Terra Formars (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (17th April 2019).
The Film

Terra Formars (Miike Takashi, 2016) – a review of the new Blu-ray release from Arrow Video

Synopsis: During the 21st Century, humanity attempted to terraform Mars, making it suitable for colonisation. The plan was to create a greenhouse effect; to this end, a capsule containing fauna and a colony of cockroaches, whose endeavours would assist in the terraforming process, was sent to the ‘red planet’.

2597: In Tokyo, a couple – Komachi (Ito Hideaki) and his lover Nanao (Takei Emi) – are pursued by the authorities. They are captured and unwittingly become part of a plan by Professor Honda (Oguri Shun) to recapture the new Eden-like Mars from the evolved humanoid cockroaches that now populate it. Komachi and Nanao are placed with a group of misfits and outcasts – including, as Nanao puts it, ‘An ex-cop, two Yakuza, a serial killer, an illegal immigrant, the leader of a child prostitution ring, a reclusive hacker, [and] a terrorist. What the hell kind of criteria did they use to select us?’ The members of this group have been offered both their respective freedom and a significant sum of money if the mission to exterminate the humanoid bugs is successful.

However, after landing on Mars, this motley crew (of the ship Bugs II) discover that the evolved bipedal cockroaches, which the government have named Terra Formars, have immense strength and agility. To combat this, Honda tells the crew via a holographic video call, each member of the mission has been given a special serum that, when injected into their neck, will marry their DNA with that of a specific insect, thus giving them unique powers that will aid them in their quest to eradicate the Terra Formars. So, for example, one of the crew, the terrorist ‘God’ Lee (Kosugi Kane), finds his DNA combined with that of the miidera beetle, giving him the ability to shoot flames from a gland in the palm of his hand. Another, Captain Dojima (Kato Masaya), the leader of the mission, becomes a hybrid of human and paraponera clavata – the ‘bullet ant’ – and is capable of firing projectiles from his body, decimating any Terra Formars in close proximity.

After Bugs II is overrun by the Terra Formars and rendered useless, the crew realise that their only hope of escape is to use one of the landing vehicles to journey to the landing site of Bugs I; Bugs I was a similar ship that was sent to Mars a decade earlier but never returned. From the wreckage of Bugs I, they will be able secure the materials they need to repair Bugs II and take off for Earth. Near the site of Bugs I, the surviving crew discover pyramids, suggesting that the Terra Formars are more evolved than was previously imagined. However, the surviving members of the expedition discover they have been double-crossed by Honda, who is working in league with two traitorous members of Bugs II’s crew, Moriki (Kikuchi Rinko) and Ichiro (Yamada Takayuki). The crew of Bugs II are expendable: the real mission, with which Moriki and Ichiro have been briefed, is to return one of the huge cockroach eggs to Earth so that the Honda’s agency may find a way to weaponise the Terra Formars.

Critique: Miike Takashi’s Terra Formars is adapted from the manga by Sasuga Yu and Tachibana Kenichi. Before Miike’s live action version of the story, the original manga had already seen a number of spin-off stories and an anime series enter production.

Terra Formars has clear roots in Kamen Rider (1971- ) and that series’ initiation of the ‘Henshin Hero’ boom and consequent revolutionising of the tokusatsu. Where earlier post-Kamen Rider productions made use of a mixture of suits, prosthetics and stop-motion animation of the kind popularised in the West by Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (1993) and parodied in the likes of the Beastie Boys’ video for their song ‘Intergalactic’ (1998), Terra Formars belongs to the more recent group of tokusatsu productions which exploit the potential/s offered by modern computer-generated imagery. To this end, Miike’s picture mixes heavy use of CGI (for example, in its shots of swarming armies of Terra Formars approaching our heroes) with suits and prosthetics that seem intentionally ‘throwback’ and kitsch – offering a mixture of old and new that seems deliberately to look back to the roots of contemporary tokusatsu productions in Kamen Rider and its ilk whilst also pushing the genre in a new direction.

For the most part, at least initially, Miike’s film follows the basic plot of the source manga fairly closely, featuring a ship, Bugs II, which is launched to Mars in order to exterminate the Terra Formars. However, in the manga the Mars on which Bugs II lands is a rich, lush Eden – green and filled with fauna, the terraforming experiment clearly having had the planned impact. In Miike’s film, on the other hand, though we are told the terraforming process was successful (and indeed, the atmosphere on Mars seems utterly breathable), for the most part Mars looks much more like the stereotypically barren ‘red planet’ seen in so many other examples of film and television. In the Terra Formars manga, there is a hierarchy within the Terra Formars, with different types of humanoid cockroaches making their appearance – some wearing loincloths, others with evolved hair that resembles an Egyptian headdress (connected perhaps to the discovery of pyramids on the surface of Mars). Miike’s film repeats ad infinitum the same design/CGI model for its Terra Formars, the bugs seeming to be identical – giving them the appearance of a swarm rather than a structured/hierarchical society, and therefore making the Terra Formars more like a paradigmatic substitution for zombies in what essentially becomes a ‘base under siege’ plot. Miike’s handling of the material, then, is comparable to writer Ed Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven’s approach to adapting Robert Heinlein’s similarly-themed science fiction classic Starship Troopers to the screen in 1996 – attempting to capture the original author’s key themes whilst trying to contain or diffuse the elements that are potentially more difficult to realise visually, at least within the realm of a containable production budget (eg, Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers removed the powered armour featured in Heinlein’s novel).

The betrayal of the crew of Bugs II has seemingly deliberate similarity with the manner in which the Weylan-Yutani Corporation betrays the crew of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), enlisting them on what is essentially a suicide mission in order to bring an example of an extraterrestrial species back to Earth. (The cockroach egg that Moriki and Ichiro are charged with returning to Earth also looks strikingly similar to the xenomorph egg in Alien.) In both cases, the crew of the respective ship (Bugs II and the Nostromo) is utterly expendable. The premise of a motley crew of criminals and no-hopers who are railroaded into taking part in what is essentially a suicide mission has obvious parallels with Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) (‘We’re the Earth’s rubbish, being sent in a metal coffin to clean up Mars’ rubbish’, Ichiro observes early in the picture), and in its early Earth-set sequences Miike’s film adopts Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner’s depiction of the cities of future Earth as overcrowded, film noir-like and vertical in their structure. (This sense of overcrowding makes the prospect of ‘offworld colonies’, as they are called in Blade Runner, seem desirable, justifying the desperation that underlies the terraforming experiment on Mars.) As the film opens, Komachi and Nanao are depicted hiding out in the neon-lit city streets, flying cars (like Blade Runner’s ‘spinners’) hovering overhead whilst people are shown in a marketplace, consuming meals which consist of bugs (again indexical of overcrowding and a scarcity of resources). ‘With this world busting at the seams, the only hope for humanity is Mars. For humans to live there, the cockroaches must be eliminated’, Honda asserts early in the film. Terra Formars also riffs quite openly on Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, with its depiction of a group of elite humans who are sent on a mission to exterminate a race of bugs, and like Heinlein’s novel the Terra Formars manga has been seen as alternately (i) deeply racist (with its emphasis on extermination of a species of ‘bugs’) or (ii) a critique of racist attitudes (see Knighton, 2018: 148). ‘Exterminate the bugs and secure the future’, Honda orders the crew of Bug II. Mary A Knighton has suggested that the series’ ‘insect characters, with their replaceable and transformable “parts,” enable fantasies that play with racial and ethnic difference [….] The Terra Formars’s morphology and skin color have led to protests by some online fans: a darker race of humans is being equated with cockroaches, and then systematically killed off’ (ibid.). Like Paul Verhoeven, Miike is essentially an ironist and, above all else, a provocateur; and like Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers, Miike’s Terra Formars seems unwilling to distance itself from the accusations of racism that have dogged the manga, Miike preferring instead to offer a deadpan approach to the material that, like Starship Troopers, quietly satirises some of the attitudes in the source text (though, as with Starship Troopers before it, some may take Miike’s Terra Formars as a validation of the allegedly fascistic subtext within its source).

Despite oodles of action and a visually rich world, Miike’s film adaptation of Terra Formars is ‘bugged’ (the pun is sadly irresistible) by ‘factoids’ that interrupt the narrative: as each member of the crew of Bugs II injects themselves with the serum that transforms them into their signature human-insect hybrid, Miike freezes the action to present NatGeo-style facts – narrated by an offscreen voice over CGI imagery featuring the insects – about the creatures whose DNA has been used and their key traits which will carry over into special abilities for the human hosts. This device is arguably necessary, in terms of explaining the abilities which are given to each member of the crew, and in its first couple of appearances it mostly ‘works’; however, the novelty soon wears off and Miike’s use of this technique becomes arguably quite jarringly Brechtian within the context of a film that, for the most part, strives to draw the viewer into its spectacular story.


Video

The film takes up a little under 28Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc. The 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec and is in the film’s intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Terra Formars is uncut and runs for 108:55.

Shot digitally and featuring heavy use of CGI, Terra Formars looks very good on this high definition digital presentation, the digital file essentially being a compressed version of the source material (rather than transferred from an analogue medium). Many of the backdrops are digital, but in those sequences featuring real sets (and, of course, shots involving the actors rather than the CGI bugs) the lenses used during production seem to have been tack-sharp, with the almost clinical precision of, say, Zeiss lenses. Detail is very pleasing throughout and there’s a sense of depth and clarity to the image. Contrast levels are balanced well, with defined midtones and subtle tapering into the shadows combined with ‘even’ highlights. Certainly, there’s little evidence of the compressed dynamic range that sometimes marks digitally shot productions of this sort. There are no issues with the encode to disc.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.



Audio

Audio is, naturally, in Japanese via a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. This is rich and impactful, the use of the surround sound field offering an immersive experience. Bass is particularly strong. The optional English subtitles are easy to read and grammatically correct.

Extras

The disc includes:
- A ‘making of’ documentary (87:57). Beginning with onstage comments from Miike during an early screening of the picture, this extensive documentary focuses on the production of Terra Formars, in particular offering some insight into how the effects were achieved. An offscreen narrator helps to contextualise some of what we see, including providing backgrounds to the film’s cast and crew. Behind the cenes footage is interspersed with to-camera interviews with members of the cast and crew. The documentary is in Japanese with optional English subtitles.

- Interviews: Ito Hideaki (10:09); Takei Emi (6:52); Yamashita Tomohisa (10:40); Yamada Takayuji (8:16); and Oguri Shun (12:13). Presumably recorded at the time of the film’s original Japanese release, these EPK-style interviews feature principal members of the film’s cast discussing their roles in the picture. The interviews are in Japanese, with optional English subtitles.

- Outtakes (4:46). Outtakes are in Japanese with optional English subtitles.

- Trailers: Teaser 1 (0:32); Teaser 2 (0:52); Theatrical Trailer (1:35).

- Stills Gallery (11:40).

Overall

Carrying some obvious nods towards previous science fiction pictures, Terra Formars could be said to be Miike’s ‘Starship Troopers’: like Verhoeven’s film, it is based on a literary source and Miike’s approach to this material is laced with irony whilst also emphasising frenetic action. Somewhat clunky and with an uneven rhythm, Terra Formars is an entertaining film but far from one of Miike’s best. The CGI-heavy fight scenes, which make up a good portion of the film’s running time, mix various film speeds and with their mixture of live action and computer-generated backdrops and participants, ultimately resemble those in, say, Zach Snyder’s 300 (2006); whether that’s a selling point or not will depend on one’s tolerance for such techniques. The picture struggles to contain its story – including the main expedition to Mars, flashbacks to the ‘backstories’ of the members of Bugs II, and the betrayal of the crew of the ship – within its running time but nevertheless perhaps outstays its welcome and, with its heavy emphasis on action, would arguably have been a leaner picture with a running time closer to 90-100 minutes or so. The film riffs on recognisable motifs from previous science fiction films – most obviously, Blade Runner, Alien and Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers – and builds into this some nods to other genres (eg, the ‘convicts on a mission’ trope most often identified with The Dirty Dozen but also associated with numerous films about ronin, of the kind that Miike has pastiched with recent pictures such as Hara-Kiri, 13 Assassins and Blade of the Immortal). The relentless and seemingly senseless violence of the Terra Formars is underscored in the dialogue. ‘Why do they want to kill us?’, one of the Bugs II crew asks. ‘They don’t need a reason’, they are told in response, ‘Don’t we kill cockroaches for no reason?’

Ultimately, Terra Formars lacks the depth of some of Miike’s more memorable pictures, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film – just not a particularly impressive one. Certainly, fans of action, science fiction and the original manga will find the picture entertaining enough. Arrow’s Blu-ray release of the film contains a solid presentation of Terra Formars alongside some good contextual material: the feature length ‘making of’ documentary, in particular, is a fine inclusion, offering some fascinating footage of Miike’s on-set methodology.

References:
Knighton, Mary A, 2018: ‘Invasive Species: Manga’s Insect-Human Worlds’. In: Herman, David (ed), 2018: Animal Comics: Multispecies Storyworlds in Graphic Narratives. London: Bloomsbury: 139-60

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