If you were sentient during the 1980s, you probably possessed a perpetual awareness of imminent nuclear annihilation. During the first six years of that decade, this nauseating feeling haunted every moment of my college experience. So to see a movie like Neil Young's 1982 feature Human Highway treat the last day before a nuclear holocaust with such goofy, hamfisted levity kind of rubs me the wrong way. But, hey, at least you get to see Neil jam with Devo (rechristened as the Nukies, a name that hints at the subtlety going on here) on a fierce rendition of Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”
That musical highlight aside, Human Highway plays out like a shaky TV pilot that’s been misguidedly stretched to 80 minutes. The humor is broad, the puns weak, the acting hammy. One feels embarrassed for greats like Dennis Hopper (playing a manic diner cook at Otto’s Hirail Café) and Dean Stockwell (portraying the tightwad owner of said café and gas station; he also co-directed and co-wrote the film). Under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, Young takes the role of über-dorky mechanic Lionel, who harbors rock-star aspirations. While working on his musician idol Frankie Fontaine’s car, Lionel gets knocked unconscious and enters a gently surreal dream in which he fulfills his musical ambitions. We see him performing his real-life excellent song “Goin’ Back” in a ceremony featuring Native Americans burning wooden Indians.
Young and Stockwell were aiming for a biting satire of America’s ill-advised reliance on nuclear power and fossil fuels, as well as our callous disregard of the environment. It was a noble theme then and it still has relevance now, but the wacky tone and scatterbrained script, to say the least, lack the gravity and acuity to do the subject justice. For Neil superfans only.