Space Pirate Captain Harlock (2013)

It's hard to keep hopes up for these beautiful, expensive anime epics. No matter how much detail is put into every millimeter, no matter how amazing their abilities are at replicating the properties of every solid, liquid, and gas in the universe, and no matter how many many soldiers or ships can fill a widescreen panorama, they wind up almost being the same movie every time. The spare-no-expense visuals are trumped by an undercooked screenplay that mistakes philosophies for character and screams to the stars ideas that been through the recycling bin numerous times. While the impressive visuals sustain the film for awhile, the weight of the ambition and scope is crushed by the lack of audience investment in the lives of the people who shuffle through the meticulously-designed CG dollhouses. These movies often live on as Youtube clips, tantalizing bites rather than a filling meal.

This is further compounded when the director is Shinji Aramaki. It takes a lot for me to actively despise a movie I'm not morally repulsed by, but Appleseed managed to pull off that trick. Once the impressive surroundings and the slick techno soundtrack evaporate away as the run-time wears on, there's nothing left but a five-minute demo in search of a movie and having no luck at finding one before it's time to roll the credits. In the last 40 minutes, the characters, the machines, and even the music engage in such incessant droning that the experience can be best summed up as aggressive dullness.

I do have hope in a Leiji Matsumoto properly, however. After all, I have a small model of Galaxy Express 999 on my bookshelf. No matter how deep the blackest hole of the universe might be, a Matsumoto hero has found a way with the values of hope, wonder and freedom. But it's not the usual Matsumoto values that barely drag 2013's space opera Space Pirate Captain Harlock out of the bindings of pure mediocrity, but something a bit more unexpected: Insanity.

Of all of Matsumoto's work, Captain Harlock has been the most open to different takes (Including an English dub that gives him a John Wayne voice). It certainly makes sense for a character who values freedom so much. As long as he broods and chugs gallons of wine, it's all good for him. In this telling, the colonization of other planets has been an abysmal failure for humanity, and instead of trying to improve their methods, everyone comes back to Earth at once, sparking the "Homecoming War." In the ashes of the conflict, a group called the Gaia Communion is formed and declares Earth a sanctuary that nobody should touch, casting humanity back into the void of space to die a slow death. Rebelling against the Gaia Communion is fearsome Captain Harlock with his crew of bandits and his ship, the Arcadia, powered by dark matter that makes the Arcadia self-repair among other things. Like a true drunk, his trademark combat maneuver is straight-up ramming other starships.

In a bit of a change-up, Harlock is actually not the main character, but Yama/Logan (Depending on which voice track you listen to), a youth stranded on a desert planet with recruitment aboard the Arcadia as seemingly his only way off. Within the first ten minutes of the film, it's revealed he's actually a Gaia Communion spy planted by his brother Ezra, a glasses-wearing paraplegic who's an aggressive up-and-comer within the group. Yama is sent into Harlock's ranks to discover what the pirate's ultimate goal is, and it's discovered his plan-and the truth of what really happened in during the Gaia Communion's peace negations-is something of far greater consequence than anyone could ever imagine.

The new Harlock has no need for such flights of fancy as a galaxy railway. The Captain Harlock of 2014 is just as accurate a representation of space opera of it time as 70's Captain Harlock was. Whereas 1978 Harlock was accompanied by a chorus of manly Japanese men spouting the greatness of Harlock like a Klingon song of glory while the captain has a "hero's gleam" in his eye, modern Harlock is more massive in scope, darker and grittier in its look and attitude, and packed to the gills with state-of-the-art CG realism. Toei spent over $30 million on the look of the film and boy does it show. From the reflective spires of the Gaia Communion headquarters to the specks of dust on Harlock's personal desk, this movie is one of the most amazing displays of animation out there. With the insanely detailed look, the character designs are given an overhaul, which is necessary given Leiji Matsumoto's designs would be almost freakish when transitioned to such a realistic world. The only one who maintains her proportions is the mysterious engineer Mimay, which makes total sense considering she's the alien of the group. However, realism does demand she grow a mouth for these proceedings. What I do sincerely miss from the old times is the music. The modern score by Tetsuya Takahashi (Not to be mistaken for the guy who who made Xenogears) is more standard movie music creating basic atmosphere with a decent helping of choirs and loud noises when stuff starts to go boom.

Superficially, the mainstays from the franchise remain the same. Kei, Harlock's top officer, doesn't have any connections to Esmeraldas as Esmeraldas is a no-show in this film, but she's still a tough-as-nails commander. The catch is the same catch that is in most of these similar movies: Character takes a backseat to the experience of the whole thing. In Kei's instance, aside from being the female action figure to throw around the busyness, she exists to have one of the most expensive gratuitous shower scenes in the history of cinema. Seriously, it's unbelievable how much work went into 15 seconds (It's PG-13 nudity, so don't get any ideas, guys and girls who swing that way).

The Steven Foster dub goes a little further, as they often do, to add touches of character, but in this instance, it goes even further than that. Gigantic swaths of the Matsumoto-style narrative are cut from the opening scenes, techno-babble is whittled down, exposition changed for other exposition, and occasional sweeps of chatter are added into silent moments. Netflix has the Japanese subtitles as its base closed captioning, so it's very easy to tell what you're missing if you throw those on. While it would normally be an egregious error, it's essentially the same movie, which gives a hint to how secondary character, dialogue, and even plot details are to the whole thing. As a person who absolutely loves the philosophical Matsumoto prologues and epilogues in each of his little stories, it's strange to see one of them be superfluous. Both English and Japanese voice acting are fine, but they lack the ability to rise above the material, like James Woods screaming at an automated computer system in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

For me, it takes about 30 minutes of being in awe of these projects before getting bored, and Harlock is par for the course. It's around when the pirate crew have a dull stop at a planet that turns into a dull action sequence that has a pointless riff to The Empire Strikes Back and only acts so Yama/Logan can talk to Kei and Harlock by themselves and they can dump plot information and motivation. It does have a 20-second flashback that contains more emotional impact that the rest of it combined, so it's a shame that's the moment they wanted to cut short.

Still, the scenes on the planet at least are a needed contrast to the rest of the action.  Most of the movie involves either fleets of ships trying to take down the Arcadia and failing, or scenes of people talking about the plot. Shinji Aramaki loves his doomsday devices since he's been a mechanical designer throughout his career, and the only addition to these sequences is he keeps making the destructive mechanism bigger. Since his landscape is now the universe, they involve sucking energy from neuron stars, using Jupiter as a part of a massive gun, and the largest of them all that the plot rotates around: The Genesis Clock, a series of spots in the universe where if they're destroyed at once, can unmake space and time. They're impressive for sure, but unfortunately, they add nothing as the action sequences have no dramatic suspense to them. The smaller action beats involving person-to-person combat don't fare a whole lot better since the dirty secret to computer generated character designs is it's REALLY hard to change them for a variety of reasons, so even when Harlock is slicing storm troopers in half, they're still completely intact without a mark on them.

So if all of this is standard and boring, why would I say this movie is worth at least watching once? Plot twists, believe it or not. Everybody here has secrets about why they're at where they're at, and at about the hour mark, the movie pulls the curtain on all of them and it's kind of amazing. To put it simply: The universe is at the point it is because a select few people severely overreacted to a crisis in their lives. This is an understatement. Everybody is secretly off their rocker. It makes most of the main characters a lot less likable, but considering they're two-dimensional in the first place, it wasn't so much of a problem for me. To discuss it further would spoil things, but I can safely say it helped me enough to get to the movie's finish line. The climax also includes a zero gravity fight that is pretty clever, but like most moments that elevate the movie, it's crushingly short.

Among the many showcases of computer animation, this one falls slightly above average, and if you're a Harlock fan who has an attachment to the characters, it might be a worthwhile endeavor if you don't mind the liberties taken since you can fill in the rest of the character for the filmmakers. Unfortunately, it's still almost two hours of computer animation looking gorgeous above everything else, and while Shinji Aramaki is a master of fantastic machines, he still needs work on the human touch. It's currently on Netflix, so if you have the subscription, there's not much effort or money needed to see it, but I don't think it'll grab you enough to pony up the cash for its eventual video release.


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