Everyone calls it a Star Wars rip-off. It came out less than a year after A New Hope and there are enough similarities that it's clearly jumping on the same bandwagon, but to be honest I didn't think it felt particularly Star Wars-y. They're differently shaped stories and it's the differences (often very Japanese ones) that are often what's most entertaining about this film. It's messier and bittier, although it is theoretically operating on a similar scale.
It's also nowhere near as good. Star Wars is a landmark in the history of cinema and it gave birth to a multi-media juggernaut that's one of the world's three big SF franchises. (I'm probably being generous by including Doctor Who in that.)
Message from Space, on the other hand, spawned a 27-episode Japanese TV series in 1978-1979. I'll start going through the plot, to give you an idea of the similarities.
The (Gavonna) Empire has occupied the planet of Telusia and enslaved its people! They also have a black-clad emperor whom I'll call Darth Vader. Very different costume and make-up, but the same plot role. As well as having an Empire, this universe also has reassuringly familiar spaceship designs, not to mention the occasional "camera under the belly of the Star Destroyer" shot. We see the Telusian resistance, which includes Princess Emeralida, a beautiful Japanese lady in a white filmy outfit that's a bit like Princess Leia's.
You'll be reminded of Star Wars within the first second. It's the music. Sometimes Kinji Fukasaku is playing funky 1970s beats that would probably eat George Lucas's universe, but at other times he's shadowing John Williams so closely that you'll even know which piece is being ripped off. I'd need a rewatch to be sure, but I think it's what plays when Luke Skywalker's looking into the sunset on Tatooine.
So far, so Lucasy. It soon diverges, though. The film assembles a group of four youngsters from Earth, who could be called very loose approximations for Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. Two of them are a couple of hot-rodders who get in trouble with the police, crash their ship and end up borrowing money from gangsters and washing dishes in a bar. (I laughed my head off when the cop showed up, telling our heroes to pull over in mid-chase, by the way. Please, let that happen in one of the new Star Wars films. It would be the funniest thing ever.) Anyway, our four young "heroes" are:
1. Peggy Lee Brennan, who's giving a huge performance with overdone facial expressions. This actually works very well, because like all the other Western actors she's being dubbed into Japanese and so what she's doing is effectively silent acting.
2. Two young pilots with no personality, one of whom will briefly fall in love with Princess Emeralida. The film immediately forgets about that. The Japanese one is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who's since gone on to international fame and a successful Hollywood career.
3. A loudmouthed thug (Masazumi Okabe) wearing a snakeskin jacket (?) and a 1970s shirt with collars you could ski down. I think he's a gangster. He's certainly got the mouth and the attitude. He's got a comedy face, but he's also capable of selling out Princess Emeralida to the Empire. He's a significantly edgier character than Han Solo, who might have been a crook but was at least always charming and sympathetic. Okabe's someone you don't want around.
Anyway, these people get recruited by magic glowing walnuts. Yes, walnuts. The people of Telusia sent out holy walnuts to find mighty warriors. These magical food items track down our Earthlings (plus a just-retired general played by Vic Morrow), but unfortunately none of them are interested in the problems of some planet from two million light-years away. (Telusia appears to be in the Andromeda Galaxy, complete with reasonably accurate interstellar distances.) The Empire ends up recapturing Emeralida. Well, that's just too bad. Bye bye, sister. Well, that was unexpected. A significant amount of the film is just the misadventures of these not-very-heroic Earthlings, which is a big departure from Star Wars since no one's interested in war against the evil Empire.
...well, until Darth Vader decides to conquer Earth and flies Telusia all the way there from Andromeda. Were there really no closer options? Is Earth that special?
It all ends in a big space fighter battle that's not A New Hope, but Return of the Jedi. In 1983, could Kinji Fukasaku have sued Lucas? (Hint: no.) This is mostly random space pants, but it's given a bit of weight by the fact that this film's Death Star is actually the planet Telusia. Yes, the planet of the invaded, enslaved good guys. What? It's at the request of the Telusians themselves and technically it's no loss since the Empire had already turned the planet into a barren rock, but even so. Good news: they get the women and the children off. Bad news: Emeralida's grandad. (He gets a final speech that's the one scene where the film's finale comes alive and finds some power.)
Oh, and after Telusia has blown up, we're told that the "Gabanas Empire has been destroyed." Oi oi oi. I don't think so. The clue is the word "empire". I'm imagining a sequel in which a hundred planets arrive in the solar system and turn the Earth to rubble.
All that said, what's it like as a film?
The story is fairly negligible. I respect the fact that this film's protagonists are a lot more flawed than Lucas's, but it lacks narrative momentum and the finale's a mess.
The acting works far better than I'd expected. The opening credits gave me The Fear. They include quite a few American actors, often in main roles, but fortunately these aren't just random people dragged off the street who happened to be living in Tokyo. Vic Morrow, for instance, brings weight to the role of General Garuda. (Fifteen years earlier, he'd been nominated for a Primetime Emmy.) They also aren't forcing anyone to speak a language they don't know. The Americans just delivered their lines in English, then in post-production got dubbed. This works well and is very watchable.
The special effects can be... endearing. Amazingly, this was the most expensive Japanese film to that date. I can sort of see that and it is reasonably spectacular, but it still looks TV-like at times, e.g. the R2D2-a-like robot is a dwarf or a child in a BBC-level costume.
No, the most entertaining thing here is the visuals. At their best, they're mad and funny. However you can see many of them with a Google image search, which will save you 100 minutes' movie-watching. Nonetheless you've got to love the film's kabuki-like Darth Vader and his sinister elderly Palpatine figure (i.e. his mum), who looks like a cross between Doctor Who's Sisterhood of Karn and the Wicked Witch of the West. (I'm not joking, by the way. She really is his mum.) They've been painted silver.
There's a space ship that's an actual ship. It's got sails and everything. You can also go swimming in space without a spacesuit, just putting a mask over your face.
This film's Mos Eisley cantina has yakuza who drown people in quicksand, a robo-waiter with pink strap-on boobs and far weirder dancers. These wear eye-liner, g-strings and unisex metal bikinis. Some of them are boys.
Would I recommend this film? No. Would I watch it again? No. It's not very good. It can be funny to compare it to Star Wars, but I'm not sure that should really count. That said, though, Star Wars was famously borrowing from Japanese cinema (among its many influences) and so there's a certain kind of appropriateness to see that come full circle. It's a version of Star Wars with a post-militaristic mankind that's running away from conflict and quitting the army, for instance. "The last battle between planets ended the year I was born," says an actor who was born a generation after the nuking of Hiroshima. It's a bit surreal and it feels very Japanese in its eccentricities, but at the end of the day it's trying to be action-adventure and it's just not very good at it.
Really rubbish cheating from that soldier in the duel, by the way. It'll almost make you feel better about Greedo shooting first.