Message From Space (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)

In my article on Japanese space opera I mentioned a film called Message From Space which, at the time, I had yet to see. Although I felt I had said all I wanted to say on that subject, seeing Message From Space has compelled me to return to it briefly. Why? Because Message From Space is frigging awesome.

In deep space a race of steel-skinned bastards have invaded a peace-loving world and turned it into a wasteland. The druid-like inhabitants therefore decide to luzz eight magic walnuts into space (seriously). These walnuts seek out unlikely heroes who are destined to come to the planets aid. These reluctant heroes include Vic Morrow, two space racers, a spoilt female heir to a fortune, an irritating little prick who dresses like he's a Christmas present and Sonny Chiba as a space-knight who turns up in the third act and suddenly becomes the main character. 

For the majority of the film these people whine and squabble about not being ready to go to war until the walnuts start glowing and convince them otherwise. Alas none come to find that the walnuts where inside them all along. Frankly every moment of screen time these idiots take up is like having wisdom teeth put back in. So why did I love this film so much?

The bad guy is brilliant for a start. Not only does he look the part, but I loved the way that he is unintentionally given a somewhat softer edge than most evil space emperors. His first line is “there is something wonderful about a storm” which as scripted might sound enigmatic or foreboding, but when spoken sounds like his mind is elsewhere, as if he'd really rather be staring out a window watching the rain and listening to soft rock ballads. Later, he decides to destroy the moon instead of Earth because “Earth is too lovely to destroy”. Bless him.

What really makes the film so much fun is the action. Although most of the Japanese science fiction tropes are here, such as a sailing ship that travels through space and a kind-of transforming space craft (no drill though) we are thankfully spared the slow build. Yes the third act is a lot more exciting than the first two, but the film is liberally dusted with exciting set-pieces throughout.

The miniature work is some of the best I've seen and when you consider the high caliber of Japanese miniature work that is saying something. Without the same compositing techniques as ILM had for Star Wars the production had to rely on model space craft held up by wires. Yet this not only allows the model ships to interact with real pyrotechnics and debris but also allows the cameras to be a little looser, leading to some extraordinarily kinetic space battles.

This energy also translates to the shoot-outs and sword fights. Dutch angles, hand-held, zooms and tracking shots are all used to the get most out of each sequence. So whether you are watching Vic Morrow blast away at stormtroopers, Sonny Chiba clash blades with evil emperors or space craft dogfighting over exploding canyons each action scene is a joy to behold.

So much so that it is worth sitting through all the scenes featuring a bunch of shouting, squabbling bellends.


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