SAN DIEGO — Singer and guitarist James Hetfield wore a familiar trickster grin and a pair of 3D glasses as he bobbed his head to the thundering riffs of "Enter Sandman," but it was a different sort of arena that was playing host to the world's bestselling hard-rock band.
Metallica had come to Comic-Con International in July to premiere the trailer for its movie "Metallica Through the Never," and the charismatic frontman had turned his chair to watch the clip unspool along with the 6,500 fans in the San Diego Convention Center's main hall. Towering likenesses of the musicians strode across a massive stage outfitted with electric charges, laser lights and fire pots, while a young roadie encountered an angry mob led by a mysterious figure on horseback known as the Death Dealer.
Opening Friday on more than 250 Imax theaters across North America, "Metallica Through the Never" is part genre fable, part concert movie, channeling the band's predilection for apocalyptic imagery through a cinematic lens.
The film, directed by Nimrod Antal ("Predators," "Vacancy"), stars actor Dane DeHaan as a runner named Trip who sets out on an errand for the group just as it's taking the stage for a show. Hetfield and his bandmates — drummer Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo — roll through a greatest-hits set list as Trip is drawn into the chaos that's consumed the surrounding streets. As he fights his way back, things begin to go awry on stage, possibly a result of dark forces at work in the city.
The idea for a Metallica Imax movie dates to 1997 when the band's management team first approached the musicians about shooting a concert film, then conceived as a conventional 30-minute short. But the massive cameras that the format required at the time turned out to be too unwieldy to be arranged on a stage, and the project was shelved until three years ago, when the group was on tour in Belfast.
"There was a realization that a lot of our fans were so young that the theatrical elements of Metallica's stage presentations from the '80s, a lot of them hadn't seen — statues and crosses and all this crazy stuff," said Ulrich, 49, seated beside Hetfield, Hammett and Trujillo under the fluorescent lights of a hotel ballroom. "You could do so much more with the technology of that now, so to revisit that carefully without going too far and being stuck in the past [seemed appealing]."
In the four decades since Ulrich and Hetfield met and formed the band in 1981, Metallica has sold more than 110 million albums, forging a reputation as a powerhouse live act whose muscular, masculine energy on stage magnified the sonic force of songs about violence and death and Old Testament-style retribution.
The band has an extensive history with film too — it was Dalton Trumbo's 1971 anti-war screed "Johnny Got His Gun" that inspired the group's 1989 single "One," a nightmarish first-person account of a soldier who loses his arms and legs, his sight, hearing and speech to a land mine. The long-form version of the groundbreaking video for the song intercut between scenes from the movie and shots of Metallica performing.
It was the 2004 warts-and-all documentary "Some Kind of Monster," however, that might have had the most profound influence on the direction of "Metallica Through the Never." Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's chronicle of the band during the recording of its "St. Anger" album charted artistic and personal clashes, as Hetfield returned to the group after a stay in rehab to treat alcohol addiction and Trujillo was tapped to replace longtime bass player Jason Newsted.
"What we learned from the 'Some Kind of Monster' experience is if you have a dramatic arc in your film, it puts a whole different spin on it," Ulrich said. "There were a lot of music-world people that thought the movie was way too transparent and there was too much stuff that you shouldn't see, but the film world received it warmly. It's not really a movie about a rock 'n' roll band, it's a movie about relationships."
For "Metallica Through the Never," the group selected 16 tracks stretching back to its 1983 debut album, "Kill 'Em All," and tapped British architect Mark Fisher (who provided concert designs for Pink Floyd's "The Wall") to construct a massive stage, 200 feet long and 60 feet wide, with various trap doors and risers to allow for some outsize theatrical elements, and a floor made entirely of LED screens.
To develop the narrative, the band turned to Antal, a lifelong Metallica fan who earned early acclaim for his Hungarian-language subterranean thriller "Kontroll." He invented the Trip character, whose largely wordless journey was informed, in part, by the circular structure of Paulo Coelho's novel "The Alchemist."
"He totally understands Metallica and what we're about," said Hammett, 50. "He understands our audience, and he understands how passionate our audience is and how intense our audience is."
The band played a string of concerts in Mexico City last year to familiarize itself with Fisher's stage before traveling to Canada to shoot the film. Performing on the set, which takes up the entire ice floor of a standard hockey arena, required great care, and the musicians were amused and somewhat alarmed by the precautions that were necessary.
"You're playing a song, and by the way, don't go in this little area — there's a Tesla coil that shoots off 10,000 volts and you could get killed," said Hetfield, 50.
"Don't pass this little piece of masking tape with a little X on it or you'll get fried," Hammett added.
"A 400-pound camera sliding down a zip line just missed me," offered Trujillo, 48.
Antal collaborated with producer Charlotte Huggins, a 3-D veteran whose work includes 2008's Brendan Fraser adventure "Journey to the Center of the Earth," and cinematographer Gyula Pados to capture the "energy and power" of the stage show using 24 cameras.
"They wanted the viewers to have an opportunity to be on the stage with them, as opposed to in the pit looking up," Antal said. "We talked about having Steadicams on stage looking out over the band's shoulder onto the oceans of Metallica fans and being on the drum riser — really just giving the Metallica fan an opportunity to see a concert in ways that he or she hasn't before."
Antal married the concert footage with Trip's story line in the editing room, using the songs to advance the narrative and add mood and texture to the surreal saga. The final film premiered this month at the Toronto International Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews.
Picturehouse, the reconstituted distribution entity led by indie film vet Bob Berney, is releasing "Metallica Through the Never," which Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Trujillo financed themselves at a budget of $18 million, opening the movie exclusively in Imax theaters before expanding to other, non-Imax 3-D venues the following week. (The band also released a two-CD soundtrack album on Tuesday.)
Whether the R-rated film will expand beyond Metallica's core following to reach genre fans and casual moviegoers is unclear, but the musicians seemed cheered by the enthusiastic response from the Comic-Con crowd. That the project had reached completion after so many years seemed like a reason to celebrate.
"The hardest thing in Hollywood is trying to sell an idea that has no point of reference," Ulrich said. "If you can't sit there and go, 'It's like 'The Bourne Identity' meets 'Private Ryan' meets 'Star Trek,' they just look at you like, 'What are you talking about?'"