Category Archives: star wars cash-ins

Message From Space (1978)

It’s largely forgotten today, but if you want to sit down with a kid and enjoy a downright insanely entertaining movie, Message From Space will certainly do. After those last two turkeys we watched for this blog, this was both a relief and a pleasure. This is a fun, fun movie, almost tailor-made for slow Sunday mornings for kids to watch on a UHF channel while Mom and Dad are still asleep.

You know how Star Wars is really inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress? This is a movie that doesn’t pretend. It’s The Hidden Fortress in space, gleefully pilfering its look and set pieces from Wars and running at breakneck speed with explosions and sword fights every five minutes. Anybody who’d get bored watching this film didn’t have an attention span in the first place.

The plot goes like this: evil space villains have conquered a peace-loving planet, and the defeated people’s ageing leader sends eight seed pods into space to recruit help. The baddies follow the trail from their region of space into ours, and while the seeds collect a rag-tag group of misfits to fulfill their destiny, the villains learn about the beautiful planet Earth and decide to conquer it next. Among its international cast, it’s got Sonny Chiba and Vic Morrow, and a young American actress named Peggy Lee Brennan in a role that looks like it was written for Suzy Quatro.

Our son adored this film, of course. I mean, if you like Star Wars, here it is again, only with old-fashioned miniature effects instead of computer-controlled one, and with a climactic sword fight that is roughly a billion times better than the one Dave Prowse and Alec Guinness had. It’s got both a Vader Villain and his creepy old silver-skinned mother in a wheelchair, beat-up and dirty little one-man spaceships, cocky hotshot pilots, a musical score that sounds a whole lot like John Williams, and a Death Star trench climax that’s pilfered straight from the original, only using about a quarter of the screen time and including giant doors in the tunnels that threaten to close right in front of the quasi-X-wings.

Bizarrely, my son took exception to one little bit of design. The whole affair is ridiculously sumptuous for what could have been a cheap knock-off. According to a book by Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, it was actually the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that time, and you can see it all onscreen. The costumes, sets, spaceships, and effects are all completely over the top and outlandish and I think they all look splendid, but for some reason he grumbled that the villains’ gigantic flying fortress – their Star Destroyer, basically – was “a hunk of junk,” and kept calling it that whenever he wasn’t whooping, laughing, or shouting “Oh my goodness, they’re killing everybody!”

So when the flying fortress meets its destructive end, he jumped off the couch in ecstasy, and bellowed “I TOLD you it was a hunk of junk!” He was happier about that than the downright amazing end for the chief Vader Villain, weirdly.

Message From Space sports a co-writing credit for Shotaro Ishinomori, a comic book artist who spent the seventies being consulted by lots of TV and movie producers in Japan, and collaborating on all sorts of shows that look incredibly fun and/or silly. This is absolutely a fun movie, one I was happy to revisit. It’s not high art, but neither’s Star Wars, and every six year-old in the galaxy should see it.

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Fugitive Alien (1978 / 1986)

In the 1970s, Tsubaraya Productions made several sci-fi television shows apart from their most popular franchise, Ultraman. I don’t think that any of these really need trouble your attention much. There was Mighty Jack, of course, and Jumborg Ace, and Time of / Army of the Apes, and the see-it-to-believe it Dinosaur War Aizenborg, in which cartoon characters save the world from live-action actors in dinosaur costumes. That would have been a silly series in the first place, but then somebody decided that these needed to be talking dinosaurs.

Recognizing that I’m not the best candidate to debate the issue, Star Wolf was probably the best of this unfortunate bunch of lousy teevee shows. The premise comes from a trio of novels by Edmond Hamilton. Centuries in the future – well, possibly, the English-language script is very, very questionable – some aliens led by Lord Halkon attack the Earth. One of their “Star Wolf” raiders, Ken, gets into a fight with his colleague about whether to murder civilians, goes rogue and joins Captain Joe and his crew to save the galaxy from his former allies.

Star Wolf ran for 24 half-hour episodes in the spring and summer of 1978. Regardless of the story’s origins in Hamilton’s novels from the late sixties, the show’s design was all Star Wars. There’s a Vader Villain, ships that look like X-Wings, other ships with the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit windows, laser guns, even a light saber in one tiny bit. It’s a derivative and silly kids’ show, but for all I know, the original series might not have been too bad. Some of the miniature work is really pretty good.

But we may never know whether the original program was worth a darn, because this wasn’t released in English by a company that knew to hire Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr to do the voices and edit out as little as possible. No, the English language rights to most of the seventies Tsubaraya shows were purchased by Sandy Frank, the source of all our pain, and if there was anything worth watching in Star Wolf, it’s not evident in what came next.

Fugitive Alien is a 100-minute compilation of the first several episodes of Star Wolf, and it is a breathtaking mess. The film was packaged and offered to UHF stations in 1986, and it is so incompetent that Mystery Science Theater 3000 did it twice, and watching it without Joel and the Bots is like a day without sunshine. The voice actors are probably Sandy Frank’s neighbors gathered around a condenser mic, the script uses “country,” “nation,” “planet,” and “constellation” interchangeably, people describe characters as not wearing space suits when they plainly are, that sort of thing.

Our son tolerated it. My wife went to the grocery store. He was attentive in the beginning, when Lord Halkon has ordered his forces to destroy all life on Earth – his forces just rob a jewelry store and steal some gold bars, so that command might have been a quirk of the Sandy Frank script – and paid attention again when Ken gets arrested on the Planet That’s the Middle East, but the forty-some minutes between them are ponderous talking scenes in office buildings. Well, Rocky tries to kill Ken with a forklift, so I guess you could say that something happens then.

Magically, you can tell from the costumes and design and cars that the original series, much like Ultraman, was set in the near-future, with technology we could imagine as right around the corner from the present day. So you’ve got average joes in 1977-78 clothes riding around in Jeeps watching slideshows and punching up information on TRS-80s talking about their centuries-old alliance with the Planet That’s the Middle East.

The film does have an actual ending, but it also says “To Be Continued.” I did not break my son’s heart when I told him I did not have a copy of Fugitive Alien 2 and that we would not be watching it.

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The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978)

I’m a nostalgic and forgiving kind of guy, and so I’m pretty certain that every single thing from my childhood that I loved as a child is something I can look at from the dull light of middle age and see what appealed to me when I was small. Then there’s The Return of Captain Nemo, which ran for three episodes on CBS in 1978. I saw the first two installments and loved that show like you wouldn’t believe.

This morning, we watched The Amazing Captain Nemo, a compilation movie made from the three TV episodes, whittled down from about 150 to 105 minutes. If I didn’t have my six year-old son hopping with excitement from the laser gun fights, underwater action, and explosions, I would have wandered away from this turkey to go play mublety-peg or something. I’d say that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve watched for this blog, were it not for the unfortunate reality that I know what we’re watching next week.

The Return of Captain Nemo seems to have come about because CBS was very much aware of bandwagons, but they were too timid to actually jump on any of them. In the spring of 1977, NBC showed a series of TV movies called Man From Atlantis. They starred Patrick Duffy as a comic book-type hero, with a former Batvillain, Victor Buono, as a recurring enemy. These were so successful that NBC ordered a weekly series, and CBS and Warner Brothers followed suit with an idea for a clone, even casting another former Batvillain, Burgess Meredith, as their show’s baddie. Captain Nemo was in the public domain, and while Irwin Allen had left weekly TV production behind for big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, he knew how to make bottom-of-the-sea television without a lot of money, so they asked him to produce it.

Then Star Wars happened. Suddenly Burgess Meredith got an alien robot henchman and a lot of golden androids. The important rooms of his submarine, the Raven, got turned into black-curtained “limbo” sets like everywhere in the third season of Batman so the set designer could spend money making all the corridors into Death Star hallways to stage laser gun shootouts.

Then Man From Atlantis died as a weekly series. CBS decided that they maybe only wanted three episodes, and called it a pilot mini-series. The mini-series flopped, and Irwin Allen and Warner Brothers got to make a little money back by turning the three hours into a film version, cropping the 4:3 picture into widescreen. The three-part version has apparently never been screened anywhere since an April 1981 broadcast in the UK; the film is the only way to see it. Only Irwin Allen completists need bother.

I’m assuming some of the intricacies must have been lost in the editing, because the speed with which the kind and patient Nemo works out a deal with naval intelligence to be their go-to man to battle the evil Professor Cunningham is really the most amazing thing about this movie. We never learn anything about Cunningham’s alien buddies or weird technology, Lynda Day George is present only because if she wasn’t, there would not be a single female character in this movie at all, and Atlantis itself is treated as a mild curiosity and depicted with a no-budget-at-all white set with two Greek columns. All of the dialogue is hilariously macho – “I’m going alone,” “no time for explanations,” etc. – and the two action man leads, played by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, look like they were cast because there weren’t any cop shows that needed them that month.

But holy anna, our six year-old loved it. He was hopping up and down and shouted “This is AMAZING!” at one point. He liked the underwater gunfights so much that he’ll probably pass out when he sees Thunderball one of these days. He did creep behind the sofa at one point when Captain Nemo was captured and Cunningham uses one of those mind probes you see in sci-fi shows to get the equations and blueprints for the Nautilus and its laser(!) from his brain. We’ve seen Captain Nemo in four films now, and this is the most ridiculous thing to happen to him in any of them.

And it was always thus. In the seventies, my parents were good friends with a fellow named J.D. Faulkner, who always confused me by being unmarried. My folks knew nine thousand people and I swear J.D. was the only bachelor among them. He always arrived unannounced, and one terrible Wednesday – March 22, 1978 – he showed up raving about this restaurant in Marietta, insisting that Mom and Dad drop plans and join him there. It is perhaps amazing that I grew up loving food and restaurants as I do after what happened next. This insidious trip to whatever that restaurant was – my parents never admitted its name under interrogation – cost me the third episode of the show, but I guarantee I ruined their meal by whining about it. I started crying because the second part had a cliffhanger ending. I mean, it said on the screen “TO BE CONTINUED,” so that meant my parents were obliged to let me see what happened next.

Somehow, in that strange logic of six year-olds, I concluded that the cost for missing part three of The Return of Captain Nemo was twenty-four dollars. My father agreed to pay it to shut me up, and I ate my spaghetti in silence. It wasn’t even good spaghetti. Mom made better spaghetti than this. Mom made, and continues to make, better spaghetti than anybody else on the planet. I don’t know why I ordered it.

Then my dad refused to pay the twenty-four dollars. Then there wasn’t an episode four of The Return of Captain Nemo. Somehow I didn’t become a serial killer.

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The $tar War$ Ca$h-Ins: Introduction

Star Wars was first screened on May 25, 1977, although, as was common in those days, it was many, many months before everybody got to see it. I turned six that December. I still hadn’t seen it, though of course I’d heard about it. Everybody at school claimed to have seen it, or to have a cousin who had seen it, but got all the details of the plot wrong. We had bubble gum cards and coloring books and other legitimate merchandising long before anybody in the suburbs of Atlanta really saw the movie.

The reason I know I hadn’t seen it by my birthday was simple: I got my first three Star Wars toys at my birthday party and none of my friends had any idea who the characters were. But rest assured that the Sand Person and the Death Squad Commander had all kinds of exciting adventures in their Land Speeder on the den floor until I got some action dolls of characters with names for Christmas.

Knockoff toys showed up by the truckload almost instantly. Old Captain Action figures were repurposed, swords were made from glow-in-the-dark plastic, and there were wind-up cute robots on every desk in every school. As far as cash-ins go, the space age had begun. The movies weren’t far behind.

Regular readers know that most Sunday mornings, we watch a movie together. Beginning June 11, we’ll be watching eight of the most blatant of the $tar War$ Ca$h-Ins, in what I believe is the order they were released. This won’t quite be a comprehensive study of the form, but I think we’ll have a lot of fun. Here’s a short introduction detailing a few high points, or low, about what we have already seen, won’t be seeing, or will watch a little later down the road.

September 1977: Space Academy
We’ve already watched this series. Filmation’s Saturday morning show Space Academy was already in pre-production with a number of plot elements and archetypes that predated Star Wars. It’s more like Trek than Wars, but the visuals, corridors, and space combat scenes are clearly influenced by Wars, and then there’s Peepo, television’s first cute R2-D2 rip-off.

December 1977: The War in Space
This dopey movie falls victim to this blog’s “pay for play” rule. I’ve never owned a copy, and it’s out of print and stupidly expensive, but it’s such a turkey I wouldn’t ask any of my mates, who’ve been making fun of it for twenty-five years, for a copy anyway. Nevertheless, it seems to be the first Wars cash-in to make it into theaters, even beating the original to screens in Japan. The story goes that Toho sent director Jun Fukuda and a big crew to California so they could see this allegedly game-changing movie that everybody in the special effects business was raving about. They were already at work on a sequel to the sci-fi film Atragon and changed course at breakneck speed to beat the American film into Japanese theaters. The result is a barely-coherent mess with some nice visuals, a Chewbacca clone, and a hilarious Darth Vader clone from the spherical star cluster which you Earthlings call Misty-13. That’s where they all live. Their world is far from here. They can go all over the immensity of the galactic system. It was released in America with a dub job so incompetent that it seems like an act of petty revenge. Go about eight and a half minutes into that link up above and marvel at the marbles in that guy’s mouth.

March 1978: The Return of Captain Nemo
Burgess Meredith has a strange alien henchman and silent golden robot allies to stage shootouts in the Death Star corridors of his submarine, and only Captain Nemo, freed from cryogenic slumber, can stop him! This TV series would have looked very different had its designer never seen Star Wars. Read all about it here.

April 1978: Fugitive Alien
The Japanese TV series Star Wolf had more than one influence on its look and feel, but its spaceships and bad guy came straight from the Lucas playbook. It was repackaged for American television as a compilation movie in the mid-eighties and people have giggled about it ever since. Read all about it here.

April 1978: Message From Space
Stay tuned for our post about this movie later this month.

July 1978: Battlestar Galactica
Stay tuned for our post about the theatrical movie, which preceded the TV series in some countries, in July.

September 1978: Jason of Star Command
We’ve already watched this series. Jason was actually an incredibly egregious and blatant cash-in, but it was done with such good humor that it was hard to object or take too seriously. Plus, Sid Haig. I really enjoyed how, in response to George Lucas explaining that his film was an homage to the cliffhanging serials of the 1930s, Filmation said “Yeah, we remember those, too,” and made the first season a sixteen-chapter serial just like Flash Gordon and his ilk. Then the next season, Filmation got the rights to Flash Gordon itself and made a sixteen-chapter cartoon out of it.

March 1979: Starcrash
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in July.

May 1979: Shape of Things to Come
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in July or August.

September 1979: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
We’re going to skip over good ol’ Buck for the time being as we have lots of other shows and movies to watch, but the first season is waiting patiently on my shelf to show my son when he’s just a little bit older.

December 1979: The Black Hole
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in August.

September 1980: Battle Beyond the Stars
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in August.

There were certainly other clones and cash-ins after this Roger Corman epic, but that pretty much covers the basics, and cheesy sci-fi eventually stopped being quite so blatant. For example, December 1980’s Flash Gordon wouldn’t have been made had Star Wars not been a hit, but it’s really its own thing, with Ming the Merciless reminding audiences he was the chief cosmic baddie long before Darth Vader. Another example: In 1981, comedian Rich Little starred in a family sitcom pilot – it wasn’t picked up – called Nuts and Bolts which would have been unremarkable were it not for the co-stars. Nuts and Bolts were cute robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Similarly, Star Wars‘ miniature work started influencing the BBC’s visual effects unit, most obviously in the opening shot of the Doctor Who serial “The Invasion of Time” in February 1978, and the series Blake’s 7, which was launched right around then, but we have to draw a line somewhere. In much the same way that discussing every spy movie is going to hit a wall where you’re discussing the movies that wanted to be James Bond on one side and the movies that were influenced by or were a reaction to Bond on the other, you have to stop somewhere.

One final note about cash-ins: one of my pals suggested we watch 1982’s The Man Who Saved the World – better known as “Turkish Star Wars” – and I’m tempted. Last year, Ed Glaser of Neon Harbor tracked down what is likely the last remaining 35mm print of this film and hopes to one day restore and release it. Yes, tempted is the right word. Drop us a line if you do, would you, Ed?

Image credits: Plaid Stallions, Flickr.

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