Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sci-Fried Theater: SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK 3D (2013)

There are folks that absolutely love anime stuff. Be it "Sailor Moon", "Ghost in the Shell" or "Appleseed", some folks are obsessed. Back in the late '80s I would watch one here or there after being blown away by AKIRA (1988) at a midnight screening. About that time I got an unsubtitled bootleg tape of an amazingly over the top, incredibly graphic anime titled "The Wandering Kid", better known now as "Urotsukidoji" (1989). Some years later it was released in the States with subtitles and I discovered that aside from the incredibly graphic, acid-trip visuals there was an fascinating and complicated story going on as well. Other than that "Fist of the North Star" was the only thing that really held my attention.

In a sharp contrast to my usual ranting about the dire state of modern cinema, I have to say that computer animation is a whole different breed and for some reason, I dig it. Since I am not an anime fan, I have never actually sat down and watched more than a few minutes of the much beloved "Space Pirate Captain Harlock" anime series', but I had to check out some of the different movies and episodes after watching this. Because of my lack of prior worship, I feel I am perfectly suited to review the new CG animated movie. Why? Because I come into it with few preconceived expectations and will not end up being that guy on an internet message board who is bitching about how the characters aren't exactly right, the back-story is a little different, a costume got slightly changed or the plot is too complicated.

You know who you are.

It's true that this new SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK movie does have a slightly complicated plot that is revealed over the course of the movie. This is pretty typical for Japanese sci-fi and I will try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but since they don't adopt the lazy Hollywood tactic of having a couple of people standing around in the beginning of the film having a conversation that explains the entire plot to the audience, that will probably be difficult. Fair warning.

In the Earth's future mankind has spread across the galaxies inhabiting other planets and killing off the indigenous populations until a movement arises to return to Earth. Unfortunately, the Earth ruling body, the Gaia Council, makes it illegal for ex-pats to return to the planet starting a massive war between the Gaia Council forces and the off-world human warlord fleets. At the end of this brutal and lengthy conflict, the Gaia Council makes Earth a sacred zone that no one is allowed to return to under penalty of death.

Hollywood CG movies wished they looked this good.

A young man named Yama (Haruma Miura), manages to become accepted as a new recruit aboard the infamous pirate ship the Arcadia. Once among the ranks, we quickly discover that Yama is a covert operative working for the Gaia Council, whose mission is to uncover Captain Harlock's (Shun Oguri) plans and kill him. Presumably with plenty of prejudice as near the end of the war, Harlock stole a battleship from the Council. He also had one of the last remaining alien life-forms in the galaxy imbue it with dark matter, which not only allows the ship and Harlock to be practically indestructible, but makes it look really damn cool too. Harlock, is rumored to be immortal, and has been spending the last 100 years collecting warheads from abandoned space stations and mounting them on very specific planets in the galaxy. He has planted 98 out of 100 warheads that he believes, when detonated all at once, will reset time and allow the human race to start again. Naturally the Council doesn't want him to achieve his goal, as they enjoy wielding their power from on high.

Yama, as it turns out, is not acting on his own. His brother, Ezra (Toshiyuki Morikawa), who lost the use of his legs during an accident caused by Yama, has big plans to increase his station with the Council and set Yama up for revenge by sending him out on this mission. If Yama succeeds he will gain power within the council, if he fails, he will be killed by Harlock. Either way it's a win-win situation for Ezra, or so he thinks.

Yama, being pulled both ways by his blind loyalty to his crippled brother and his sudden appreciation for Harlock's own mission, must struggle to figure out which side he is going to take. In between the drama we get plenty of action and some veiled allusions to the WMD cover-ups, as well as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which for some reason, continues to be a theme in Japanese cinema.


While there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the fanboy community, the tide of opinion changed after James Cameron gave it his sound-bite blessing. It's a little annoying as it makes those who enjoyed it look like lemmings, and kind of knocks the legs out from under it. However, I can understand why he praised it, because it's better than anything he has ever done in his career. Setting aside that annoyance, the art-direction is flat-out gobsmacking. I hate to use banalities like "breathtaking", but the visuals are nothing short of that and they go a long way to gloss over some of the more well-worn themes in the story. Because it is a modern mainstream film, there are certain things that come with the territory. At least three characters have to have a scene where they shed a solitary tear. Fortunately it are no excessive histrionics that seem to becoming commonplace in modern sci-fi. I'm not saying emotion has no part in science fiction, but really, does "Doctor Who" really need multiple scenes of sobbing in every episode? I think not.

The ship Arcadia itself has been re-envisioned as a Geiger-esque, skull and gear filled behemoth with a sinister steampunk motif that is so immaculately detailed that much of the nuances are lost in these screenshots. The level of detail is astonishing. The Council's ships, equally detailed, are white and sleek with gold accents as befits their status in the universe. But hey, you say, isn't that the same genesis for the design of the rebel and imperial ships from STAR WARS (1977)? Yes it is. Not only that, but there are many things in HARLOCK that are cribbed straight out of the STAR WARS playbook. There are the requisite orchestrated dog fights, white armored troops engaging in gun battles in spaceship corridors, hell they even lift the concept of the classic space slug-in-the-asteroid scene from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Surely that taints the film's luster? Actually, I don't think so. So many films have borrowed from the original STAR WARS trilogy so many times over the decades, these things have become more like staples of the genre. As long as it is not totally overt, I enjoy STAR WARS rip-offs a lot more than I enjoy the original series anymore. Give me THE HUMANOID (1979) and STARCHASER (1985) any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The art direction doesn't limit itself to stunning environments and space vessels however, they also go for some serious special effects eye-candy that puts the whole thing over-the-top. One of impressive set-pieces is one of the Council's super-weapons, which is a satellite that crushes neutron stars to create a deadly beam of energy that obliterates everything in its path. While the characters look a little videogameish, presumably to retain an anime feel, the costumes look fantastic, right down to the leather grain on Harlock's collar. Since this is a post-"Dark Knight" film, the filmmakers opt for a less cartoonish tone, drenching the movie in shadows. While I feel this is getting stale in Hollywood live-action films, it suits HARLOCK right down to the ground. It is expected that animated films should be light and breezy because it is assumed that the main demographic is children. While HARLOCK doesn't get bloody or titillating (aside from a few minor scenes), it does take it self seriously and tries to reflect that in its cinematography and narrative.

It's also worth mentioning that while this movie looks fantastic as a flat film, it is absolutely eye-popping in 3D. There are no pop-out effects to speak of, but the spatial sense of depth for every object on the screen is dramatic and adds an extra punch to the already stunning visuals. There are times where it is difficult to follow the subtitles simply because of the gorgeous artwork in this film.

It's a shame that American distributors are so rigid these days with foreign films, or god-forbid an adult oriented 3D animated film. They are so alien and incomprehensible to studio execs and distributors that we are lucky to get them on plain DVD, much less in theaters. It is amazing to think back on 2001 and realize it was a more enlightened time with the lackluster CG animated FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN actually getting a wide theatrical release, opening on no less than 2,649 screens. Sure it was a massive flop, but you'd think 13 years later they would get over it. Particularly since Hollywood keeps writing $150 million checks to the Wachowski brothers who haven't had a hit since 1999.


Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. Just a heads-up: Netflix is streaming Harlock. Subtitles leave much to be desired, but at least we folks in the States can watch it relatively easily.

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