Friday, December 16, 2011

Message From Space

Message From Space (1978)

Dir. Kinji Fukasaku

     I’m being redundant in saying Kinji Fukasaku directed Battle Royale, as every critic and nerd has already pointed out, but before he directed that masterpiece (sarcasm), he worked on a large range of genres. One of his weirdest and earliest flicks was the campy ‘Black Lizard’ starring female impersonator Miwa Akihiro as the temptress that all the male leads would fight over. But that wouldn’t even scratch the surface on how much weirder Fukasaku’s only sci-fi movie ‘Message From Space’ would turn out.

      ‘Message From Space’ is one of the more notable blatant knock offs of Star Wars coming out of the 70s. It’s one of those films that’s hard to review, since while it may have had cutting edge special effects for the time of its release, it’s completely laughable today. On top of that, it’s hard to tell whether or not it was ever meant to be taken seriously. The main plot is straightforward, but the dialogue feels like it was done at a college improv class. On top of that, just about nothing in this movie makes sense, pointless scenes abound, and none of the characters or major plot points are coherent to the whole.

     Stylistically, ‘Message From Space’ can be labelled under the tokusatsu subgenre of Japanese live action movies. This is a genre that usually involves giant rubber-suited monsters and cardboard box space ships like what you would see in Godzilla movies or Ultraman. The similarity isn’t just limited to the special effects, though, since Message from Space also has some of the hammiest dubbing that would feel right at home with any Japanese monster movie.

Anyone who’s seen Space Balls will probably be able to spot similar characters, scenarios, and costume designs. Message From Space came out years beforehand, so I can’t help but wonder if it influenced Mel Brooks. If anything though, Space Balls isn’t as ridiculously stupid.

     I also need to point out the fact that as a victim of the 70s, ‘Message From Space’ takes more than one or two pages out of the Leiji Matsumoto book of scienceless science fiction where analogue technologies such as Spanish Galleons are suitable for space travel. People don’t need space suits to keep their internal organs from turning into exploding festival balloons, and my favourite; a scene with a robot, resembling Asimo, patrolling with a 17th century musket.

     As for the story itself, It’s basically about a planet called Jillucia that’s been invaded by a race of silver-skinned aliens called the Gavanas. In order to fight off the Gavanas, 8 seeds resembling walnuts are dispersed throughout the galaxy and are expected to just magically end up in the hands of 8 heroes who will stop the Gavanas and save Jillucia. Who or what kind of person do the magical walnuts favour, you might ask? Try not to care, because this movie certainly doesn’t. There’s no explanation at all behind how this works or how just 8 people alone are supposed to stop an invading alien race that whole fleets of ships weren’t able to. Don’t expect much exposition other than that. Why are the Gavanas interested in invading other planets? What are their belief systems? Just shut up, and stare at the cool ships.

     Well, this was a Japanese production, but that didn’t stop it from having an international cast made up of Japanese and western B-list talent. Probably the most redeemable thing about this movie is Vic Morrow’s straight-faced acting as General Garuda. He delivers the most priceless lines in the whole movie and every scene with him in it is solid gold. What I love about him is just how seriously he manages to deliver some of the dumbest lines. Like one where he remains defiant against a superior officer after he’s scolded for using an expensive military rocket to give his robot assistant a proper funeral. Or better yet, one scene where he’s sent as an ambassador to Earth to negotiate with the Gavanas. Out of his own brand of chivalry, he indignantly challenges one of the alien invaders to an 18th century style duel just for laughing at another human character. He declares that he cannot allow anyone to laugh at a ‘citizen of Earth’. The way he does it is completely spontaneous and makes no sense, but I just couldn’t help but love the guy for how much he got absorbed in his role.

     Regrettably most of the other performances in this movie aren’t as interesting, and are downright forgettable. Even Sonny Chiba didn’t have much of a presence. What’s even worse is that most of the movie is comprised of giving screen time to these blander characters, of which there are many. The only exception is a spoiled rich girl played by Peggy Lee Brennan, who at least manages to have some fun.

     There’s also one character that is only introduced within the last 20 minutes of the story. He might as well have just been a loaf of bread since he added zilch to an already inflated cast. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if he didn’t end up playing such a pivotal role in resolving the main conflict. Why would they give such an important role to a character introduced right at the end?

     Is this movie worth seeing? Yes, and no. The scenes with Vic Morrow almost made it worth watching for, and I must admit that the costume and ship designs are an interesting distraction from Star Wars, but there’s so much filler content that I have a hard time recommending it. It’s a very campy film and can be fun to laugh at with a friend, or if you’re high, but personally I would rather just watch Space Balls again. I guess you can say that it’s one of those very unique films that deserves a place in film making history. There have been Star Wars knock offs before, but this is one of the few from a Japanese perspective and by a great director like Kinji Fukasaku. Yet, I can very easily see why he stuck closer to Earth after making this.


-Gabe Stein

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