Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Message from Space (1978)



          If you’ve ever wondered what Star Wars (1977) would have been like if George Lucas had stimulated his imagination by consuming massive doses of hallucinogens, then you should definitely check out Message from Space. A Japanese production with some scenes performed in English by Hollywood actors, this effects-driven fantasy/sci-fi epic comprises 105 minutes of complete brain-blasting weirdness. Individual elements within the film are straight-up crazy, and Message from Space unfolds at a frenetic pace while juxtaposing incompatible images with stream-of-consciousness abandon.
          Things get surreal right from the start. Out in space, some bizarre planet inhabited by tree people (as in, leaves apparently growing out of their bodies) becomes imperiled by the evil designs of a wizard/king/robot/whatever, so the chief of the tree people sends glowing seeds into space to find saviors. A princess from the tree planet also joins the search, zooming through the stars in a tall ship complete with oars and sails. Eventually, the seeds (and the princess) gather a band of “heroes” including a recently discharged military officer (Vic Morrow), a gang of interstellar hot-rodders, and others. All of this is set to a hyperactive music score dominated by a motif that’s blatantly stolen from John Williams’ score for Star Wars.
          Director Kinji Fukasaku shoots nearly every scene with the kind of ADD camerawork you might normally expect to encounter in a skateboarding video, and the movie’s production design suffers from a major case of multiple personality disorder. Some costumes and sets seem germane to a hippy-dippy fairy tale, some seem yanked from a medieval drama, and others suggest a disco-era gay-culture fantasia—seriously, what’s with the dancers flitting around in spangly g-strings and rainbow-colored crystalline breastplates? Yet describing the picture’s look doesn’t begin to communicate the strangeness of Message from Space.
          Consider the scene of Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan), who’s some sort of groupie associated with the hot-rodders, floating around in open space—wearing no protective gear except a ventilator—so she can catch “fireflies” that turn to rocks when captured. Or consider the long sequence featuring a Disney-style wicked witch who poisons several of the “heroes” so she can force the princess to marry her son—a giant monster with a lizard head who perversely threatens the princess with a laser whip until bad-guy stormtroopers intervene. And we haven’t even gotten to the villain’s Lady Macbeth-style mommy—she’s a heavily made-up ghoul/witch/zombie thing who tools around in a wheelchair that looks like it’s built from human bones.
          Morrow, the only recognizable Hollywood actor in the picture, strolls through the whole crazy mess trying to cut a dashing figure as a gentleman soldier, but his straight-arrow routine belongs in a different movie. (It’s hard to take Morrow seriously when he shares scenes with a grade-Z C3P0 knockoff named “Beba-2,” who spews lines like, “No robot can forget your kindness to robotkind.”) It’s no wonder that Message from Space has built a minor cult following over the years, because watching the movie from an ironic perspective—or while stoned—probably makes for a better experience than trying to accept Message from Space at face value.

Message from Space: FREAKY

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