The single most important thing to remember about MESSAGE FROM SPACE is that it is ridiculous. I realize no one would ever accuse any STAR WARS movie of being "hard science", but in paying tribute to/ripping off STAR WARS, MESSAGE FROM SPACE manages to go even further over the top. This is not necessarily meant to be a derogatory statement, though you can interpret it however you wish. Point is, I love MESSAGE FROM SPACE and find it to be marvelous entertainment. Whether that is in spite of or because of its inherent ridiculousness is something I choose not to contemplate.
As mentioned above, MESSAGE FROM SPACE came about in the heady atmosphere of the late 1970s STAR WARS craze. Toho had already managed to crank out their response in 1977 with THE WAR IN SPACE. In 1978, it was Toei's turn. They went for something that looked at least a bit more genuinely lavish than Toho's rushed effort. They brought in Shotaro Ishimori (no "no" yet) for designs, and hired a director with some international epic experience (Kinji Fukusaku had previously worked on both THE GREEN SLIME and TORA! TORA! TORA!). But it's in the casting that MESSAGE really shines, and may be at its most loopy.
Not sure on the specifics of how or why, but Toei snagged authentic Hollywood actors for their space movie. While I doubt Philip Casnoff and Peggy Lee Brennan's names meant much to most moviegoers, Vic Morrow's sure did. Morrow plays a character who is inebriated through much of the film, and I've read accounts that he went for the method style of inhabiting that part. Even with that, he's amazingly fun to watch as "General Garuda".
The Japanese cast is pretty good, too. I have to say, Toei cheated a little bit in this respect in that the two biggest "names" in Japan - Tetsuro Tanba and Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba - don't show up until over an hour into the film. Chiba has a decent-sized role for such a latecomer, but Tanba's part is basically a highly-billed cameo. The bulk of the screentime for the Japanese players goes to relative youngsters Hiroyuki Sanada and Etsuko Shiomi. They are great, though their fighting skills aren't spotlighted as much as one would hope. Makoto Sato also gets a significant character, and I'll bet even a lot of people in the know in the U.S. wouldn't recognize him from THE H-MAN.
The plot of the movie involves the evil Gavanas who have conquered the planet Jillucia and then set their sights on EARTH! There are spaceships, laser beams, and swords aplenty. There's also kookier things like the space seeds (look like glowing walnuts), space cops with sirens on top of their spacecraft, and that outfit Vic Morrow wears as an envoy. Sheesh! I won't go into the daffier parts of the movie, but trust me, you will have no trouble picking them out.
MESSAGE FROM SPACE is more an SF adaptation of the famous SATOMI HAKKENDEN (aka "Legend of the Eight Samurai") than a straight-up copy of STAR WARS. Makes sense - Toho looked to ATRAGON and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE as the template for their version. Not to worry though - there is plenty in this movie to send the clear signal that you should be thinking of STAR WARS. Cutesy robot? Check. Imposing caped bad guy in a black armor? Check. Princess? Check. Characters named "Prince Hans" and "Meia"? Ch-ch-ch-check! No kidding gang - the climactic sequences were the first part of the movie I ever got to see (via a weak signal from a Houston TV station), and I was floored by how close they stuck to STAR WARS at times. They flattered George Lucas and company a LOT at certain points.
I come to praise MESSAGE FROM SPACE, though, not to bury it. I'd call it one of my favorite 1970s Japanese sci-fi movies, ranking right up there with the Godzilla movies of the era. That's part of why I'm writing this review, because seeing it available on DVD got my attention.
Oh, that will require an explanation. I got an e-mail from Amazon indicating that they were carrying MESSAGE FROM SPACE on DVD. This was a surprise, because I had heard nothing about such a release in North America. Well, I wasn't crazy. Amazon had a HONG KONG DVD of the film listed. Hmmmmm. This raised my suspicions more than a little, due to all the spurious "Hong Kong" (often actually from Taiwan) DVDs in circulation. Still, when Amazon finally listed the disc as available, I decided to risk it. The worst that could happen was that I would get a bum disc or that they would cancel the order.
Neither of those things happened. I really did get the DVD, and it really is excellent. It is anamorphic widescreen, with language options for both Japanese and English. Available subtitles are Chinese and English. The English ones are just adequate at best, but that is miles and away better than I was thinking I might get. The picture quality is where the thing shines, though. It is absolutely stunning. There are a couple of spots where the film print itself gets weird, but the video quality is really nice.
Is it legit? I am leaning towards "Yes, this is a licensed release", but I'll admit that I don't know for sure. It carries © Toei on both the disc and the packaging, and that's a big point in its favor. Still, there are always going to be questions about an "ALL REGION" Hong Kong release. It does come with an English track that wouldn't be available (I think?) on the Japanese release, so that means it's not just a direct copy. I'll await someone to clue me in with further insight one way or another. I don't think this DVD is a bootleg, but I have no proof that it ISN'T one, either.
Extras : yes, there are some. Three trailers for MESSAGE are included. The first was apparently cut while the movie was still in production, and is the most intriguing. It includes a number of tantalizing glimpses of the initial press conference, and even shows the three American stars arriving at the airport. It includes some English voiceover (hello, William Ross!) and a Morrow/Tanba scene that is completely different than what was included in the final version. There's also trailers for a racy film SEX & FURY and a short one for BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL.
I can recommend MESSAGE FROM SPACE the movie as an entertaining bit of crazy sci-fi cinema. I can also recommend this DVD I watched of it. Judge for yourself whether it is what it claims. Here is the Amazon page for it. Order in good health, friends!
*NOTE : I did experience a glitch in the English subtitles near the end where they first started lagging and then froze entirely. I switched to the Chinese, switch BACK to English, and returned to the point where the problem started. The subtitles displayed normally. Just a tip if you encounter the same hiccup.