3 out of 5
Directed by: Takashi Miike
While I do think that Miike’s adaptation to the post V-cinema movie industry of Japan – which has meant more big money movies, less experiments – has logically resulted in less outright surprises in his films, there have also, perhaps, been a higher frequency of “great” Miike movies due to his decreased output. And there are surprises, they’re just more relative to the mass-appeal style of the flicks.
Case in point: Terra Formars, a completely average anime with some horribly lacking characters may maintain its doesn’t-do-anything-with-its-inspired-premise averageness, but manages to succeed, interestingly, on a dramatic front. That has been an interesting affect of Miike taking on more bright and shiny anime / manga adaptations: some overblown aspects are given a rather sincere and serious treatment. Audiences may not always warm to that (as with his JoJo movie), but I’ve found it to be a compelling flip-flop on how Takashi used to be considered a wild man of cinema, and is now taking already wild ideas and presenting them moderately straight-forwardly. This is also different from an American tendency to ‘grim and gritty’ things: Terra Formars is still a goofy movie as all get out, with people transforming into bugs and karate chopping mutant cockroaches, it just treats that like the new normal and kind of moves on.
In the future, when we have need to move off this planet, the first steps toward terraforming Mars are taken, and now a ramshackle crew of ex-cons and rejects are gathered by a scientist leading the project to check out the results. Alas, said results have mutated one of the critters brought to the planet – cockroaches – into massive, walking brawlers, who would seem to view humans as invaders upon their new home. Thankfully, our scientist was aware of this, and gifted the crew would experimental jolts of mutant bug blood which awakens specific bug abilities within each of them. So they can now bust cockroach carapace with slicers, or flames, or super-powered legs and fists, etc., and we watch a lot of that. Plot-wise, that’s… it. That was my problem with the show (no, I have not read the manga), and it definitely carries over here: a solid sci-fi setup is developed to the point of quirkiness and then it just stops. I guess there are some further twists along the way, but they feel half-hearted: we’re just reveling in the sight of upright bugs, which are pretty cool-ly designed (pretty direct ports from the source material), but do lack the weight of practical effects.
To bide the time inbetween bug battles, Miike (and Kazuki Nakashima’s script) circle around a pretty large crew, doing the one-beat ‘funny guy,’ ‘weird guy,’ bits, but also spending time giving us backgrounds, which start to underline the overarching theme of how they’re all “lower class” citizens – the cockroaches of their nation – recognizing that they’d not hesitate to smush a bug on planet Earth, and now there’s some just desserts in their treatment at the smash-happy hands of bugs on Mars. The movie actually gives these characters enough room to feel fairly defined, and I liked how unforgiving it was as well: no sooner has a “hero” character been established than their head is knocked off by a cockroach.
The balance between this stuff and the action keeps the movie ticking. Antes are upped pretty spectacularly throughout – there are a ton of cockroaches – and the humans’ insect ability reveals are spaced out so we always have something new to toss into an action sequence. This balance doesn’t overcome the limited storyline, but I had a lot more fun with the movie than I expected, given how much I didn’t enjoy the anime.