Film, Science Fiction

Film: Message from Space

March 27, 2011

Looking for a cheesy movie to get drunk with your friends and ridicule, a la MST3K?  Allow me to recommend the gloriously awful Message from Space (1978) from Japan, a colorfully weird science fantasy knock-off of Star Wars.  This one features imperial samurai, spaceships with sails, magical walnuts, and insanely chaotic fight scenes.  It’s pretty terrible, but oh what wonderful crap!

The desperate people of the planet Jillucia, their society nearly wiped out by the rapacious Gavanas, send out into space eight holy seeds, which will locate the eight fated saviors of their world.  Brave Jillucians Emeralida (Etsuko Shihomi) and Urocco (Makoto Sato) set sail into space — literally! — in order to locate and gather the fated heroes.  Unfortunately for them, among the selectees are hotdog Earthling space pilots Aaron Solar (Philip Casnoff) and Shiro (Hiroyuki Sanada), their wealthy friend Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan), and feckless troublemaker Jack (Masazumi Okabe).  Also resisting the call is retired, hard-drinking General Garuda (Vic Morrow).  Despite external obstacles and internal treachery, the group rallies to find the remaining chosen ones and challenge the evil Gavanas and their leader, the Emperor Rockseai XII (Mikio Narita), who raises the stakes by setting his sights on Earth.

Amusingly and painfully derivative of the original Star Wars, Message from Space comes off like a movie shot from the first draft of a trunk script by Party Down’s Roman DeBeers.  The half-assed parallels are everywhere, from its destined heroes and wacky mysticism to its climactic swordfights and daring, one-chance-in-a-million space battle.  The music soundtrack, cribbing liberally from John Williams and Gustav Holst, seeks to inspire the same mood; one particular Star Warsian horn line, deployed at every sign of a magical walnut, gets increasingly hilarious as the film progresses.

The sloppy, kitchen sink production — probably lavish by the standards of its era — is a comical mess.  Generally unspectacular special effects are jazzed up by occasionally impressive model work, and the colorful set design and outrageous costumes are often awesome.  The silver-faced Gavanas’ horn-helmeted samurai uniforms are worth the price of admission, while General Garuda’s Sgt. Pepper military clothes conjure childhood memories of Star Blazers.  There’s no shortage of entertainingly wacky visuals.  (If you thought In the Dust of the Stars was outlandish, wait until you see this!)

Just be prepared to laugh your way through this one’s incompetent dialogue and hammy performances.  Evidently both Japanese and English actors recited their dialogue in their own languages, even when in the same shot.  The result is a bizarre partial dubbing, wherein — oddly — the dubbed Japanese characters sound more convincing than the Americans.  Particularly obnoxious are Meia, who sports a crass New York-y accent, and Aaron Solar, who looks and behaves like Luke Skywalker by way of Vinnie Barbarino.  Ouch!  Vic Morrow, slumming, is an island of professional competence and gravitas in a sea of floundering overacting.  What a far cry from his heyday as Sgt. Saunders on Combat!

I’ve seen the film described as a “mockbuster,” but it’s hard to tell how much of the film is supposed to suck.  Is this a comedic subversion of the Star Wars phenomena or an incompetent copy?  It doesn’t matter:  either way, Message from Space is a terrible movie, in the best possible way!

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