Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Film Review - 'Harlock: Space Pirate'

In the distant future, the human race has developed the technology to spread throughout the universe, in an effort to establish new colonies and reduce the strain that an ever increasing population has placed on Earth. Their efforts have, however, met with very limited success.

Finding very few planets truly capable of supporting human life, and with limited ability to terraform those not quite suitable, the human race has been forced to discover that the universe is not a kind place. Useful natural resources are rare, and food proves to be difficult to grow - creating a situation in which the human race finds itself stuck in a constant struggle just to survive, even as its influence spreads farther and farther away from Earth.

Eventually, more and more people are force to come to the realisation that there simply is no truly suitable new home for the human race - and so, more and more make the decision to return to the one that they had tried to leave behind, in an effort to re-settle. Of course, by this point, there are far more humans than any single planet could ever hope to support - and, all of them naturally believe they have a right to settle on Earth, once more. This leads to the Homecoming War - a massive battle fought in Earth's orbit, were various factions each tried to claim humanity's birth-place as its own.

This devastating battle only ends when the newly formed Gaia Coalition comes to power - successfully arguing that the Earth could not possibly survive the return of the entire human race, and that it should be kept as an untouched sanctuary while the human race continues in its efforts to build new homes elsewhere. The idea caught up - and so, a century later, we have a situation in which Earth is firmly under the control of the Gaia Coalition's formidable military - and, in which the rest of the human race is still left to survive as best it can.

Many support the Gaia Coalition's extreme measures - believing that, at the very least, Earth can serve as a symbol of hope for everyone. Others, though, believe that the Gaia Coalition has condemned the human race to a slow and painful death.

Most prominent amoung this second group is Harlock - the immortal captain of the Arcadia. Harlock is kept alive, somehow, by his connection to the dark matter engine which powers the ship - a piece of technology given to humanity by an almost extinct alien race, and which is currently kept running by Mimay, its last surviving member. Harlock has served as the captain of the Arcadia since its construction, over a century ago - and, in that time, he has managed to become the Gaia Coalition's most feared opponent.

When Arcadia pays a visit to a typically desolate planet, a young man named Logan latches on to what he sees as his only chance at a new life - eagerly attempting to convince the ship's crew to take him in. On board, Logan finds a crew entirely devoted to their captain's single-minded crusade against the Gaia Coalition - and, one who is already nearing the end of a drastic plan which, if successful, might actually save the human race. A plan which the Gaia Coalition is desperate to stop.

At first, it seems as though this young man is out of his depth among this dangerous, and eccentric, crew - but, Logan has secrets of his own. He isn't just a young man looking for adventure - he is an agent of the Gaia Coalition, itself, sent on an undercover mission to infiltrate the crew, and learn what Harlock is planning. But, as he spends time with the crew, Logan finds that his loyalty to the Gaia Coalition is tested - and, he begins to question whether Harlock might actually be right.

Despite being intended as a stand-alone adaptation of an older series, the experience of actually watching Harlock: Space Pirate felt quite a bit like coming in at the end of a much longer story. There are so many, seemingly important, plot-points that are introduced, only to be quickly glossed over, that I was left with the impression that the film expected me to already be familiar with both the film's setting, and its plot. Quite often, the film's bizarre pacing left me feels as though I was constantly struggling to keep track of everything that was happening. Even worse, though, these same pacing issues left me struggling to feel any genuine sense of investment in either the plot, or the film's cast of characters.

With regard to Logan, in particular - his shifting loyalties could have served as the basis for a genuinely interesting character arc, if it had been given greater focus. But, unfortunately, the constant 'back and forth' nature of his loyalties, based on what we see in the film, simply feels too sudden - and, as a result, we are left with a character who comes across as weak-willed, and more than a little gullible.

Then, there's Harlock, himself. Not only is his immortality glossed over with little more than vague mentions of the effect of alien technology, but the details of his ultimate plan is also, frustratingly, left largely unexplored. The idea that it could be possible to to trigger a massive reset, and essentially turn back time, by simultaneously detonating 'Time Nodes' spread throughout the universe is definitely a strange one (even by science fiction standards) - so, the fact that the film spends so little time setting the whole premise up, in order to convince the audience to suspend its disbelief, was another significant source of frustration, for me.

While the film's plotting and pacing issues might be fairly significant, Harlock: Space Pirate is, at the very least, a great looking film. The quality of the CGI animation is always of a very high standard - especially during the film's many, genuinely exciting, action sequences. Whether it's the moments of epic 'ship to ship' combat, in the depths of space, or the more personal shoot-outs, the film's action is always well-staged, and extremely well animated. Beyond that, too, the impressive amount of detail that is put into each character model means that this film is, for the most part, able to avoid any of the 'uncanny valley' unpleasantness that we often get with these sorts of film. This is especially notable, since it allows the film to pull of some great moments of genuine emotional drama, even in the midst of a confusing story.

Anyone familiar with the wonderfully bizarre world of Japanese animation would have to be familiar with the classic 'sub versus dub' debate - concerning whether it should be watching in English, or in its original language with English subtitles. For my part, this has always seemed to be purely a matter of personal preference - and, so long as the quality of the performances given by the cast measure up, not really something worth arguing about. The same is also true, here - whether you are watching the film in English, or its original Japanese, the cast seem to be entirely committed to given their best performances.

There is one, very significant, different between the two that I think is worth mentioning, though. In the original Japanese, the narration which opens and closes the film is given by an unnamed narrator - but, in the English version of the script, this same narration is given by the ship's alien engineer, Mimay. The result of this is that what is, essentially, a bit of fairly standard exposition in the Japanese script is placed in the context of the last surviving member of an alien race sharing her thoughts on humanity, in the English version. It may only seem like a small change, but it still added a personal element to the film which I appreciated - especially considering that the character really doesn't have all that much to say in the film, itself. Other than that, though, there's no real reason to choose one over the other, beyond what you're most comfortable with.

In the end, Harlock: Space Pirate is a film with many good points - but, unfortunately, these never quite gel into an entirely satisfying whole. The action sequences are fantastic - and, there are some great moments of quiet drama between the film's wonderfully varied cast of characters. But, unfortunately, the film's pacing issues leave the central plot feeling like a jumbled mess. It's really just a shame that the film set about weaving such a convoluted tale - because, otherwise, we could have very easily ended up with something truly special, here.

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