'TerraFormars': Film Review

Courtesy of Intercontinental Film
Time for a can of Raid.

Genre-jumping director Takashi Miike sets his sights on outer space for a comic book adventure set on the red planet.

Mars is having a moment. Following the unfairly pilloried John Carter, the success of The Martian and the announcement Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars for Spike TV, the red planet has become a hip entertainment destination. Not to be left out of this space race, prolific and often challenging Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Over Your Dead Body) adapts what is essentially volume one of 20 in Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana’s popular 2011 manga TerraFormars. Loaded with info dumps and squelching human-alien fights while somehow managing to say next to nothing and be oddly static, TerraFormars wastes a great opportunity for some knuckleheaded fun by failing to hit either its comic or suspense beats. After its bow at the Okinawa Film Festival in late April and general release in Japan, the film should generate moderate interest in Asia from the source material’s existing fan base, but is otherwise likely set for the niche festival circuit where Miike’s name above the title carries weight.

Beginning in Tokyo of 2597 when populations are out of control and resources are depleted, things start fairly strong despite the familiarity of a ’roided out Blade Runner world. That’s just the first of many sci-fi conventions and imaging that creep up — from the stormtrooper uniforms to the" lost" first missions of Sunshine and Event Horizon and the bug hunts of Starship Troopers. Alien references are a given. After a police chase, lower class Shokichi (Hideaki Ito, Miike’s Over Your Dead Body) and Nanao (Emi Takei) are offered a way out of jail time for an as-yet unmentioned crime. Eccentric scientist Honda (Shun Oguri, in full J-Pop star mode) proposes they go to Mars to eliminate the so-called cockroaches that were sent there years earlier to create a breathable atmosphere (the less said about the science the better). Naturally, the crew of BUGS 2 is composed of the requisite thugs, psychopaths and shut-ins needed for any story like this. Among those are pugilistic Jin (Tomohisa Yamashita, kind of a Takuya Kimura-lite), a mysterious hacker Hiruma (Miike regular Takayuki Yamada) and God Lee (Kane Kosugi), a nearly unkillable veteran of the Middle East wars (wait, what?).

All is not what it seems on Mars, as the cockroaches have since mutated into muscular, gleaming giants, fully evolved to have arms, legs and bugging eyeballs as well as a murderous disdain for humanity. The first 30 minutes of TerraFormars is defined by a series of sloppy, expositional conversations that lay the groundwork for the story such as it is. The last repetitive 80 minutes are a series of sloppy, tension-free fights that are as cartoonishly violent as they are dull. Honda has equipped the crew with their own insect-based genetic enhancements for fighting the roaches, which opens the door to some gonzo effects and action. Despite moving at a reasonably brisk clip, the whole ordeal is somewhat inert, and in no way helped along by flat sound that only seems to exist outside a vacuum when Koji Endo’s by-the-numbers score kicks in.

The connection between colonizing Mars and wiping out its decidedly dark-skinned native residents, even if they were planted there, is an uncomfortable one at best, and charges of racism and xenophobia have been leveled against Sasuga and Tachibana’s comics in the past. To his credit, Miike has made the evolved cockroaches less overtly African-looking than in the books, but the specter lingers; they’re still dark-skinned as the most minor offense. That the roaches — roaches — are hulking brutes and often shot in the language of hip-hop posturing doesn’t help matters.

For all the misfires, TerraFormars nonetheless has the makings of an enjoyably silly space romp — or a truly harrowing space thriller — but Miike and writer Kazuki Nakashima can’t settle on a single tone and therefore wind up with none. Funny bits get dropped in at random moments, but there are so few they feel out of place. Suspenseful momentum is never left to build to critical mass and so stays diluted. The cast is a strong one, a combination of Miike regulars and faces recognizable to overseas audiences (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi as duplicitous Moriki, Arrow’s Rila Fukushima as Honda’s right hand), but they’re given so little in the way of character to work with they come off uniformly stilted.

Shot in Iceland, cinema’s new go-to location for alien landscapes, cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto paints a suitably Martian environment, but it is costume and character designer Yuya Maeda and makeup artist Yuichi Matsui who makes the most of their budgets. Miike hits his stride when Shokichi and company get to flex their insect superpower muscles for a seemingly endless parade of grotesque and creative roach kills and inject the kind of maverick energy into the proceedings viewers have come to expect from Miike but haven't truly seen since Hara Kiri five years ago.

Production companies: Terraformars Film Partners, Warner Bros. Pictures Japan
Cast: Hideaki Ito, Emi Takei, Tomohisa Yamashita, Rinko Kikuchi, Takayuki Yamada, Shun Oguri, Kane Kosugi, Masaya Kato, Eiko Koike, Mariko Shinoda, Kenichi Takito, Rina Ohta, Rila Fukushima
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Kazuki Nakashima, based on the manga by Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana
Producer: Misako Saka, Shigeji Maeda,
Executive producer: Hiroyoshi Koiwai
Director of photography: Hideo Yamamoto
Production designer: Yuji Hayashida
Costume designer: Yuya Maeda
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Music: Koji Endo
World sales: Gaga Corporation

In Japanese

Not rated, 109 minutes

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