Space Adventure Cobra

A good reviewer friend of mine, Andrew Shelton at the Anime Meta-Review, has a category for shows that just don't quite fit any more: "archaic." It's the rating he gives to shows that are so dated that standard grading just doesn't make sense. It's a rating I wish I had when it came to shows like Space Adventure Cobra. In one sense, it's beyond bad -- it's melodramatic, psychedelic in a bad '70s way, and campy as all get out. It's so cheesy, Kraft Macaroni might have to change their slogan. The dub only adds to the atmosphere that makes The Rocky Horror Picture Show look like a Fellini film. In another sense, though, it's action-packed, stars a lovable miscreant as its hero, and is entertaining despite itself. It's not a movie I can recommend to a modern audience, though I admit that if you think the '70s were the be-all-end-all of culture and fashion, you might find Space Adventure Cobra a hoot.

Jane's a bounty hunter who's just taken the head of a mad prophet. Strolling into a bar expecting her reward, she gets the notice of Cobra, a cigar-chomping space pirate with a humongous price on his head. Jane doesn't believe Cobra is who he says he is, since his death two years prior has been reported all over the known universe. But his arm, which morphs into a psycho-gun, proves he is the real deal. Quickly Jane falls in love with the goofy Cobra, but that's just the start of it. Now both of them are wanted by -- I kid you not -- Crystal Boy, who runs the Space Mafia Guild, but that's not the half of it. Jane and her sisters are actually the last remaining princesses of a long-dead race, and one of them has fallen in love with Crystal Boy, endangering an entire galaxy in the process. But if anyone can get them out of such a sticky situation, it's Cobra.

Space Adventure Cobra is literally a mishmash of every last filmic sci-fi idea that appeared in the ten years before 1982. From the cantina in the opening scenes to the freezing of our hero, the movie liberally borrows from both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Meanwhile, the animation itself is reminiscent of Heavy Metal, the bizarre acid trip of an animated film released in 1981, right down to the goddess/whore females and the psychedelic visuals that freaked out the stoners in the audience. Although the spaceships are simplistic and the designs are on the ugly side by modern standards, it's actually not a bad production for its time. Your tolerance for retrograde visuals and liberal lifting from the original Star Wars films will make a huge impact in your enjoyment of Cobra now.

Even then, though, you may not be able to get through this thing. The dialogue in the Carl Macek version of the film is amazingly ham-fisted, and though it's delivered well, there's more dialogue than could have possibly been in the Japanese version. Of course, the interstellar love story had to have been ludicrous in the original as well -- I mean, having beautiful Amazon women strip down at the drop of a hat because they'd suddenly fallen for Cobra is bad enough. But when Jane starts talking about true love and how she's found hers after only five days, it's enough to expect Cobra to ask if he's on Candid Camera. The music makes it worse. Of course, if you're willing to laugh at the absurdity of it all and just enjoy, it's not bad. Talk to the screen and you feel loads better. But on its own, taking into account that the film takes this whole storyline seriously, it makes Titanic look believable and restrained. The story also has problems in that Cobra isn't much of a lead character to sustain an epic space opera, especially on his own. The plot is barely there, but it aspires to be far more, and Cobra's just not charismatic enough to pull it off.

For all the bad -- and oh boy is there a lot of it -- Cobra is cheerfully excited about being nothing more than a huge space western, and at its core, it is fun. Getting past the dubious plots, the loose women, and Cobra's ability to hold onto his cigar no matter the situation, the film moves so quickly and with such exuberance that you can almost forgive all its faults. Crystal Boy may have the dumbest name ever, but he is one tough cookie. Visually freaky, virtually unstoppable, and personally reprehensible, Crystal Boy is a perfect foil for Cobra, and his presence adds some needed heft to the story. And for a guns-a-blazing romp, there's a little bit of real drama as well. The tale of the three sisters is not one that will end happily ever after, and so its denouement is heartfelt if not all that engaging.

I'm going to put this film at the top of the not recommended category. Most anime fans weren't born when this film came out, and I don't think they'll find this even slightly amusing. But if you're old enough to at least remember disco balls in your local skating rink and shag carpets, you might be able to see past the trappings of this film and enjoy it for what it is. It's a grade-Z movie, but one that someone in the right mindset could really appreciate.

Space Adventure Cobra -- violence, nudity, implied sexuality, mild profanity -- C+