Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Random Movie Report #111: Message From Space
There's a reason I keep returning to the subject of early attempts to cash in on the success of Star Wars. I'm a fan of Star Wars as you might imagine, and I'm even one of those strange ones who finds artistic value in all six movies, but one saga of heroism, mysticism, and laser fights and exploding spaceships can't possibly be enough. So when I discovered a Japanese ripoff made and released one year later, having taped it off TV back when late night programming was not devoted quite so much to infomercials, I was in heaven. Many, many years later and I haven't been able to track down the DVD which Amazon claims exists, but there is Netflix, and as theoretically sophisticated as I have become in the interim, Message From Space remains a hoot and a half. Shameless in its filching of George Lucas' style, yet with a local flavor all its own, it's a film that makes very little sense and has a lot of things just happen because nobody could think of a better idea at the time, but damn it's pretty.
The planet of Jillucia is under attack by the warlike Gavanas. Seemingly without hope, the Jillucians send out eight magic Liabe seeds, which hopefully will lead the princess Esmeralida (Etsuko Hishomi) to eight heroes worthy of defending the embattled world. The seeds end up in some strange hands- two devil-may-care "Roughrider" space pilots, a thrill-seeking dilettante, and a two-bit conman, as well as General Garuda (Vic Morrow), a grizzled and increasingly cynical veteran followed around by a comic-relief robot, because of course he is. The basic problem that Esmeralida and her helpmate Hans (Sonny Chiba) encounter is that none of these people are terribly sold on the idea of battling an alien army, and some of them are downright scummy. But as the Gavanas enter our solar system, piloting Jillucia itself as a base of operations, a battle for the future of mankind becomes inevitable.
The film's visual style is a mix of the old and the new (well, new for 1978 at least.) There are many nods to the Star Wars aesthetic, with weatherbeaten ships going as fast as Toei's wirework would permit, motion control being out of the question. But there's also a touch of antiquity; Esmeraldia and Hans escape Jillucia in a rocket-powered sailing ship, while the Gavana leaders dress in a style that echoes medieval Japan while also having a few touches of your typical Power Ranger villain. The production values are uneven, with visuals ranging from fairly impressive and pretty to unbelievably fake. (That the only prints available are fuzzier than 70s porn just adds to the mysterious atmosphere.) On the whole the picture's motley look lends it considerable charm, even if parts of it are very much of its time.
It's a good thing the picture is so eye-pleasing, too, because it doesn't make a lick of sense. The basic story is as old as, well, at least 1954; however it plays out like several volumes of an epic manga were condensed into an hour and a half. New characters are introduced every five minutes or so, sometimes with brief narrative explanations that only raise further questions (like an old woman's mutant son who is apparently a lizard.) A big deal is made out of Earth's government electing a new prime minister we've never heard of before who is somehow instrumental in getting Garuda to go and negotiate with the Gavanas, which somehow for no good reason leads to a duel between Garuda and a random Gavana officer which is a pretext to introduce the main villain's sense of honor which is relevant to nothing, and there's a lot of material I'm still fuzzy on. It's full of last minute betrayals and repentance and there's a plot cul-de-sac where one of the Roughriders who has already gotten a seed laments that he doesn't have one because they all threw theirs away and others came back and his hasn't yet (spoiler alert: it does anyway). Basically the filmmakers want to have every kind of dramatic action they can think of, from scoundrels becoming mature heroes to heroes betraying their own to old veterans making one last stand, and they don't particularly care in what order or to what purpose these things happen.
Granted, I can't blame the filmmakers for wanting to skip to the good parts. Not having an especially coherent plot does allow for them to simply assemble a bunch of striking visuals and action setpieces, most of which are entertaining in themselves. The climax, in particular, is a well-done effects sequence that, while it recalls the Death Star trench run, also seems to have been stolen back by Lucas and co. for Return of the Jedi's journey through the guts of its own armored space station. And the circle of plagiarism continues.
Unlike Toho's needlessly glum War In Space from the same year, Message From Space is a memorably perky experience. Its negative qualities, such as its unoriginality and frequent incomprehensibility, are to a certain extent made up for by a sheer chintzy excess. The results have a dreamlike quality, as though someone were describing Star Wars to a person who had never actually seen a movie before. Spaceships fly around, there are robots and aliens, there's some magic, and the plot is resolved mostly by scale models exploding. So, yeah, I love this stuff.
Story by Kinji Fukasaku, Shotaro Ishinomori, and Masahiro Noda
Screenplay by Hiro Matsuda
Directed by Kinji Fukusaku