Metalstorm Struggles To Rise Above Its Lo-Fi Trappings


Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.

My experience with science fiction entertainment is extremely hit and miss. At its best, the genre can offer a compelling and even foretelling glimpse into the future. Books such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (later adapted into the movie Blade Runner) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer are prime examples of imaginative, cutting-edge sci-fi literature. And then there’s the other side, the cheap pulp novels and low-budget feature films with an emphasis on tin foil space suits, crudely-molded laser guns and cardboard damsels in distress.


You can probably guess where I’m going with this.


Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (3-D!) is definitely in the latter category, but that isn’t to say the movie is without its merits, it’s just that you gotta dig pretty deep to find them. This low-budget sci-fi action flick from 1983 combines Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic chaos with Star Wars’ bizarre alien bestiary and “save the princess” sub-plot (and BTW, does every post-Star Wars sci-fi flick feature a cantina scene?) along with a splash of A Fistful Of Dollars gunslingin’ action. It sounds like a winning combination, on paper anyway.


Let’s start with some positives. The John Williams-inspired soundtrack is exceptional, as is some of the make-up and costuming. I particularly liked the character of the weapon-armed villain Baal, albeit in a chintzy ‘80s sci-fi kind of way. Same goes for the vehicle designs, the arc-welded sheet metal aesthetic borrowing heavily from The Road Warrior. Finally, some of the over-the-top 3-D effects—such as Baal’s cyber-limb being thrust directly into the camera—are pretty neat, if a tad overused. It actually makes me want to watch the movie in 3-D, if only I had a way of doing so. [Note: The Blu-ray comes with 2-D and 3-D versions of the movie, so if you happen to have a 3-D setup at home you are in luck.]


Another huge plus for those with families is that Metalstorm was rated PG in 1983, which means it’s practically a Disney movie circa 2023. There’s no nudity or excessive violence or swearing, just the occasional weapon-wielding psycho or lonely drunkard. If it’s movie night with the kiddies, Metalstorm checks out perfectly fine, its biggest offense being that it’s rather corny on the whole. Still, given this or the Little Mermaid remake, I know which one I’m picking.


This brings us to the other side of the coin, starting with lead actor Jeffrey Byron as the heroic ranger Dogen (Dogen’s Run?). Actors such as Mark Hamill, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford set the bar high for early ‘80s cinematic adventure, and it’s evident from the outset that Byron doesn't quite measure up. Clad in a black leather ensemble that may have been grifted directly from The Road Warrior’s wardrobe department, Byron’s talents consist of thrusting out his chin defiantly, squinting, and opening his eyes really wide. In his defense, he isn't given a ton of compelling dialogue to work with. The rest of the cast—which includes Night Court mainstay Richard Moll as a shamanistic one-eyed warlord—don’t fare much better, and the fact that everyone was required to wear Trump Orange makeup to accentuate the movie's 3-D effect doesn't help. The lone standout is Tim Thomerson as a crusty Han Solo type, he fills into his role comfortably and even mutters the “I'm getting too old for this” line years before Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.


The shooting for Metalstorm mostly takes place at Vasquez Rocks, along with a rock quarry in Simi Valley for the lengthy vehicle chase scenes. Located scant miles from my home in Santa Clarita, Vasquez Rocks is the filming locale for literally hundreds of Westerns and truck commercials, along with the original Star Trek series, The Flintstones, the list goes on. Filming at Vasquez is certainly nothing new, but the odd thing about Metalstorm is that most of it takes place within the same 1,000-foot radius. Knowing the area like the back of my hand, it’s hilarious to see Dogen presumably covering miles of open terrain in his armored battlecar when in fact he’s really driving on the opposite of the trail he was just on. Sure these are oft-used tricks of the movie trade, but Metalstorm rarely bothers to conceal the trickery. Instead we're treated to Vasquez Rocks' iconic landscape from several different perspectives and expected to believe it's an entirely new region.


Then there’s the really head-scratching stuff. Main baddie Jared-Syn—resplendent in his airbrushed foam armor—wields an impressive array of magical powers, including the ability to enter an enemy’s psyche and kill them remotely, shoot laser beams from his hand, teleport people and monsters at will, and sap one’s lifeforce by placing a red crystal on their neck (no, seriously). He comes across as Darth Vader on steroids, which raises the question: Why not focus his powers on Dogen and simply get it over with? Instead he mostly delegates the task of eliminating the ranger to his son Baal, which results in an overabundance of vehicular chase-and-battle scenes (which are admittedly some of the movie's highlights). There is the suggestion of Dogen being resistant to Jared-Syn’s superpowers due to his relationship with Dhyana, but it’s never fully fleshed out or explained.


Perhaps the best/worst thing about Metalstorm is that it’s virtually one extended action sequence with zero emphasis on character development. Dogen literally shows up on the screen as a fully-developed character, getting involved in one altercation after another without so much as a brief explanation as to what compels him to do what he does, other than it's his job. Without any kind of motivational narrative, the movie's main protagonist is just a dude hunting a bad guy, but I’ve decided this is actually a good thing: Given the acting on display here, the last thing I’d want to see is an emotionally-sweeping story arc.


Despite my laundry list of critiques, there is also an endearing quality to Metalstorm that will probably keep me coming back for repeated viewings. When watching the “Making Of” excerpt on the Blu-ray, I got a genuine sense of excitement and even pride from the cast and crew when reliving their experiences with the film. They’re honest about the fact that it was a high-concept sci-fi epic filmed on a shoestring budget, and not an entirely unsuccessful one at that (the film did turn a modest profit at the box office). None of this affects the quality of the actual film of course, but after watching this entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the making of Metalstorm, I actually came away impressed with the inspiration, creativity and devotion that goes into making a movie like this happen.


You may also notice that I’m not bashing the movie’s dated special effects. That's because this is what lo-fi special effects cinema looked like circa the early 1980s, and if you’re reading this review then odds are you know what to expect. The onscreen results were varied depending on the budget—with Metalstorm ending up on the lower end of the spectrum—but they got their point across. In a way, I much prefer this pre-CGI era of special effects production as it highlights the craftsmanship involved in making the magic happen.


Minimal spoilers ahead: Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared- Syn goes out of its way to set itself up for a sequel, perhaps even a trilogy for the truly optimistic. This never happened because of course it never happened, this is Metalstorm we’re talking about and not Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nonetheless, if you are a B-movie connoisseur or part of the “so bad it's good” crowd (which I most definitely am!), you’ll likely appreciate Metalstorm for its lo-fi sci-fi aesthetic. If you’re the type who enjoys staging drive-in movies in the comfort of their own home, go ahead, pop some popcorn and lose yourself in this absurd slice of ‘80s escapist entertainment. Although nothing immediately comes to mind, I’m sure there are worse ways to spend a Saturday evening. - BW


Note: This article was written prior to the passing of Richard Moll, who passed away on October 26. May he rest in peace.

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Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
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