Swords of the Space Ark (1981)

(aka, Message from Outer Space, Space Ninja)

One of the first cloned copies of Star Wars which came out after the release of the George Lucas classic was Message from Outer Space, a strange and colorful Japanese film whose most memorable element was its spaceship in the form of a square-rigged sailing vessel, complete with sails.

While here in the U.S. it was just a barely noticed bit of Star Wars flotsam which appeared on the crest of the wave for a brief moment only to vanish again, resurfacing on television every now and then, it must have made more of an impact in Japan as they decided to remake it as a TV series.

Or was the series intended as a sequel to the movie?  I honestly don’t know.  It’s not like the two have much in common.

Whatever the case, it got repackaged and marketed in the United States as a TV movie, and reduced from twenty-seven half hour episodes to…an hour and a half?

That’s a pretty big editing job.

The funny thing is that it mostly works at that length.  I recently read an interview with Michael Part who re-edited several of these series (and did a little work on this one) who said that these shows were structured with a few important episodes at the beginning, a few in the middle, and, of course, the big payoff in the last few.  This made it fairly simple to pare these down and turn them into a movie which was just the right length for a video tape.

Although I have my doubts.

The other important thing to remember is that, to do this, the American producers had to write an all-new script to tie it all together, which might or might not be that close to the original.  If you read the plot descriptions for the series version, Uchu kara no messeji: Ginga taisen (Message from Space: Galactic Battle), it really doesn’t sound that much like the movie.

But then, it is hard to write a summary of twenty-seven episodes.

It isn’t that hard to spot the Star Wars influence, even if they might not have seen Star Wars before they made this film, as appears to have happened with a lot of these early Star Wars rip-offs.  We have a brave (and only mildly mercenary) space pilot and his gorilla-man copilot; the young hero whose family is killed by enemy soldiers; a beautiful Princess; a wise but powerful mentor; a villain who destroys an entire planet; and a final complex battle pitting space fighters against the Evil Lord Roxia’s fortress.

The details, of course, are different.

Rather than an elderly desert hermit, the mentor, is a beautiful woman in flowing white robes who can appear and disappear whenever she likes.  The Princess is a Princess, but she only makes a few scattered appearances and isn’t set up as the love interest of any of our heroes, not even the Gorilla (at least not in the movie version).  The pilot isn’t a smuggler.  And his co-pilot looks less like a Wookie, and more like a man in a Gorilla mask with a cigar hanging out of his mouth.

Who just happens to love banana Daiquiris.

I’ll confess that I like the designs of many of the spaceships.  However, I have no idea how many of them were just recycled from the original Message from Space.  I know that Sophia’s deep space three-masted spaceship was in the earlier film, but I don’t recognize any of the others offhand, although it has been a few years since I saw it.

But I am absolutely certain that Roxia’s Fortress wasn’t in the original film.  I’d have remembered it.

After all, it is a spaceship in the shape of a giant statue.

Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncey.

The ship Sophia gives to our young heroes is almost as strange: it carries two fighters under its wings, but these wings can fold up for regular flight, leaving the fighters stored neatly on its back.

Although, if you think about it, they should be upside down when they are fully stowed.

But then, this isn’t one of those movies which stands up if you think about it too much.

Oh, well.  It’s brisk, it’s colorful, it has a lot of cool design work which probably ended up on countless children’s toys in Japan.  There are a few slow moments, and a lot of absurdities (like a single spaceship carrying away all the people on a planet, or the man with the self destruct mechanism built into his own cottage), but there’s plenty of action, complete with a helmeted and caped, black-clad number one henchman for the villain.

Or, in other words, it will be a lot of fun for those of you who love such things.

But the rest of you should probably avoid it…

(Full movie available here)

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And A Short Visit with Willis O’Brien…

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