Film / Reviews

‘Terraformars’: Miike’s life on Mars has its bugs

by Mark Schilling

Now that voyages to Mars seem likely in the next generation or so, films about the red planet are moving beyond the “John Carter” (2012) space-opera stage. But for every reality-based “The Martian,” there is still a “Terraformars,” Takashi Miike’s latest extreme entertainment.

The original “Terra Formars” manga has sold more than 14 million copies in paperback editions since it first appeared in 2011. This makes for a lot of fans to please — and Miike and his collaborators have done their darnedest to satisfy them by stuffing the film with characters, back stories and pseudo-scientific explanations from the source material. If the result feels soap-operatic and static to non-fans, so be it.

But Miike being Miike, there is also plenty of action executed with black comic flair and full-frontal violence. There is also much repetition, with the film’s scary critters attacking in similar ways and in similar swarms. Were their makers economizing on the CGI?

Terraformars
Rating
Run Time 108 mins
Language Japanese

The story begins back in the ancient days of the 21st century, when scientists had the bright idea of terraforming Mars with a special type of koke (moss), using cockroaches to spread this new life around the planet. On reflection, they should have cloned Keith Richards to carry out this task, since 500 years later the roaches have become big, buff, implacably persistent monsters.

To make Mars habitable, the Japanese government secretly authorizes a sinister, gay scientist, Ko Honda (Shun Oguri), to mount a mission of human exterminators. A previous mission failed fatally, for reasons not clearly understood. To give the successors a better chance of surviving, they are genetically modified, with each receiving the special power of a certain insect.

The chosen 15, however, are a motley crew of social misfits and outright criminals, along with a jut-jawed captain (Masaya Kato) and straight-arrow second-in-command (Eiko Koike) tasked with getting everyone to Mars safely.

After lengthy on-board introductions of the various characters, including a former street kid/convicted killer (Hideaki Ito) who joined the expedition to protect his rebellious sister (Emi Takei), the ship finally lands and the exterminators venture out. The landscape around them looks barren, strange and sinister. And the inhabitants, called terra formars, are bug-faced, XXX-sized creatures genetically programmed to kill humans. The exterminators’ only hope of stopping a fatal roach infestation is to call on their inner insects.

Kudos to character designers Katsuya Terada, who refined the eerie/scary look of the terra formars, and the single-named Shohei, who made the space suits look sexy if a shade fetishistic (no doubt intentionally). Also deserving of praise is VFX supervisor Kaori Otagaki and her team, who created images of skin-crawling impact — or is that just my cockroach phobia speaking? As they say in Hollywood trade paper reviews, all of the tech credits are top-class.

The film itself, however, is hyper-talky, with a dulcet-voiced narrator, aided by CG-animated clips and captions, explaining the “insect power” possessed by each human warrior, somewhat like a role-playing game that displays the weapon and power rating for the player and his or her opponent of the moment. All of this is explained before the warrior truly joins battle with the terra formars hordes.

A gamer might be accustomed to the film’s stop-and-start rhythm, and a fan of the “Terra Formars” manga might easily absorb its flood of information, but this non-gamer and non-fan felt a strange mix of ennui and anxiety. It was somewhat like zoning out in high school biology class and then jerking awake to frantically scribble notes for the midterm.

Plenty of material remains for “Terra Formars II,” but I’m not sure how even Miike could make anything fresh out of it. If you’ve seen one extraterrestrial gokiburi hoihoi (cockroach trap), you’ve seen them all.