Leiji Matsumoto's Space Pirate Captain Harlock is one of anime's greatest classics—a story told and re-told many times over the last three-and-a-half decades. The past weekend saw the release of the latest version of the story: a CG feature film that is as beautiful and action-packed as it is disappointing.
First, let me say that I chose to see the 2D version of Harlock: Space Pirate instead of the 3D version and it looked great. Everything—from ships to characters to landscapes—is meticulously detailed; and the action scenes are so well choreographed that it is easy to tell what is going on even in the most chaotic battles. All in all, when it comes to semi-realistic CG beauty, Harlock has the best CG this side of Advent Children.
While far from the signature Leiji Matsumoto art style, the characters in Harlock are nonetheless instantly recognizable. The costumes are excellently designed as well. Instead of being simply uniforms or jumpsuits, they are far more utilitarian-looking—covered with zippers and other attachment points for space suit armor or oxygen re-breathers.
Moreover, the pirate's space suits all seem bathysphere-inspired (think Bioshock's Big Daddies) and, along with the Victorian interior design of the Arcadia (Harlock’s ship), serve to excellently merge the ideas of "space" and "pirate."
The only real downside of the art design is the color palette. On the Arcadia, everything is washed out to black or gray—nothing is in bright colors. The Gaia Coalition, on the other hand, seems to be rendered in only two colors: white and blue—at least until they take damage and the lights go out. Frankly, it comes off as a (visually) dark movie.
About halfway through the film, you discover the plot twist—and to the film's credit, it is a genuinely shocking one. Even longtime fans won't see it coming and it is something not seen in any other version of the Harlock story. The problem is, this twist is so drastic and so character-destroying, that it leaves you with...
After the twist, there are no longer any "good guys" in this story and the plot becomes somewhat aimless. So by the time the movie enters its final climax, it's hard to cheer for either side. The movie tries to rile you up with soppy, vague ideas of "freedom" and "hope;" but without a clear goal and likeable lead characters, there is little to keep you emotionally involved.
Much of Harlock is painfully contrived.
[To avoid spoilers, skip to the next section.]
When they need to land and dismantle a bomb, do they land on a flat plain? Of course not, they land on the gorge-spanning arch next to the flat plain. Why? So we can have an action scene where the arch breaks, of course! Then there is the fact that Harlock and Yama look more than a little alike—so much alike that, if you're anything like me, you'll be waiting the whole movie for Yama to get a scar on his cheek and lose an eye.
Then there are the just plain stupid moments of the film: Like Yama and Harlock putting aside their differences to both pull on a rocket engine throttle—that is already firing at max burn. (Believe it or not, pulling harder on a throttle that is already at max burn will not actually give it more thrust.)
The Gaia Coalition's super laser cannon provides the movie's stupidest moment where they fire a test shot, destroying dozens of their own ships (despite having plenty of time to warn them to clear the area), instead of simply shooting at the Arcadia right off. Because, after all, without a warning and a few minutes to prepare, how would the crew of the Arcadia be able to defeat the cannon?
When it comes down to it, Harlock: Space Pirate is a great-looking movie filled with action that is a pleasure to watch. However, the plot vacillates from exciting and enjoyable to contrived and just plain stupid over the course of its two-hour run. Moreover, while not much of a Harlock fan myself (I prefer the 999 side of the Leiji-verse), I felt that what was done in this film was tantamount to character assassination.
If you're looking for a big, dumb, but pretty action flick, then you may enjoy this film. If you are a Harlock fan, however, this film will probably only make you angry.
Harlock: Space Pirate was released in Japan on September 7, 2013.
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