Harlock: Space Pirate

A lot of the most critically acclaimed video games these days tend to generate review paragraphs like this one:

“It's truly a thrilling experience, combining cutting-edge visuals, a satisfyingly complex combat system, countless hours of open-world gameplay, smooth and accessible controls, fun multiplayer options, gorgeous music and some impressive customization options. To be sure, the story is a generic and forgettable one, but that doesn't detract from the fact that this is one of the year's best titles.”

Setting aside the merits of that sort of thinking, the animated sci-fi adventure Harlock: Space Pirate plays an awful lot like a collection of story-driven cutscenes from one of those technically-impressive-but-dramatically-flat games (if you had shown me a few stills and told me they were from an upcoming Final Fantasy title, I would have believed you). You still get the attractive visuals and gorgeous music, but without the benefit of some fun gameplay, the cliched story becomes a whole lot more difficult to forgive.

The film is based on Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Leiji Matsumoto's wildly popular manga series that was released in installments between 1977 and 1979. The series was adapted as an anime television series around that same time, and it has remained a popular franchise in Japan and elsewhere for decades. Finally, in 2010, Toei Animation – the studio responsible for series like Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon – announced that they would be producing a CG-animated feature film. Harlock: Space Pirate is one of the most expensive things Toei has produced, and you can see every bit of the film's $30 million budget on the screen: it looks pretty great, often rivaling the detailed beauty of vastly more expensive American features.

The story is set in the distant future... or the distant past (the movie leaves it up to you to decide). Humanity has developed the ability to travel anywhere in the galaxy, but they've used up almost all of available life-sustaining resources in the known universe. As such, everyone decides that it's time to head back to Earth. Unfortunately, Earth is no longer capable of sustaining the hundreds of billions of people who need a home, so a universal government known as the Gaia Sanction devotes itself to preventing humans from returning to the blue planet. The tough, resourceful Harlock was the man tasked with leading the effort to stop humans from returning to earth, but left the military after the Gaia Sanction violated their own rules and allowed the wealthy elite to take up residence on the planet. Now, many years later, Harlock captains a powerful ship called the Arcadia, and is hard at work on a long-term mission to alter the current timeline and make Earth livable again.

This is a decent premise, but the film stuffs so many plot twists, characters and narrative wrinkles into the mix that it soon becomes a muddled, incoherent mess. Though the original Japanese version of the film benefits from slightly more narrative clarity than the English-language international version (which features some awfully clunky dubbing), both cuts of the movie feel like they're trying to stuff a whole TV season's worth of plotting into a single two-hour film. Eventually, the film seems to give up on its efforts to juggle a million things at once, and simply gives way to noisy space battles.

To be sure, the space battles are impressive. The assorted ship models benefit from terrific detail, the Star Wars-inspired sound design is a lot of fun, and the soaring score by Tetsuya Takahashi is always a pleasure to listen to. It's just a shame that those battles are tethered to such a messy, incoherent story. The movie might have worked better as a video game: scene after scene feels like it ought to be accompanied by a notification reading, “For more info on this topic, press A to read codex entries.”

Harlock: Space Pirate

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 2013