3D, for the most part, is being publicly exposed for the costly gimmick we always knew it was. “Gravity” aside, the flagging technology already feels rote, and the movies released in the format, usually following a time-consuming retrofitting process that sees the original image given added dimensions by a platoon of unseen computer wizards, have become even muddier and more mundane. But one genre that still seems to fully recognize both the strengths and shortcomings of the dimensional format (and utilizes both to dizzying degrees) is the 3D concert film. Best exemplified by last summer’s oddly exhilarating “Katy Perry: Piece of Me” (and used, to a lesser extent, in the recent “One Direction: This Is Us“), the 3D concert movie manages to immerse you in a way that feels like you’re actually there, getting shoved by some sweaty drunk girl and wondering why your beer cost $7.
The latest and greatest example of this wholly experiential 3D concert movement is “Metallica: Through the Never,” a movie that blows your hair back not just because of the righteous anger of the music on stage but in the showy inventiveness of the film’s director and the clever way in which a loop-de-loop narrative thread is braided into the concert footage. It’s one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year, even if you couldn’t pick a Metallica track out of some hypothetical never-ending playlist.
To call “Metallica: Through the Never” a mere concert film is doing it something of a disservice, though. The movie is essentially halved. The first half is, obviously, a concert movie named after the band’s influential, untitled 1991 album (known by fans as “The Black Album,” a concept Jay Z took and ran with years later), and filmed over a series of nights in Canada last year. The band (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo, who we’re pretty sure is a real-life werewolf) play slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, with a stage show that also seems somewhat heightened, unless they really did light a dude on fire every night of their tour (which might actually be a possibility).
As the band plays, giant, iconic references to their decades-long history tower over the stage and throw knowing winks to the crowd of sweaty, encyclopedic head-bangers. At one point, a giant, faux-stone personification of justice, complete with a tippy set of scales, is erected above the stage, a reference to the cover art of yet another album, 1988’s …And Justice for All. It’s in these moments that the band’s intelligence comes through: not only are they able to present all of this famous iconography from their past, but they’re able to do it in a way that feels fresh and still truly how’d-they-do-that-inspiring, even for the most jaded and cynical longtime fan. (Skeptics and those new to the band will be just as awestruck.)
The second half of the film follows a bizarre narrative, concerning a roadie (Dane DeHaan) who is sent on a mission in one of the movie’s earliest scenes to track down a truck that has run out of gas, but is containing a magical object that the band needs in order to complete the show. Of course, while the roadie is outside the stadium, his quest becomes even more perilous, as he first has to face a gang of ghoulishly armed thugs and then later begins to pick apart the tenuous fabric of reality; it’s a hard-rock apocalypse.
“Metallica: Through the Never” was co-written (along with the band) and directed by Nimrod Antal, who directed the impish “Vacancy” and “Armored” and was Sam Raimi‘s choice to take over directorial duties on the “Spider-Man” franchise. Antal has always been a nimble, spritely director, even when taking on projects as doomed-from-the-start as Robert Rodriguez‘s reconceived “Predators,” turning them into zippy party favors. But with ‘Through the Never’ he has stepped up his game. Not only is the concert footage impeccably staged and edited, but the apocalyptic dreamy stuff is just as great: it’s the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a potentially disturbed (he takes a just-as-mysterious pill early in the movie) young heavy metal fan.
It’s in the interplay of the fictional thread and the concert footage that the movie really rocks. Antal will do things like pan across a violent mosh-pit, into an even-more-violent mob outside the city, ready to burn some skyscraper to the ground. And when lightning starts to zap on stage, the electricity reverberates throughout the narrative stuff. There isn’t a direct correlation, plot wise, between the songs and the story, but that’s almost beside the point. The connection has been made through the spirit, the fuck-the-authorities, aggressive, no-holds-barred fury that made Metallica so compelling to listen to in the first place.
The band isn’t the same—they all have paunchy middle-aged bellies and probably have wives and kids and monthly yoga membership fees. But they still know how to put on a great show, and Antal, in showcasing their outrageous stagecraft and theatricality, makes them feel like they’re in on the joke: even if their fans still take it deathly seriously, they can’t in good consciousness rage anymore. They’re too busy setting up play dates. In one moment, Hatfield encounters a microphone that is functioning poorly—he slams it on the ground in a fit of aggression. Who knows if it’s staged or not: it works. Later in the movie an accident causes the band, who had been spread across a light-up stage roughly the size of Rhode Island, to huddle around a rudimentary series of lights and microphones. Again, it succeeds in sucking you in.
By the time the movie’s brisk 93 minutes are up, you’ll feel like sticking around for an encore. The 3D, easily dismissible elsewhere, is intrinsic to the movie’s success. You want to be placed as an audience member inside the wriggling masses lining the band’s stage, and it’d also be nice to really be there while a breakdown of societal norms, something the band had been preaching about for decades, finally starts to occur. DeHaan, in his wide-eyed expressiveness, explains the entire scenario just in the way he peers down an eerily abandoned throughway or hurries down a street lined with some kind of cannibal army. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard one note of the band or not as “Metallica: Through the Never” still succeeds (wildly) on being an entertaining thrill coaster, more akin to a Disney ride than a serious document of the metal subculture, and one with deeply subversive, beautifully conceptualized narrative beats (and ones that stick to a nonlinear, experimental vibe as well). “Metallica: Through the Never” is one of the year’s unlikeliest triumphs and easily the most hard rock. It’ll make you thankful that 3D has stuck around as long as it has. [A-]