In the summer of 1977, Twentieth Century-Fox released a (relatively) low-budget science fiction space opera with some great visuals, an engaging cast of young, up-and-coming actors combined with the talents of some top-notch veterans, and an all-around entertaining story. This of course was George Lucas’ STAR WARS and after its release, the face of science fiction films changed forever both in filmmaking technique and merchandising tie-in strategies.
Naturally, other film companies both in the United States and around the world jumped on the monetary bandwagon with a variety of similar films. One such film was Toho’s WAR IN SPACE (1977) which was a pathetic attempt hampered by an all-too-low budget and rushed look. The second attempt was done in 1978 from rival Japanese company Toei with a higher budget (reportedly $6 million dollars), some recognizable name actors (the late American actor Vic Morrow as well as American television actor Philip Casnoff and well-known Japanese martial arts star Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba and Tetsuro Tamba from the 1967 James Bond epic YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE), and an American release by a known company (United Artists). After years of being a no-show on region one DVD and subjected to horrible bootleg videos over time, the good people at Shout! Factory have released an official DVD release which should please most science fiction fans.
Steel-skinned warriors of the evil Gavanas Empire have turned the once peaceful planet of Jillucia into a military fortress. Kido (Junkichi Orimoto) sends out eight LiabeSeeds to search for those who can save their planet. Along for the ride with the seeds are Kido’s granddaughter Princess Emeralida (Etsuko Shihomi) and warrior Urocco (Makoto Sato).
Meanwhile, space roughriders Shiro Hongo (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Aaron Solar (Philip Casnoff) are frantically racing one another through an asteroid belt when they meet up with the brash and spoiled Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan) being chauffeured in another spaceship. After the ships collide and crash land on the planet Milazeria, the trio find the Liabe seeds, but are perplexed as to what they are. Eventually, General Garuda (Vic Morrow) with his robot companion Beba-2 and Prince Hans (“Sonny” Chiba) enter the picture and after the true purpose of the seeds is known, the forces of good battle the perils of evil in an entertaining if extremely absurd and goofy sci-fi adventure.
MESSAGE FROM SPACE was director Kinji Fukusaku’s second science fiction film for Toei featuring a largely Caucasian cast. His first venture was the MGM/Toei co-production of THE GREEN SLIME in 1968 and while many reviewers of the 1970s unfairly maligned the film as a cheap rip-off of STAR WARS, the film has developed a cult reputation over time. The miniature work is pretty good overall and the production design lavish and the whole film has the feel of an energetic 1940s serial. The acting is rather hammy, but earnest and all the American actors seem to be having a grand old time taking a work/vacation in Japan. Mr. Fukusaku would later helm the 1980 Japanese/American co-production VIRUS.
Shout! Factory’s DVD only (no Blu-ray release at this time) is very well done overall featuring good color and a fairly sharp image. The picture is in anamorphic widescreen 2.00:1. The Dolby Digital mono audio is also good and in English only. Some DVD collectors will probably be disappointed by the lack of substantial extras (such as the Japanese audio track), however the original United Artists American theatrical trailer is present, as are two different Japanese trailers (which give a glimpse of what the Japanese version is like, as well as some footage of Morrow and some other cast members at a Japanese press junction), a "Stars of Space" text section with info on some of the cast members and an extensive photo gallery. The liner notes in the disc’s accompanying booklet are by noted Japanese monster movie historian/author August Ragone (who also wrote the "Stars of Space" section) and Paul Macias.
All in all, Shout has done a pretty good job with this oft requested release. It may not be the perfect film or the perfect DVD release, but it is a solid 105 minutes of 1970s science fiction fun before the CGI era resulting from the success of STAR WARS took over the cinema forever. (Joe Cascio)
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