Monday, June 22, 2020

Space 1979: The one where Star Wars got ripped off by the culture Star Wars ripped off

Title: Message From Space
What Year?: 1978
Classification: Ripoff
Rating: What the Hell???

It's time for something different on this blog, enough so that I shelved another post in progress to make room for it. This time, we'll be looking at movies, and not just any movies, but what I will term the "runner up", the films so similar to a higher-budget and more profitable one that most rightly or wrongly accused it of being a ripoff. More specifically, we will be looking at the bumper crop of such entries that plagued the science fiction/ fantasy genre in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the landscape was reshaped not only by Star Wars but the likes of Logan's Run, Alien, E.T and Conan the Barbarian. The most definitive feature of these nominal "ripoffs" is that they are as self-dating as their betters are timeless, to the point that an entirely disinterested observer might assume that they were the older of the two. No offender is more egregious in this and any other respect than the present offering, Message From Space.

For the purposes of this feature, I plan to keep commentary on actual plot and story to a minimum, and for this one, that approach is in all likelihood the only way to keep a review manageable, comprehensible or remotely sand. Very briefly, the opening finds a race conquered by an evil interstellar empire, with their very planet turned into a giant war machine. They use their arts to send eight seeds into space to summon heroes to avenge them, while the mobile planet hurtles toward Earth. The space seeds find their way to an impressive assortment of misfits, including an unbelievably irritating pair of rocket drag racers, an even dumber but mildly entertaining young heiress trying to become a daredevil, and a general who has resigned his commission after giving a military funeral to a robot. After more hijinks, quarrels, betrayals and space chase/ battle sequences than anyone could keep track of, the surviving heroes go on a daring mission to rescue the remaining natives and fly inside the empire's base to destroy it from within.

The most interesting thing about this film is that it was made in 1978, among the very earliest Star Wars ripoffs/ knockoffs, close enough that the film makers could have gotten a benefit of a doubt if they had laid claim to an earlier origin of the project. It also copies other Japanese films as egregiously as it does Star Wars, which from what is now known about Lucas's influences makes it feel less like a ripoff than a rebuttal. On this vein, the movie allows a grim tone that was largely suppressed from the original trilogy, complete with several kamikaze-style attacks. The dark overtones are heaviest with the character arc of the general, played by Vic Morrow, who manages to get convincing weariness out of a performance that could just as well be that of an actor wishing he could have gotten any other role. His high point is surely a completely surreal duel with a minion of the emperor, played out with a disconcerting combination of pathos, tension and possibly intentional humor.

But the one thing no discussion can avoid is the spaceship effect sequences, and the strangest part is how anachronistic they are. On one hand, the concepts and execution repeatedly prove more ambitious than the original Star Wars, to the point that they seem instead to anticipate the sequels then unmade, particularly the asteroid-belt chase in Empire and the flight into the Death Star core in Return of the Jedi. On the other, the feel and grain of the effects footage is so strangely dated that it literally looks like it could have been shot in the 1960s.

The high point by any standard is the aforementioned finale, in which the hot rodders race a trio of enemy fighters through a maze of tunnels leading to the main reactor (er, "furnace") of the empire's battle planet. The enclosed spaces are convincingly claustrophobic, while the opposition is reasonably competent. As a bonus, the villains prove to have had the foresight to put in several doors to block the tunnel, leading to a quite clever three-way showdown between the heroes, a final fighter and a lowering door. Of course, it all ends with a series of explosions that destroy the enemy base, with a final touch of melodrama as the last of its original inhabitants race to escape.

Ironically, the one thing where this movie inarguably matched Star Wars was in selling toys. A number of toys and models were released in Japan, which now sell for preposterous amounts when they turn up in US markets. The most elaborate found its way to the west as an especially incongruous entry in the Shogun Warriors line, consisting of the Millennium Falcon Liabe and two detachable hotrod ships. In a final twist, versions of the Liabe and one of the hotrods found their way into an immortal line of arcade-prize toys currently sold by Rhode Island Novelty Co. I had an assortment of these ships for ages before I realized what they were based on a chance sighting of a pic of one of the Japanese originals, ultimately a major reason I looked up the movie. Here's a pic of the pair, which should be covered in far more detail sooner or later.

If all of this sounds like an attempt to put the film in the most favorable light possible, it's because the final verdict remains unavoidable: Even with the most generous allowances for a movie made in another time and a very different culture, this movie is simply and absolutely terrible, and the nails in its coffin are not the inferior effects but the convoluted story, mostly unlikable characters and especially the unspeakable leading actors (apart from Morrow, who can barely be counted based on screen time). Yet, it has enough energy to be entertaining at first viewing, and creative enough to remain intriguing on further review. There are by all means better "runner ups" to Star Wars, including several I will certainly get to, but no this is the one that is essential for any overview. Not that you have to look forward to it.

For links, here's my own most direct introduction to the film, a review video by Cinemassacre's Mike Matei. And here's a link for an Introduction to this series.

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