Tuesday, April 23, 2013

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), distributed in the United States in the Autumn of 1978 by United Artists... and which has now received a new Region 1 DVD release from Shout! Factory.

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, director Kinji Fukasaku's (BATTLE ROYALE, THE GREEN SLIME) 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.

Previously available in the United States on a region-free import disc from Eastern Star (reviewed HERE), MESSAGE FROM SPACE has just garnered its first authorized Region 1 home video release from Shout! Factory. Shout's disc sports a 2.00:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from the United Artist's U.S. version. Content-wise, this is nigh-identical to the Japanese cut on the Eastern Star DVD; the only apparent difference being the English titles and a very slightly wider image. Overall, the source material is in good shape, if a bit soft and grainy; only a very few errant specks and spots mar the image. It does appear a bit fuzzier and darker than the Eastern Star DVD, though.

Unlike the Eastern Star disc, Shout offers only the English language audio track, in Dolby Digital Mono. Supplemental material includes the English and Japanese trailers, a still gallery containing production art and photos. Finally, there is a text feature on the cast of the film and an 8-page booklet with liner notes, both provided by the always-knowledgeable Asian film expert, August Ragone.

If you enjoy Asian fantasy films or 70s space opera, you owe it to yourself to check out MESSAGE FROM SPACE.

BUYMessage From Space