Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Message From Space (1978)

aka Return to Jelucia

Original title: Uchu kara messeji

Silver-faced, kabuki-inspired intergalactic villain Rockseia (Mikio Narita) and his black-clad troops have conquered Jelucia, a planet full of people who dress like space hippies (crappy robes, leaves on their heads and all), though their not non-violent but only really bad at fighting. The planet's last hope lies in sending out eight magical space walnuts to find eight heroes to rescue it. Two of the Jelucians, Esmeraldina (Etsuko Shihomi!, wearing what looks like a white silk bathrobe - and the leaves) and Urocco (Makoto Sato) are supposed to follow the leaves in a space ship that looks like a clipper and help bring the heroes in.

Turns out magical space walnuts have no taste at all when it comes to heroes, and choose a bunch of dumb space jocks (Hiroyuki Sanada, Philip Casnoff, Peggy Lee Brennan), a shady gambler type guy (Masazumi Okabe), a former space general played by Vic Morrow and his pet robot. Later - much too late - Hans (Sonny Chiba!), the true heir to the throne of Rockseia will join in too, but before that, it's mostly scenes of the crappy non-heroes selling Esmeraldina into sexual slavery (from which she is freed by the bad guys to be kidnapped), pouting a lot and being annoying. Well, and Vic Morrow talks a lot with his robot (turns out it was a good thing R2D2 didn't talk back).

Anyhow, after the audience has spent too much time with the film's crappy heroes, Rockseia falls in love with Earth and decides to conquer it too, so off he and his minions go by way of having Jelucia turned into a giant spaceship without any of the inhabitants having noticed. Will our intensely crappy heroes ever do anything about it?

By now, Kinji Fukasaku is actually better known for his great yakuza films and his general awesomeness than for the weird pieces of cracktastic nonsense he produced whenever he took on the job to be really commercial (for the uninitiated: you can usually recognize these films by featuring an "international" cast or being made during the 80s). If you only know Fukasaku from his more earnest-minded work, Message From Space will come as a bit of a shock, for not only is it nonsensical bordering on totally incomprehensible, it's also a film that barely seems to have been directed at all.

There's certainly little on display of Fuksasaku's usual dynamic (sometimes chaotic) visual style - much of the film seems done with a nailed-down camera, and concentrates on framing and staging everything in the least interesting way imaginable. The film's visual side is clearly not helped by sets that are the opposite of lavish. Jelucia and what we see of Earth are the sort of brown, sandy non-entities that make the rock quarries that so often tended to stand in for alien planets in SF movies look colourful and fanciful.

The script is no help at all, either: there's not much actual plot, nor dramatic tension. Nobody does much - and that slowly - until the film suddenly remembers that it's supposed to end soon after, and everything that might have been interesting had it been developed in the time that came before suddenly happens at once.

Despite these failings - and I haven't even mentioned the film's wasting of Sonny Chiba on a longer cameo and of Etsuko Shihomi on the classic princess role - there is something about it that makes Message eminently watchable, namely, its utter, ludicrous silliness that makes it a brother in spirit to the great Alfredo Brescia's Star Wars rip-offs. Kabuki traditions, truly bad space opera, moments of surprising violence and childish silliness collide in the most ridiculous ways. Space clipper ships meet horned helmets galore; an evil emperor is under the thumb of his mother, who is played by a guy (again the kabuki influence?). Tetsuro Tanba pops in for a minute as the new chairman of Earth; there are space fireflies. Earth is home to a wicked witch with her Plutonian son; Vic Morrow goes on a diplomatic mission dressed up as the camp version of an 18th century navy admiral. I'd say there's always something happening, but the film's tone (until the grand finale which by the way makes no sense at all) is so sedate it's more honest to say there's always something to look at.


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