AKA TERA FOMAZU
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 108 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the 21st century, Earth is overpopulated so a plan is made to colonise Mars. It commences with the sending of algae to absorb sun light and purify the atmosphere, and then cockroaches who in turn will spread the algae as they feed. Five hundred years later, the planet has a breathable atmosphere and – thanks to the greenhouse effect – a temperate climate. However, the first manned mission loses contact with Earth. Scientist Ko Honda is in charge of a program to send selected expendable felons to Mars to get rid of the insects so the colonisation can begin….but when he and his motley crew get there, they find that the cockroaches have mutated into huge humanoid monsters.…
I was only thinking the other day that it had been a while since I’d seen a film from Takashi Miike, a really one-of-a-kind and astoundingly prolific filmmaker who I’ve become something of a fan of the last few years, largely due to Arrow Video’s releases of some of his early work. With most movie directors that I like, I make it my prerogative to track down and watch everything they’ve made, but if I began to do that with Miike then I’d struggle to do anything else, seeing as he’s so far made a hundred films if shorts and music videos count [and they actually constitute quite a small part of his ourvre]. In any case, Arrow have come to the Doc’s rescue with one of his recent efforts, Terra Formars, which I do remember hearing about and even seeing a trailer for when it was first released and thinking that it was Miike’s version of Starship Troopers, a film that he’s claimed is his favourite of all time [I’m pretty much in love with it too]. Indeed there are elements of that film in Terra Formars as well as shades of several other science fiction classics that you will pick up on immediately, but it goes down its own path quite quickly and you may be surprised how unpredictable it is in places. Based on a manga that became a TV anime series, it’s certainly a film that Miike took for the money [and maybe to keep busy], rather than being a project that he was emotionally invested in and therefore felt he had to make, and I have the feeling that many reviewers haven’t considered it very highly largely because of that. However, I must say that I had a lot of fun with this slightly tongue in cheek, really rather demented action adventure which is still full of the quirky touches that are a major feature of Miike’s movies, and felt that the only really serious thing that let it down were the visual effects and by dent the budget, which was a bit too low to do this tale justice.
So our narrator, whom you’ll hear from quite often, sets the scene and it’s nice for a screenwriter to have at least paid a bit of attention to how colonisation of a planet that in its current form would be virtually inhospitable for us humans could be carried out. It’s now 2997, and a moody saxophone plays in a makeshift bar through which Shokichi and his girlfriend Nanao are fleeing. It looks like we’re in Blade Runner again, and when that thought came into my head I therefore had to laugh when the next shot shows tall buildings with large advertisements on top of most of them while flying cars fly about in a recreation of one of the 1982 film’s most iconic shots. It actually looks quite convincing – in fact nearly all of the scenes set here do, which makes me wonder if they overspent on these bits and were therefore not left with enough to make the footage set on Mars [which is most of the film] as good as they could have been. Anyway, we now meet the camp Professor Ko Honda in his flying car with his female assistant, and he’s most amusing the way he goes on about his flashy yet stupid-looking jacket which nobody else seems to give a damn about. He’s behind this Dirty Dozen-like scheme to send a bunch of criminals on a dangerous mission. As well as Shokichi and Nanao, they also include a computer hacker, a disgraced cop, a serial killer, an illegal immigrant, a yakuza, a prostitute, a kickboxer [kickboxing is forbidden apparently], and others. There isn’t really room for deep characterisation even if this had been intended, but we are able to tell who is who even if we’re not sure of the names quite quickly. And flashbacks give us some background and certainly the reason for why some of these people are where they are, though said flashbacks are often rather randomly edited in and at times weaken the pace, though I guess it also adds some more suspense because you’re dying to find out why this or that person are on this mission.
There’s a bit of ‘human’ stuff such as some of the guys being lustful with the females, and come to think of it the interiors of the space craft looks pretty good too, if fairly generic in design. Once on Mars Captain Dojima has the bright idea of getting everyone to pair up [one of the women doesn’t want to work with a yakuza] and then go off in these pairs to explore. It’s not long before two of the humans encounter the first Terra Form, and the way it casually brakes the neck of one of the characters we’ve been led to believe will be predominant throughout the film is something of a shocker. These creatures are dangerous and nobody is safe, anyone could be next. However, the first sight of the Terra Forms is a disappointing let down because, while they’re okay in design, they just don’t look like they’re actually there. And the same can sadly be said for most of the subsequent Terra Forms, especially when attacking en masse where it just looks like we’re watching a fairly old computer game. The CGI that depicts them really is very poor indeed, not quite SyFy ‘quality’ but almost, and while I do like this filmmaker and have found things to appreciate in even the more ‘throwaway’ pictures of his that I’ve seen, I’ve never really understood his attitude to CGI. He’s seemingly happy to use the cheapest of CGI to depict things and, while I can understand defenders saying that this is done deliberately to provide a cartoon-like effect, I often just think of how much better some of these moments would be with practical effects because cheap, rushed practical effects rarely look as downright ugly as cheap, rushed digital effects. Saying all that though, at least they sometimes went with suits for when a small number of the Terra Forms are in close-up, though because they look so much better this jars with all the blurry digital creations!
The battles soon begin in earnest, though even if they looked actually present it would be hard to be frightened of the Terra Forms as they have this strange habit of standing around doing nothing so that our humans can chat or die or whatever, even though they show an ability to move incredibly fast if they want to. But this is more than made up for what the humans can do. Honda, you see, knew all along that the cockroaches sent to Mars were now something considerably different and considerably more dangerous, so he infused the visitors with the DNA of other insects. This means that they can temporarily transform into semi-bug form to draw on the attributes of specific species. Somebody given ant DNA, for example, possesses huge strength and a powerful sting, while others have the ability to breathe fire, exert control over other bugs in a very gruesome way, or recover from almost any injury or closeness to death if a little water is sprinkled over them. The transformations occurs while our narrator gives us scientific mini-lectures as diagrams appear on the screen, and things get even funnier when two characters are killed and our man says “it’s unclear why these two were only given the ability to underwater and underground respectively”. The outlandish designs of the transformed hardy look realistic but they do also look rather cool in a way that the Japanese are able to pull off so well, and you’ll be cheering for our insectoid superheroes as they do battle….and do battle….and do battle while heavy metal guitars play on the soundtrack….and just as the wire-fu and slow motion gets a little tiring, along comes a plot twist to liven things up and raise the stakes for the few humans left….and they really do get polished off in quick succession. It’s been done before, and some of the explaining doesn’t make much sense, but then would you expect it to in a film like this? Likewise, it hardly seems right to complain about an especially ridiculous deux ex machina moment during the climax.
I’d have been happy to have had two or three less fights and spent a bit more time with the characters which probably sounds like a flaw with the film, but it also shows how I did grow to like some of these people and care about them. Meanwhile there is a hell of a lot of bloody violence, but it mostly boils down to stuff like heads being knocked off, and there’s little actual dwelling on the carnage, though some Alien-like stuff with eggs and people bursting out from inside others [and then drying their hair with a hair dryer] is convincingly icky and the good practical work done here makes me wonder why the hell they didn’t let the team responsible do more of the film. Of course the dialogue tends to be of the nature of: “You’re pretty cool”. “You only just noticed”. “Got a man?”, but the film seems entirely aware of its silliness without degenerating into a full-on spoof. One moment when one character is upset that two females have just been killed and rages at the Terra Forms “I was looking forward to having fun with them. And you KILLED them” is probably chuckled at by everyone who watches the film, but if you think about it is also a very plausible human [well, at least male] reaction. The cast members generally all play the roles with the right spirit and certainly look like they’re enjoying themselves. Thankfully Rinko Kikuchi has one of the bigger parts and looks great in her goofy outfit, while familiar Miike face Hideako Ito really shows his acting chops in a few moments.
Similarly, I think that Miike enjoyed making this film even if it was for mostly commercial reasons that he opted to do so, and he does give us a few very nice shots such as the appearances of some pyramids [I’m not going to tell you why there are Giza-like pyramids on Mars in this movie because the explanation given is really half-assed, but does it matter?] in some mist. There’s no attempt at any Starship Troopers-like satire and social commentary except for one short dialogue scene in which Honda talks about how cockroaches hate us as much as we hate them and continually step on the lovely creatures, but I certainly didn’t miss it. The pace flags a bit in the final act where things that should be moving at fever pitch unfold in rather too leisurely a fashion – some cutting may have helped here. And the poor CGI certainly is a problem when there’s so much of it, though it’s a mark of how entertaining the film still is that it didn’t prevent me from enjoying it. With a decent budget, Terra Formars could have been something of a masterpiece of batty sci-fi/action. Even in the form it is, it contains just about enough evidence of the crazy mind of its director to make it well worth purchasing for both fans and those just after a good ‘beer movie’.
Arrow’s release of Terra Formars looks about as good as a film filled with lots of fake looking CGI can, and said CGI certainly looks very sharp and reveals that they spent quite a bit of effort into designing and even rendering the Terra Forms – they just weren’t able to integrate them into the backgrounds well. Some desaturation in many scenes seems intended. The colour palette tends to alternate from brown dominated to blue dominated. I found the sound mix a little flawed in places, especially with regard to the soundtrack. Those heavy rock licks during many of the action scenes could have come across more loudly in my view and provided more punch, but this is probably how the film sounded like in cinemas anyway.
A few minutes into the lengthy making of, I was intending to say that it would be a good experience to watch it before the film seeing as it was obviously shown just as it came out in cinemas, but then it started to give us some very major spoilers. Obviously the manga is very popular in Japan and therefore many there would know the twists and turns of the plot, but I can’t imagine that a lot of people would know them over here unless they’re real experts in the genre. But the piece is most definitely worth watching. After a small amount of footage from the premiere, we talk to the main cast members and see major scenes involving them being shot while also hearing a lot from Miike and traveling to Iceland where the ground was digitally put into the backgrounds. In fact one of the most interesting things is seeing what was digital and what wasn’t. There’s plentiful footage of cast members acting against nothing, but I was surprised to see that the shots of Tokyo included an actual set which wasn’t apparent to me when I watched the film. There’s much sound biting and praising of people, but a lot of substance too.
This is followed by five cast interviews where the same or similar questions are asked. Answers are usually very much on the ‘promoting of the film’ side, but you get a few interesting revelations. Apparently Miike originally intended to have each cast members represent a different nationality. The outtakes provide some of the expected amusement.
Terra Formrs will never be thought of as one of Miike’s major works, but then again it sets out to be nothing more but certainly nothing less than bloody good fun, and it’s great that Arrow have decided to include some special features for a film that I wouldn’t have thought would have received them. Recommended.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High-Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*Original uncompressed Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA options
*Newly-translated English subtitles
*The Making of Terra Formars – feature-length documentary on the film’s production featuring a host of cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage [87 mins]
*Extended cast interviews:
Hideako Ito [10 mins]
Emi Takei [6 mins]
Tomohisa Yamashita [10 mins]
Takayuki Yamada [8 mins]
Shun Oguri [12 mins]
*Footage from the 2016 Japanese premiere
*Outtakes [4 mins]
*Theatrical and teaser trailers
*Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork options
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Fully illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Tom Mes