In the year 2977, a new space combat mechanic is discovered
There is, in the field of science fiction, a surprisingly small amount of stories that involve giant, skull-headed space ships employing in battle the main tactic of ramming other ships because, well, they’re just sturdier. Perhaps because of this reason I quite looked forward to Harlock: Space Pirate. Its status as a legacy manga by Leiji Matsumoto doesn’t need explaining – this is one of those titles fit for a canon, alongside the works of Tezuka, alongside Dragon Ball and Gundam.
The tale recounts of the mysterious Harlock, an immortal outlaw wandering across the stars to thwart some quasi-religious empire who have cut off access to an abandoned Earth. For some reason, humanity seems to be withering away in their colonies in space and Harlock means to make things right and allow for everyone to return to their homeworld. The empire doesn’t like whatever he’s doing and sends a double agent into his crew for espionage purposes. Well, that’ll surely work out.
This film suffers a bit from a thing I'd like to call ‘Advent Children Syndrome’. Final Fantasy: Advent Children was a Japanese CGI movie from 2005, based on the world-famous RPG video game series. A film both overblown and desolate. Space Pirate Captain Harlock is far from being as blaringly dull and imponderable, but shares some of its other flaws.
First off, the visuals. They range from stunning (shots of frigates in cosmic combat, exteriors – things that are well-suited to 3D animation) to mediocre (models of people, facial animation – things that are notoriously hard to do). I don’t begrudge them their high ambitions, but with animation there’s a fundamental question you need to answer: what does it add to the film? If the aim is to paint realistic characters (i.e. not caricatures), then you’re better off green-screening live actors. Captain Harlock suffers from many a static close-up failing to make an impression, whereas the entire body of Sergio Leone's work proves that these can be the most thrilling things about a film – if you’ve got good actors working their face. Of course, the disappointing Space Battleship Yamato from 2010 shows having real actors is no guarantee either.
Then there's a principal character in a hovering wheelchair constantly gliding into the frame like an eerie Morticia.
Where the film shines is in bringing jaw-dropping science fiction visuals once in combat, with glorious space lasers shooting from a hundred directions, the Arcadia blasting forth from a cloud of smoke like The Flying Dutchman, crashing into opposing ships with reckless abandon. Quite a bit of fun and perhaps worth seeing this movie for on its own. The first half of the film has a great sense of momentum and for a while it seems this is headed into Star Wars territories of fun, guileless space opera. Around the halfway point, there's an early faint into the third act, however, and afterwards the film slows down to a crawl of needless complications and lost motivations. At this point, you'll almost forget you enjoyed what came before.
Harlock: Space Pirate comes close to being as fun and pulpy as it should have been, but loses itself in its second half. For all its faster than light travel capabilities, in the end it doesn't manage to outrun 'Advent Children Syndrome'.