusively in IMAX theaters this weekend (with a wider release in regular theaters on Oct. 4), odds are you’ve already seen it. And loved it.

On the flipside, if you’re not into Metallica at all and can’t stand heavy metal in general, then stop reading now. We all know you’re not going to see it.

This review is mainly for those fair weather fans on the fence about shucking out IMAX-priced tickets to see the band on a 50-ft. tall screen in 3D with a scorching soundtrack that will leave your heart pounding and ears ringing.

In short, you should. And here’s why: IMAX was made for Metallica.

Metallica: Through the Never, directed by Nimrod Antal (Predators, Kontroll), is arguably one of the best films made for the IMAX medium. Like the band, the film is larger-than-life, and that’s really the only way to appreciate the musical legacy of one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all-time.

The film is actually two films in one – a concert film and a post-apocalyptic narrative – with one exceptionally better than the other.

Filmed in Canada over five nights (three in Vancouver, two in Edmonton) in 2012, the concert footage positions the band at the top of their game. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo show no signs of wear, performing with an urgency reminiscent of their early years, though seasoned with the experience and confidence a band with their longevity has accrued.

Hetfield, the charismatic lead singer, with his guitar roaring, commands the audience like a general leading his troops into battle. Ripping through a blistering set that includes “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Master of Puppets,” “Cyanide,” “Enter Sandman” and “Hit the Lights,” the Canadian audiences were eating it up like candy. Drummer Ulrich, pushing 50 (along with the rest of the band), looks like he’s still having the time of his life onstage, smiling and singing along while pushing his body to the limit. Hammett, one of two members left with the signature heavy metal long hair (Trujillo being the other), grabs the lead guitar reins with vigor while showcasing his expert prowess. And Trujillo, the most hypnotizing member to watch, menacingly stalks the stage, playing his bass with a primal ferocity while jumping into the audience and headbanging with the fans.

The direction by Antal and the excellent cinematography by Gyula Pados, who previously worked with Antal on Predators, make you feel like you’re literally onstage with the band. Using 24 cameras positioned to capture every angle, you can feel the energy from the audience and the sweat from Hetfield’s forehead. It’s probably the closest we’ll all get to feeling like a rock star. And it feels amazing.

The true star of the film though is the stage, said to be the largest stage ever constructed for an indoor production. Conceived by production designer, Mark Fisher, the stage show comprises everything from hydraulics and LED screens to 15-feet of Tesla coils using 1.4 million watts, and 5,000 specially bred, colored maggots (on screen, not live), wrapped around imagery from previous Metallica tours and album covers (Lady Justice from … And Justice for All, the coffins from Death Magnetic, etc.). The combination of the stage show mixed with the intensity of the music will leave you in awe. Nothing like this has been captured on IMAX film before.

Unfortunately, the post-apocalyptic narrative that binds the concert footage together is where the film loses its way and momentum. Starring Dane DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines, and the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2) as Trip, the story is simple enough: Trip, a low-rung roadie for Metallica, has to bring gas to a tour van that’s stuck somewhere in an unnamed city during the show. The van has a “very important” item the band needs, so he has to do it fast.

As Trip makes his way towards the stuck van, he’s sideswiped in a brutal car accident and escapes the wreckage, walking into this post-apocalyptic world where a masked man on a horse is hanging victims on light poles and riot police are battling with anarchists.

The narrative, while keeping with Metallica’s signature tone of death, angst and destruction, misses the mark. There’s no explanation as to why any of this craziness is going on. It’s great eye candy though, and DeHaan does a noble job with next to no lines (he says “Hey!” twice and that’s it), but without the slightest bit of backstory or connection to any of the band’s musical work to understand the reasons behind the plot, it ends up being a glorified music video. But unlike great music videos that have a central theme or story, this one just wanders aimlessly. It was as if the filmmakers (which include the band members, who are all credited with the script, along with Antal) tried to put as much “cool shit” into a story that made no sense.

The one saving grace about the narrative is that it gives the audience a break from the music, even if they are little reprieves. The music is so loud and heavy that the film needs it. So, for that purpose, it did its job. Also, the “Tarantino-esque” plot device with the bag doesn’t have a good enough payoff at the end.

The band mentioned during their first-ever appearance at the San Diego Comic-Con in July that they have tentative plans to tour with this stage show sometime in 2015 or ’16 to support a new album. Let’s hope that’s the case, because if Metallica: Through the Never proves anything, even to fair weather fans, it’s that this band is at its best live.