Wednesday, December 1, 2010

MESSAGE FROM SPACE

In the wake of the unprecedented box office bounty of George Lucas' seminal STAR WARS in 1977, filmmakers around the world raced to unveil their own epic space operas, all hoping to strike gold mining the same cosmic vein.  Among the most prominent of these international productions was Toei Studios' MESSAGE FROM SPACE (UCHU KARA NO MESSEJI), released in the United States in the Autumn of 1978 by United Artists.

The planet Jillucia has been conquered by the Gavanas Empire, its natural beauty devastated after years of war. The few survivors call upon their gods and are given eight magic seeds (that look like walnuts), which they send out into the universe to find eight champions to help Jillucia overthrow its conquerors. The seeds end up in the hands of a motley crew - including a disgraced Earth general Garuda (Vic Morrow, COMBAT!) and his robot, a couple of young "space hot rodders" (Philip Casnoff, DOLLHOUSE, and Hiroyuki Sanada, LOST), a thrill-seeking heiress (Peggy Lee Brennan), and an exiled Gavanas prince (Sonny Chiba, STREETFIGHTER, KILL BILL). Ultimately, these individuals embrace their destiny and unite to face the evil Empire and save Earth from destruction.

Fast-paced, absurd and fun, MESSAGE FROM SPACE is a giddily insane interplanetary samurai fantasy, loaded with space dogfights, laser battles, swordplay and explosions. The miniature effects are extraordinarily well-crafted, and the production design is lavish. The cast is pretty good, too; I really like Morrow as the noble, drunken Garuda, and, of course, Sonny Chiba rocks as the ronin-like Prince Hans.  Etsuko Shihomi - better known to cult film fans as "Sue Shiomi" of the SISTER STREETFIGHTER films - makes a lovely space princess, even if her character is sadly under-used and she never gets to demonstrate any of her legendary ass-kicking skills.

 The story owes as much to traditional Japanese chambara (samurai cinema) as it does to George Lucas' space opera, and while Western audiences might find it both convoluted and juvenile (especially the magic, glowing walnuts!), I actually find it to be a rather charming outer space fairy tale.

Like Toho's THE WAR IN SPACE of the year before, MESSAGE exhibits a distinctively Japanese aesthetic, with many striking images, including a schooner-like starship with solar sails. Interestingly, a number of scenes and images from this film were echoed in later American sci-fi films, like Roger Corman's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980), and even by Lucas' STAR WARS sequels, especially MESSAGE's climax, which is uncannily similar to the climax of RETURN OF THE JEDI, released five or six years later!

Personally, I never imagined that MESSAGE FROM SPACE would ever be released on DVD in the U.S., and definitely not in widescreen, but, much to my surprise, the original Japanese/International cut is now available on an NTSC format, region-free import disc from Eastern Star. Presented in a nearly flawless, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, MESSAGE looks terrific! Both the original Japanese language track and the English dub are included, both in 2.0 stereo, although the English track is somewhat muffled and has a soft background hiss. English and Chinese subtitles are available. Special features include a still gallery, several original Japanese trailers for the film, and trailers for a couple other Eastern Star titles.

If you enjoy Asian fantasy films or 70s space opera, you owe it to yourself to check out MESSAGE FROM SPACE. If you're already a fan of the movie, I can't recommend the Eastern Star release more highly.

BUY: Message From Space