Fantasia 2016 Review: Terraformars

I learned something from filmmaker Edgar Wright a long time ago, when he presented Riki-Oh! The Story of Ricky. There is a certain kind of narrative silliness in screenwriting that can only be labelled a ‘Why didn’t they do that in the first place?’ movie. Takashi Miike’s Manga adapted bug-hunt on Mars, Terraformars is ridiculous, grotesquely violent, card-board thin on both premise and characterization, and is a delightful second only to Riki-Oh, as exemplar of kind of film.

For several hundred years, the government has been terraforming Mars for colonization by importing significant amounts of moss and cockroaches to kick-start a biosphere and an ecosystem. Now that the planet is has the right climate for human habitation, there is the problem of getting rid of the bugs. To do this, a shady Tokyo executive, with an acute hair and fashion sense, is charged with hiring the scum of the earth – Yakuza, serial killers, illegal immigrants, teen prostitutes (!), hackers, and crooked cops – to eliminate the infestation on mars. This being a Japanese science fiction film, they are of course turned into a transforming (a play on the title Terraformars) Sentai team, each with their own special super-attack and wikipedia introduction screenshot. You see, the bug problem is one of hyper-accelerated evolution, these are not trillions of tiny little squash-able critters that run from the light, but a more movie-friendly problem of highly evolved CGI super-roach-men that exist on the surface in hordes. This explanation is almost redundant, because the movie is content with reams of exposition to everything, important or not, two or three times, in the very definition of goofy excess; a recent Miike tic, that has evolved out of control not unlike the bugs here.

Miike’s Sukiyaki Django Western was, at its core, about story and image appropriation from one country to another, he’s done his fair share of remakes (including 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri) and his recent action nail-biter, Shield of Straw cheerfully pilfered the style and rhythm of Tony Scott. With Terraformars it is wholesale image-thievery of the science fiction of Ridley Scott.

The film opens in a Tokyo-sprawl version of Bladerunner (complete with the police driving flying Spinners), before moving into the aesthetics and plot points of Alien, Prometheus and even The Martian. No matter though, much of the homage remains second fiddle to Miike’s signature anarchy of ultra-violence. He has a CGI generated army of bugs that he can use as a World War Z zombie horde, a Power Rangers group melee, or a Street Fighter II one-on-one tango.

Interspersed throughout are Lost-styled flashbacks for the rogues gallery of ‘heroes.’ Some of these are distracting, because character motivation seems not the point here, but most of them are mercifully short, and the films nearly two hour runtime is not as punishing as many Manga adaptations.

The prolific director has never really stuck to any type of genre. He excels in mashing everything into a white hot ball of high-energy stupid. He still has a way with an image, borrowed or not, particularly the Verhoeven-esque odes to mangling the human (and bug) form, only utterly free of subtext. Plot (however dumb) always trumps any greater meaning, and trading-card imagery of each team-member tied to the attributes to a specific insect, only scaled to human size, yields satisfying dividends: A man-bug acting as a jet engine, razor sharp limbs, stingers and high leaps abound. A rare slow moment of a glow-moth dropping dust-like scales over a field is striking, but in true Miike form, simply a gangster enjoying a cigarette on the Red Planet is actually the films most simple and memorable image. Yakuza on Mars, people – he got there.

The movie is first and foremost an expensive looking lark. Certainly not high art, but nevertheless a surprisingly enjoyable time-waster with friends (or midnight cinema excursion.) Be warned, the original Manga has a dozen issues, the movie doesn’t resolve much of anything in the end, and Miike is not adverse to a sequel (or two) when the mood strikes him. Terraformars 2 might be arriving in cinemas in short order.