Despite its clunkiness Human Highway is one of those films that is sprinkled with touches of humor, even though it focuses more on the harmful effects of radiation...much like in The China Syndrome.
Too many comparisons exist between Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, the ultra serious and the comical, both released in 1964, at the height of the cold war. Yet, the overlooked Human Highway is more than one of these post apocalyptic films. It was released in 1982 when a slew of serious themed films were distributed about the horrors of nuclear war and accidents, i.e., The China Syndrome, the highly hyped and overblown The Day After and the brilliant and ultimately forgotten, Threads. Yet Human Highway stands on its own as a satire and is clearly one of the most bizarre films ever made.
I have unfathomable respect for Neil Young as an artist, but his films have never received the proper distribution they deserve. I don't know anyone who has seen his autobiographical film Journey Through the Past (I do own the soundtrack album) and I doubt that any prints of the film even exist. Rust Never Sleeps is a brilliant, exquisitely filmed concert document, despite its clunky touches of odd humor, oversized stage props and bizarre road crew (dressed like the Jawas from Star Wars). But Human Highway is truly unique, for it's a total mess. I actually found a copy of it on videotape at a small record store in Ithaca, NY, where it had obviously been sitting for years with no takers. Upon purchasing this curio, I mentioned to the store's owner that I had been hearing about this for years and that I didn't know anyone who had seen it. He said he had ordered 20 copies of it about ten years ago and they just sat there, slowly disappearing off the shelves and that I had, in fact, obtained his final copy.
Once I plopped it into the VCR, I simply couldn't begin to understand what I was watching.and yes, I was sucked into it. First of all, it's quite beautifully filmed, with an abundance of rich colors not seen since the days of 1930's Technicolor. Neil also utilizes some amazing bits of rear projection and the sets have a stunning surreal quality to them very reminiscent of the 1954 musical Red Garters and Paul Schrader's Mishima. This was obviously a labor of love, and was clearly quite an expensive production. But it simply doesn't work, for the humor is quirky, dry and riddled with bizarre, undeveloped characters.
Not much goes on in the story line. The Rock Group Devo portray employees at a nuclear power plant in a desolate town, who have been so exposed by the radiation that they glow bright red. This trail of radiation follows them as they dump barrels of waste, while gleefully immersed in song. A nearby rest stop owner (Dean Stockwell) wants to cut costs on running his establishment and finally decides to burn the place down for the insurance money. Dennis Hopper plays the drug-addled chef at the rest stop, complementing a mish-mash of odd characters. Neil Young and Russ Tamblyn play incompetent mechanics at the establishment. Neil is obsessed with a Sinatraesque crooner (also played by Young), who is giving a nearby concert and can barely hide his excitement when the crooner unexpectedly shows up at the station in his limo for an oil change. While working on the limo, Neil gets conked on the head and is rendered unconscious. It is at this point where Human Highway comes to life and blends elements of the surreal and incoherent. Neil's character imagines himself a folk music star, touring the desert in a bus with his motley crew of friends. It is also here where Neil decided to utilize state of the art video techniques and incorporated them to the film's warped imagery, while snippets of classic Young songs are heard on the soundtrack. Bodies of water have a candy colored effect, appearing as if the films' emulsion were completely stripped away and filled with streaks of bright color. It's very hard to determine what is actually taking place in the story line, but one can guess that it is all a series of in-jokes known only to the cast and crew.
The dream like quality of the images and music are stunning and it almost makes one forget the action prior to this sequence. Almost immediately the serene tone of this sequence is interrupted by a warped version of "Hey Hey, My My" performed by Neil with the rock group Devo. However it's not Neil who sings his classic anthem, but Mark Mothersbaugh in his alter ego of Booji- Boy (basically an oversized mask of mongoloid child's face) in a fractured voice. This sequence is somewhat interminable, due to the aimlessness of the noise. However, it is the most fascinating sequence in the film, for I'm sure that those who actually got a chance to see the film wished the whole thing was like this: more noise, feedback and rock and roll. In the end it symbolizes Neil's character coming out of his dream of being a rock star, and when he does the viewer is left with the thin, mundane plot.
To make matters more confusing, or even worse, there is an endless musical production number at the end of the film, in which all the characters dance with shovels. It makes me wonder if the cut pie fight at the end of Dr. Strangelove would have been worth it? Initially the shock of seeing all these counter culture actors bouncing around with shovels is amusing, but it wears out its welcome. Even though it doesn't work, it is a great piece of inspired lunacy and in some ways makes up for the rest of the plodding film.
I guess Neil scrapped plans to make Human Highway 2, as announced at the end of the film. But with Neil, you never know.
Review by faloopnik2 from the Internet Movie Database.