Okinawa 2016 Review: Miike's TERRA FORMARS Is A Sloppy, Silly Bug Hunt
Miike Takashi’s live-action adaptation of Yu Sasuga’s popular manga series is a star-studded affair but stretches a wafer thin plot to breaking point. The high concept sci-fi adventure quickly descends into a repetitive series of violent scuffles and bizarre mutations as a ragtag team of outcasts head to Mars to battle an army of giant anthropomorphic cockroaches.
The year is 2599 and Earth is facing a serious overpopulation crisis. Fronted by the mysterious Dr Honda (Oguri Shun), a crew of convicts, outcasts and reprobates are hired to participate in a dangerous exploratory mission to Mars. 500 years earlier, scientists sent multitudes of cockroaches to the Red Planet, in an attempt to create a breathable atmosphere so humans could colonise it. However, two years ago the six members of the BUGS 1 mission all died shortly after arrival.
The expendable crew of BUGS 2 has been sent to investigate, only to discover the cockroaches have mutated into hulking 7-foot beasts with a penchant for decapitation. The crew learn they have each been injected with an experimental serum that temporarily mutates them into different insects, giving them use of their various defense and attacking characteristics. However, the sheer size and number of the cockroach “Terra Formars” means the battle is far from won.
Director Miike Takashi is best-known for his outrageous j-horror films such as Audition and Ichi The Killer, but has tried his hand at a number of different genres, including kid-friendly fare like The Great Yokai War and Ninja Kids! Terra Formars falls somewhere in between, maintaining a breezy cartoonish tone, in keeping with its manga roots, albeit with frequent outbursts of gooey violence as one by one the crew meet their untimely ends. In many ways the film is most reminiscent of Miike’s high-school brawl flick Crows Zero, as plot is quickly dispensed with in favour of scene after scene of violent clashes to the death. Miike blends goofy cgi effects with rubbery practical make-up, inevitably evoking the likes of Ultraman and Power Rangers as much as something like Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.
Once the high-concept premise has been put in place, there is precious little plot to Terra Formars beyond scientific infomercials into the various insect characteristics adopted by each character, and occasional flashbacks or expository monologues detailing how each character got to be on this apparent suicide mission.
Ito Hideaki and Takei Emi play Shokichi and Nanao, siblings both accused of murder, only for Nanao to become the first victim of the alien bugs, infusing Shokichi with a vengeful determination. Other crew members include a pair of yakuza, a serial killer, the head of a child prostitution ring, and a hapless kickboxer. Kikuchi Rinko cameos as a corrupt ex-cop along for the ride while Kane Kosugi also appears as a former terrorist. Needless to say, the nefarious powers-that-be back home ensure not all is as it seems and by the end, characters have been double crossed, romantic yearnings declared and newfound friendships formed.
Yu Sasuga’s manga has proved incredibly successful, spawning numerous spin-off series and animated adaptations already, but has also faced fierce criticism for its racist undertones. On the page, Yu’s cockroaches appear unmistakably as ethnically black, even appropriating gangsta posturing and accoutrements. Meanwhile, Yu’s protagonists, looking to wipe out these “indigenous” tribes and colonise the planet for themselves, are portrayed as strapping Caucasian crusaders. Thankfully, Miike’s version steers well clear of this particular mine field, modifying the look of both the Terra Formars and downplaying any themes of colonisation.
However, despite these noble efforts to right the wrongs of the source material, Terra Formars is conspicuously lacking in substance or much of an emotional core. Individual action sequences or imaginative mutations work on their own, but after 100 or so minutes, the formula gets a little tiresome. Clearly events are left unresolved enough for a sequel to be on the cards - and Miike’s film leaves a lot of the manga’s storyline uncovered - but as it stands, this first offering has only limited appeal.