Message From Space is a kitschy riff on Star Wars from Japan. It’s not a beat for beat retelling of Lucas’ film, but there are a lot of commonalities, including a John Williams-esque score, a plucky robot, characters named Hans and Meia, and a grand finale involving ships racing through a big space canyon in order to deliver the death blow to the bad guy’s base. The special effects are never up to Star Wars' level, but they're not too shabby in places either. To modern eyes the film might look cheap but it was evidently the most expensive film ever made in Japan up until that point. The ships are pretty cool looking, including one that does a bit of Transformers/Voltron action.

The cast is made up of actors unknown to me with two big exceptions. Vic Morrow  is on hand as an eccentric, robot-loving war hero. He takes his rather weird part seriously and does a nice job with what he’s given. Sonny Chiba is also here, in a smallish but important role, and he gets to do some energetic sword fighting in the final act.

My favorite thing about the movie is the production design, which was at least partially supplied by influential manga creator Shotaro Ishinomori (Kamen Rider, Cyborg 009). The multi-horned big bad, his robo-crone mother and their viking-helmeted henchmen are all really unique, totally visually divorced from the Nazi aesthetic of their Star Wars counterparts. I enjoyed spending time with the villains much more than I did the main protagonists, a quartet of shouty, snotty twenty-somethings who spend too much time making lame jokes and arguing.

Message From Space isn’t perfect by any stretch. It’s slight and derivative and silly. And it actually comes off as way more infantile than Star Wars ever did. I don’t even like it as much as Luigi Cozzi’s crazy Starcrash, which is more inventive and has more grindhouse charm. Still, it’s enthusiastic and surprisingly earnest for a blatant rip-off. It should make for a fun watch if you like vintage Japanese sci-fi/fantasy or are in the mood for a bit of epic, junky space opera.

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