Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Message from Space

During the long lull that was yet another depression-induced "summer break," I watched a true science fiction gem.

Of course "gem" is not exactly a universally held adjective when it comes to this picture, but it softened my heart and lifted my spirits with its naive charms.

The name of the movie is Message from Space. It's a Japanese production released in 1978, intended to capitalize on Star Wars fever as was the case with so many other films of the time. I remember seeing ads for it as a kid and as I was ravenous for anything even remotely Star Wars in nature, I badly wanted to see it. Of course being that I lived in rural Indiana, Message from Space wasn't exactly playing in a theater near me. So I went without knowing its brilliance.

Until now, baby!

What is Message from Space about? Well, I would think that the title is self-explanatory but I'll go into more depth if you want. The planet Jillucia has fallen under the tyrannical boot heels of the Gavanas Empire. A few survivors remaining in the wastes, including a princess of the Jillucian royal family, pray for deliverance to the powers of the universe. They are granted eight walnuts.

No, I'm not kidding.

But these are magic walnuts. Or something. They will head out into the galaxy and find eight champions who will be called to Jillucia to drive out the evil conquerors. What kinds of characters do they find? Well, there's an old, once honorific military leader from Earth (Vic Morrow) who has fallen on hard times. There are two young and reckless starfighter pilots who spend their days flying stunts. A spoiled rich princess and a robot (natch) are tossed in for good measure. Most enticing of all is Sonny Chiba (from Kill Bill and innumerable other martial arts movies) playing a former warrior of the Gavanas Empire now turned ronin. It's a tough sell for the would-be heroes, but they come around when they realize the Gavanas will one day come for Earth and it's better to slog it out and defeat them on an already ruined planet rather than here at home.

Where have we heard that before?

Clearly this is not only Star Wars-inspired but also an homage to Seven Samurai. Indeed there is swordplay, but it's also packed to the rim with laser battles and ship-to-ship combat in space. Extra geeky aside: the ship designs are overall pretty cool, but there's also a spaceship built in the manner of a tall ship from the 18th Century, complete with sails. In space. In another interesting point, the final starfighter assault on the Empire bears an uncanny resemblance to the attack on the Death Star at the end of Return of the Jedi. Coincidence? Probably, but the romantic in me wants to believe that George Lucas ripped off this little-known Japanese movie that was in turn trying to rip him off. Seems fair all around.

This is just plain fun. Are the characters two-dimensional? Heck yeah. Is the plot hackneyed? You betcha. If, however, you wish to put your brain in neutral for 90 minutes and watch splodey action space opera, this will work for you.

Sometimes that's exactly what I need. Lord knows I needed it this summer.

Over at the ESE Facebook page, I'll be posting stills from the film.

Watch for 'em!

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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