There was once a little “science fiction fairy-tale” flick called Star Wars, which came out of nowhere, changed the face of popular entertainment forever, and made dumptrucks full of money. In its wake were some of the most astonishingly shameless rip-offs ever made, many of which are known to and beloved by bad-movie fans and almost nobody else. What to make of Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash (starring David Hasselhoff, no less), as cheesy as the 1980 Flash Gordon and with even less regard for little things like continuity and the laws of physics? Or Turkish cult star Cunyet Arkin’s infamous The Man Who Saves the World, complete with effects shots stolen intact from George Lucas’s movie? Or Os Trapalhões na Guerra dos Planetas, a Brazilian shot-on-video monstrosity that’s so bad it’s actually entertaining?
The list does go on, and as you can imagine the Japanese got into the game as well. Future Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku had a massive hit on his hands in 1983 with his flashy updating of the samurai classic Hakkenden, but back when Star Wars exploded he jumped on that bandwagon with Message From Space — which was the exact same story as Hakkenden, just transferred to a vaguely Star Wars-ish setting and decked out with truckloads of special effects tinsel. I saw it again recently, and what amazed me is how it’s actually more entertaining in a goofy, unpretentious way than Lucas’s miserable follow-up prequels.
And then there was Jun Fukuda’s War in Space…or maybe not. War has been lumped in with these other items mostly by proxy, and less because it actually apes Star Wars in any major way. It’s actually closer in spirit to Toho’s other tokusatsu (special-effect) productions like the Godzilla series, or Fukasaku’s earlier space-monster production The Green Slime, but it doesn’t have the nutty, unhinged appeal of any of those films. It’s terribly square and therefore that much less interesting. Some of the modelwork’s actually pretty impressive — fans of this sort of thing will have fun watching the cityscapes and spaceships blowing up — and some of the set and costume designs are as much inspired by 2001 as Star Wars, but such moments are sandwiched between amazingly dull segments of people sternly telling each other how bad things are.
There is a plot, however tenuous, and it involves the creation of a space force to combat some alien menace coming from the planet Venus. They pilot a giant ship that seems to have been vaguely patterned after the vessel in Yamato / Star Blazers, with the inclusion of a hilariously goofy-looking drill mounted on the prow (it’s actually some kind of escape capsule, but never mind). The one inspired (read: genuinely funny) moment is when aliens take a female crewmember hostage; the creature holding her leash is a dude in a Chewbacca suit with yellow horns and a giant battleaxe. That and the alien spaceships are patterned after Roman warships right down to the oars — sorry, laser guns — sticking out the sides, but that seems more due to general creative bankruptcy than anything else.
One of the side effects of the DVD explosion is something that I have written about before, many times, and will no doubt mention again in the future. For every Bad Timing or Aimless Bullet — films that have gone almost entirely unknown and unappreciated, and are more than worth seeking out by non-cult audiences — we get ten movies like War in Space, which are basically ephemera. Something of the same thing happened when the compact disc first appeared. Music conglomerates that had spent the last decade or so merging and buying up every bankrupt indie in sight now had a wealth of back-catalog stuff to reissue (much as it has been in the movie industry). Albums that had languished in mostly deserved obscurity found themselves getting snapped up, dusted off, and reissued as “lost classics” whether or not they deserved the recognition at all.
Put it this way: There are so many genuinely good movies that never got the audience they deserved, and that are now available thanks to DVD, that it feels almost shameful to dig up and celebrate bad movies just because they’re bad. War in Space is not the worst thing out there by a long shot, and for some people that’s going to be all the more reason to not bother.