Nimród Antal’s METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER is a lot of different things. It’s a concert film, presented in IMAX 3D. It’s a surreal, post-apocalyptic narrative starring the wonderful Dane DeHaan. It’s a weird, genre-bending hybrid film that strives to do something a little bit different. But more than anything else, it’s just one gigantic mess.
Several years ago, Toronto’s own Broken Social Scenes premiered a film at the Toronto International Film Festival under the name THIS MOVIE IS BROKEN. In a similar fashion to Metallica’s latest foray into cinema, it presented two seemingly-connected ideas: one, a concert film documenting the supergroup’s mid-garbage-strike, free-for-all, lakeside performance, and the other, a surreal fictional element of a few characters who were on their way to (then at, then leaving) the concert.
THROUGH THE NEVER does something similar, though it seems to have missed the memo about that earlier work. Whereas BROKEN put the narrative at the thematic forefront of the project, creating a stirring, compelling story about hedonism in youthfulness, NEVER takes the alternate approach: this is a movie about Metallica, and any experimental ideas that they may have initially wanted to put into the film get left by the wayside in favor of more concert footage. There is no balance between the two sides of the story, and every time you find yourself craving a return to the narrative, you’re treated to three or four more songs in a row (with a shot or two of DeHaan thrown in to remind you that he, you know, exists). In other words, the band (and possibly Natal, as well) consider the band more important than the project itself, and THROUGH THE NEVER suffers for it.
It’s hard to blame Natal for any of this, though. Finding himself in the middle of a self-funded project developed by the world’s leading metal act – after all, they do get story credits – cannot have been the easiest situation to be in. And it’s obvious that this is detrimental to the overall project. He brings a ton of kineticism and visual grandiose to the proceedings – the film looks absolutely beautiful, and he dresses his sets with visually arresting imagery – but wrestling the project away from the metal monsters and towards integrity may have been a bit out of his depth.
DeHaan, in particular, is entirely wasted. Though he brings a powerful and impressive presence to the screen, he never utters more than a word or two throughout the 90-minute runtime. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in another film, it could be a very daring and ambitious choice. But in reality, it just serves to underscore how half-baked the narrative elements of this film are. It’s not just that the “plot” is paper-thin and makes almost no sense – a film with this level of surreality is often better off dealing with narratives in the abstract – it’s that it’s treated as such an afterthought that you never get a chance to be absorbed by or even care about its inclusion in the film.
Which is the film’s biggest sin: the fact that you dread a return to the increasingly shallow and uninteresting narrative they occasionally cut to, as if the incredible concert you’re watching isn’t enough to keep your attention. The story is given such little weight in the runtime that it might as well not even exist. In fact, if this had been a straight concert film, it would have been a wildly superior film: the IMAX 3D visuals make it one of the most intimate and grand concerts ever committed to film, and the band performs at the top of their game. This might be one of those extremely memorable concert movies, if only they hadn’t “tacked on” the narrative.
But the real problem isn’t the narrative’s existence. Antal and the band should be commended for trying to do something a little bit different, and including it was a great idea – in theory. Whether it was over-inflated egos or poor execution which resulted in cutting the narrative’s presence back to near-irrelevance is something we may never know, but once it became clear that everybody involved agreed that the band would be the focus of the film – rather than equal weight being given to both elements – they ought to have just cut their losses and made it a concert film.
Because the strength of the film is absolutely in the concert. Metallica may be entering their fourth decade of existence, but they’re still fabulous performers and musicians. Their playing is top-notch, their knack for spectacle is first-rate, and Antal commits the whole thing to film in a way that’s engrossing, awesome and, most importantly, a real treat for long-time fans. They ought to have either gone all-in on the performance element, or figured out a way to give the narrative element increased relevance in the feature.
Especially because DeHaan really is quite great. He’s one of our most promising young actors, and as a character who doesn’t get a single line in the entire film, he remains a stoic, engaging presence for every frame he is in. He gives the movie his all – it’s just a shame that the script doesn’t give him the same level of respect.
Still, when all is said and done, this is a pretty great showcase for Metallica, and fans are definitely going to find a lot to love here. The audio track and the visuals are unparalleled, and fans are likely going to be cheering their seats. Anybody looking for something more than that, however, should steer clear of the whole affair.
Better yet, they should rent THIS MOVIE IS BROKEN instead.