Captain Harlock

Rating: 3

After "Space Battleship Yamato", another one of MATSUMOTO Leiji's (松本零士) works gets a movie reboot: the space pirate, Captain Harlock.

Harlock first appeared on television in 1978, saving the Earth of 2978 from invading aliens called Mazons. That Earth was dying, its resources long depleted, dependent on imports of food and materials from other colonised planets; all work was done by machines, and the population was kept docile through subliminal messages in every entertainment broadcast. Harlock had rebelled against the world's governments, and had taken to the skies to live free, with a small crew, on the Arcadia. He and all his shipmates had been branded as traitors and criminals, but they still fought against the invaders, because they still loved Earth and cared for its people.

This movie opens with a voice-over that sets a different premise: in an unspecified far future, humanity left Earth, but they ended up with stagnating and dying societies spread over the Galaxy. They tried going back to Earth, but there were too many people, and a war ensued. To end the war, Earth was declared an untouchable sanctuary, nobody was allowed to go back on it, and all the various colonies were essentially left to wither and die. Harlock fights the sort-of government in charge of keeping people out of Earth, because he has a plan to allow everyone to go back. His whole motivation is a bit unclear, and this Harlock is not the same one we see in the various animated series and movies: I'm not going into details, because I don't want to spoil the only interesting plot twist, but let's just say that he's not the paladin of justice and freedom he'd like to appear. I'm not sure if Matsumoto had any part in this change, but it felt like an unneeded dirtying of the character.

What's more upsetting, though, is that Harlock is not even the protagonist of the movie: it's Yama, a new character, who drives the story and through whose eyes we get to know all the other characters. And with Yama rests my biggest complaint: he's the most blatant Mary Sue I've ever seen on film. He manages to get accepted on board by uttering a single word; as soon as he mans the guns everybody notices how good he is; he saves the Arcadia from destruction twice; the resolution of the whole plot is in his hands. I mean, I understand the viewer's need for a character to identify with, but this is a bit extreme. Yama has one big redeeming feature, though: he is able to change his opinion in the face of updated information; when he realises that the beliefs that informed his previous actions did not match reality, he uses the new information to take different actions. Too often I see character who keep doing the same things even when it doesn't make sense anymore!

Another, minor but not small, problem I have with this film is the excessive use of off-screen commentary (I can't really call it "narration", apart from the first few minutes when it establishes the setting), of long expositions by the various characters, and of useless technobabble. On this last point, I want to underscore that Matsumoto very rarely seemed to care about how his science-fictional creations worked: they just did, in the exact way that served the story; he didn't need to dazzle the audience with random big words.

On the plus side, the film is visually quite good, with very good use of 3D, spectacular battles, and well detailed faces and costumes (let's ignore the way the characters move, animated as they are without motion capture…).

If you can track down the first TV series, I suggest you watch at least the first and the last episode, to get a feel of Harlock as he was conceived. If you want something more recent, try Cosmo Warrior Zero. If instead you like your heroes very, very flawed, and you can ignore some shaky characterisation, or maybe you're looking mostly for engaging space battles, you'll appreciate this movie much more than I did.

DatesCreated: 2014-03-19 12:04:26 Last modification: 2023-02-10 12:45:24