Review: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (movie)

So brooding. So angsty.

Guardians of the…oops, wrong movie.

So I watched this 2013 Japanese CG animated movie on Netflix, totally on a whim. While I was aware of the existence of the Captain Harlock manga and anime, I had no exposure (or vested interest) in it. I’m pretty sure this slick remake/reboot differs quite a bit from the source material, but I’m going to review it based solely on my experience with the movie.

We used to be a lot cuter.

We used to be a lot cuter.

To put it succinctly: the animation was beautiful, the story was a hot mess.

So in the future, billions of humans have colonized space, but dwindling resources forces them all to return to earth. But since our world can’t possibly support all of them a huge war (known as the “Homecoming War”) breaks out for the privilege of return. Blah blah blah, a governmental body called the Gaia Sanction forms and declares Earth off-limits to everyone. Blah blah blah, alien race called the Nibelung, dark matter technology, Captain Harock and his dark matter ship the Arcadia, Gaia Sanction espionage, treachery, loyalty, angst, pseudo science, lots of futuristic jargon with the words “protocol” and “Jovian” and “oscillator” thrown about, ships blow up, people yell at each other, and then….

Well, I’m not sure. See, while there’s a beginning to the story, and what could pass for a middle, there’s no ending. It’s a complete and utter failure, where the motivations of both the protagonist and the antagonist (and the antihero) are completely forgotten or dropped, and there’s no clear resolution to anything The origin or purpose of the Nibelung? Harlock’s mission to reset the “Genesis Clock”? All forgotten. The narrative focus jumps around more than a faulty projector, random facts and events are thrown at the audience for no apparent reason, and…well, you get the point.

This is a script that could have used some serious, serious editing.

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The visuals, on the other hand, are very strong. I found the costumes, sets, and world building to be top notch. There’s a bit of steampunk sprinkled in with the slick future tech, and the weapons and armor and spaceships all look really well-designed and impressive.

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There’s lots of epic space battles that look good (but make zero sense if you stop to think about the logic of what’s happening). And I’ll admit, each time the Arcadia burst out of a cloud of dark matter “smoke,” it looked pretty bad-ass.

So in conclusion: great eye candy and entertaining in some ways, if you’re willing to turn off your brain, and not try to make sense of things.

Update 8/26: On Facebook, my friend Tony Goins asked the question “How does this fit with your essay from a while back, that not every story needs a beginning, middle and end?” Here was my answer:

Good question. I guess my feeling on that is the work as a whole needs to embrace that aesthetic for it to work. So for instance, it’s ok if it’s a Jim Woodring comic, or a Jim Jarmusch movie, or a Jack Kerouac book. But when you give me a very traditionally structured story, then in the 3rd act be all like “eff it, man, I don’t need an ending because ART!” that doesn’t work for me.

Maybe you can get away with that in some rare cases, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. That movie was tightly plotted and hewed closely to the Hollywood 3-act paradigm, but it still left the audience with a very ambiguous ending. But it worked, because that ending tied in directly to the very theme of the movie, it’s whole DNA, about what exactly is “reality”?

But in the case of this movie, not only did it start out with a very traditional story structure, but it’s very look screams sci-fi action video game, a medium firmly rooted in beginning-middle-end storytelling.

Of related interest to this discussion: this article about the Chinese & Japanese 4-act (introduction, development, twist and reconciliation) plot structure called kishōtenketsu, which doesn’t rely on conflict to advance the narrative.

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