My notes on Takashi Miike’s lively Terraformars Based on a manga by Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana which has already spun off an animated TV series, this colourful space opera is plainly one of Takashi Miike’s straight-up commercial projects (cf: Ace Attorney, The Great Yokai War) rather than a personal project. Like much of the prolific director’s work, it’s dazzling for about an hour … and then a slight air of monotonous amazingness sets in. That said, I enjoyed it a lot more than the very messy Yakuza Apocalypse – and you have to admire someone who can make something as intimate and well-wrought as Over Your Dead Body then turn out a splashy fun effects-driven picture like this. For audiences unfamiliar with the source material, there are enough surprises to make the storyline less predictable than usual in the grunts-vs-bugs genre – characters who seem set up to last the distance and actors with an international profile aren’t immune from being killed off early, though as often in comics-derived stories deaths don’t necessarily mean being written out of the picture.
In the 21st century, a long-term project to make Mars habitable for humanity involves sending probes with hardy moss and hardier cockroaches to the Red Planet. Five hundred years later, the planet has a breathable atmosphere and – thanks to the greenhouse effect – a temperate climate … and outrageously camp mad scientist Ko Honda (Shun Oguri), the sort who has a paisley-patterned Blade Runner flying car to match his coat, is in charge of a program to send selected expendable felons to Mars to get rid of the insects so the colonisation can begin. This makes for a Dirty Dozen-ish crew commanded by straight-arrow Lee Marvinish captain Dojima (Masaya Kato) – mostly with sketched-in backstories. Cockroach-hating tough guy Shokichi (Hideaki Ito) nobly taken the blame for a justifed murder committed by his sister (all the synopses say – though I thought she was his girlfriend) Nanao (Emi Takei) only for her to wind up on the convict crew, along with spaghetti western-look revolutionary God Lee (Kane Kosugi), disgraced ex-cop Moriki (Rinko Keikuchi) [NB: in the comic/anime version, this character is called ‘Victoria Wood’, which might have seemed odd in the UK], hacker Hiruma (Takayuki Yamada), an illegal immigrant (Rina Ohta), some yakuza wannabes, a hooker (Eiko Koike), a slum-bred kickboxer, a slavering serial killer and others.
On Mars, the mission turns out to be more of a challenge than expected because the roaches have evolved into humanoid giants – who look a little too cartoonish (a bit like the Tick) to be really menacing, but have some disturbing moves (superspeed attacks, tsunami-like swarms) and a nastily ironic way of getting back at humanity after centuries of oppression by stamping on people and squashing them. Ko, of course, knew all about this and infused the astronauts with the DNA of other insects, which mean they can temporarily transform into semi-bug form to draw on the attributes of specific species (cue mini-entomology lectures) which can breathe fire, exert control over other bugs, wield deadly stings or recover from almost any mortal circumstance if a little water is sprinkled over them. So it boils down to bug-on-bug battles against a vivid Martian landscape, with mini soap opera backstories – and traitors in the crew, schemes and counterschemes back on Earth (Rila Fukushima is crucial as Ko’s slinky assistant), surprise developments (one of the cockroach giants is seen using a mobile phone to liaise with the Earth baddie), tragic turns (the first death is a real shocker), a deus ex machina involving fire-moth DNA, too many fights to follow, the cartoonish shrill humour which sometimes overwhelms Miike’s films (but is relatively minor here), nice costuming and design for the transformed humans, odd nods to other s-f movies (Alien, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers) and a decent pace.