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Ebiri: There Are Two Movies in Metallica: Through the Never, and One Is Fantastic

To quote the friend I saw it with, Metallica: Through the Never is “metal as fuck.” A 3-D concert movie that’s presumably hoping to wash the residues of the One Direction 3-D concert movie off of America’s IMAX screens, it’s loud, it’s dark, it’s full of elaborate, creepy imagery, and it’s hard to take seriously. The 13-year-old me would have loved it, and I wouldn’t be lying if I said that at times the movie turned me back into that 13-year-old kid.

But I also wouldn’t be lying if I said that there are two movies here, and one is a lot more interesting than the other. One of these two movies involves a young roadie/gofer type (played by Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan) through whose eyes we first see the band, in all their mythic glory: Guitarist Kirk Hammett holding up a bleeding guitar; bassist Robert Trujillo quaking the entire stadium while practicing his riffs in a side room; singer James Hetfield driving past in a tricked-out vintage car that shoots out flames. Our roadie hero is then sent out during the concert (which he is enjoying very much) to run a mysterious errand somewhere in the middle of a desolate city. As he proceeds into the night, things get weirder and weirder.

Meanwhile, the band performs, and, let’s face it, that’s what we’re here to see. Playing on an arena stage, each member gets his own corner. And for all the tightness of Metallica’s live act, each has his own vibe. Guitarist Hammett dashes around, while singer Hetfield is slower, sturdier. Bassist Trujillo, on the other hand, looks like some kind of otherworldly creature, with his ninja turtle crouch and the wet, wet hair constantly flying all over his face. Then of course there’s Lars Ulrich, the businessman and leader of the group, right at the center of things — a guy who never fails to make drumming look spectacularly hard. Actually, that’s been the Metallica ethos for years now: Everything from their Napster lawsuit back in the day to their amazing, epic 2004 documentary, Some Kind of Monster, seems to be geared toward letting us know that these guys aren’t here to goof around. (And why should they? This is a band who lost its original bassist during a touring accident, whose singer was once horrifically burned onstage during a concert. They’ve bled for their art.)

The director, Nimrod Antal, is a Hungarian-American journeyman who’s proven over the years to be quite adept at genre and atmosphere: He directed the effective low-rent horror flick Vacancy, as well as the underrated heist drama Armored and 2010’s sci-fi reboot Predators. In some ways, he’s perfect for this sort of thing — he’s good at creating dread, and that’s what you need for a metal movie. But he’s also sensitive to the players’ movements — he lets each one control his own frame — and he cuts the performances together as if he’s telling a story with each song. The drama he creates within the concert turns out to be more compelling than the actual drama playing out in the other story line of the movie.

Indeed, the story of our bewildered young roadie is really no story at all but a surreal series of incidents and images. There are corpses hanging from lampposts. A horse dragging a dead rider. A horrific car accident. A puppet come to life. A riot. A self-immolation. It’s like being trapped in an exhibit of album covers. But some of them also seem to be images from Metallica’s past. (In the film’s opening scene, we see our hero wipe out on a skateboard — perhaps a reference to all the times in the band’s history that Hetfield injured his hand while skateboarding.) Pink Floyd — The Wall seems to be an inspiration here, at least in terms of the dreamlike trajectory of the story, but that wasn’t a concert movie — you never really saw the band play — so the surrealism of the narrative took center stage. Here, as weird as it is, the story never quite goes beyond the illustrative. It’s interesting, and creepy, and cool, but we never feel invested in it. The band’s the thing here, and the quicker it cuts back to them, the better off Through the Never is.

Photo: Carole Segal/Picturehouse Entertainment/Metallica