Uchu kara no messeji
DIRECTED BY: Kinji Fukasaku
FEATURING: Philip Casnoff, Peggy Lee Brennan, Hiroyuki Sanada, Masazumi Okabe, Vic Morrow, Makoto Satô, Etsuko Shihomi, Sonny Chiba
PLOT: A race of evil robotic samurai conquer a peaceful tribe of leaf-headed aliens, who send out eight magic space nuts to track down reluctant heroes to save their planet.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Message from Space is so cheesy it should come with a warning: do not watch if lactose intolerant. But risible is not quite the same as weird, and despite its bizarre costuming choices (leaf-headed aliens versus robot samurai aliens?) and laughably conceived special effects, there’s not enough truly strange stuff here to capture the interest of most weirdophiles.
COMMENTS: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an evil empire has kidnapped a space princess and imprisoned her inside a planet-sized death machine which can only be destroyed by piloting a fighter spaceship through a tunnel and hitting a one-meter soft spot; accompanied by a comic-relief robot, a motley crew of space rats assemble to save her, and the universe. Released one year after Star Wars, with an epic symphonic soundtrack by the Japanese John Williams, spaceships that look an awful lot like X-wing fighters and the Millennium Falcon, and several direct visual quotes from George Lucas’ mega-blockbuster (e.g. the ominous shot of the underside of a massive spacecraft as it glides by), Message from Space doesn’t try to hide its inspiration. In fact, hiding its inspiration would have contradicted its marketing strategy. It’s remarkable how cheeky robots, laser battles, aliens, spaceship duels, and almost all of the other basic elements of Star Wars also appear in Message from Space, and yet the former is a beloved classic while the latter is a space opera staged by the tone-deaf. It just goes to show how far the little things like characterization, acting, editing, passion, originality, and the ingenuity and funding necessary to put your vision onscreen can take you. But, while Message from Space doesn’t have any of the qualities that made Star Wars great, it does have a lot of features Star Wars lacks. For one thing, it has glowing space walnuts sent by the gods to wander the universe. It has nautical-themed spaceships with full billowing sails and a big wooden steering wheel. It’s got characters who actually use “space” as an all-purpose modifier (one guy worries about spending “three years in the space-clink” while another mentions that he was “born after the last space-war.”) It’s got a mixed Japanese/American cast, half of whom are dubbed (the space babe with the Joisey accent speaks her own lines, though). It’s got a cowardly rogue who dresses like a vaudevillian in a pink and orange leisure suit. It’s got a robot waitress with big pink plastic boobs. It’s got teenage heroes who grab hands and hop up and down in a cute little dance whenever they save the universe. It’s got… well, it’s got a lot of stuff, and although little of it is much good, there’s at least enough of it that you might be able to keep yourself from falling asleep. And, although it’s cheap-looking, some of it is pretty to look at; the samurai robots’ throne room looks like it might use backdrops left over from Kwaidan, selectively decorated with a props bought at Barbarella‘s post-production sale. If you’re of a certain age, and have a deep nostalgia for crap, Message from Space may just fit the bill. Personally, when I was dropped off to see this at a matinee as a ten-year old boy, I was so bored that I wandered out into the theater lobby to play “Space Invaders” instead. Although I liked Message better as an adult, now that I’m able to appreciate the camp value of failed entertainment, I am still impressed by my younger self’s ability to ignore the superficial glitz and sniff out a space-dog of a movie.
Despite helming this cynical work-for-hire, rushed into theaters to capitalize on a hit movie, Kinji Fukasaku is not a hack director. In 2000 he delivered the utterly original killer-kids cult hit Battle Royale.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a Japanese science-fiction film that’s so terrible it has a certain comic integrity… [the plot] is pleasantly indecipherable, and the screenplay seems to have passed through a food processor with a sense of humor.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)