Takashi Miike is unlikely to get under anyone’s skin with Terraformars, the first live-action adaptation of Yu Sasuga’s manga series. A silly, misguided big-budget sci-fi actioner that might have worked better in the hands of a more conventional director, Terraformars isn’t likely to change the age-old wisdom that the book is always better.
Trapped between pleasing the commercial interests of the production committee and satisfying his own offbeat taste, Miike has produced something that his fans will think takes itself too seriously. At the same time, the film is too silly for fans of the original material, who can always turn to the anime version for a more faithful adaptation. Critics in Japan jumped on the film faster than you can say Attack on Titan, but both Miike and his cast are so prolific that the failure won’t destroy anyone’s career. Those familiar with Miike’s spotty batting average will quickly dismiss it as another quick cash grab for the prolific filmmaker.
The script by Kazuki Nakashima, a producer on Crayon Shin-chan films and various anime series, covers only the first volume of the manga, or what fans know as the “Bugs 2 mission”. To make Mars inhabitable for humans, scientists on earth used cockroaches to cover the Red Planet in moss. In 2799, a crew of Japan’s worst public enemies – including convicted murderer Shokichi (Hideaki Ito, trying to play 20 years younger) and his childhood friend Nanao (Emi Takei) – is sent to Mars to eliminate the cockroaches in exchange for clemency. Other members of the crew – changed from being multinational to all Japanese in the film version – are merely archetypes like the hooker with a heart of gold (Rina Ota), the crazed serial killer (Kenichi Takito) and the arrogant hotshot who speaks English for no reason (pop idol Tomohisa Yamashita).
But the crew lands to find that the cockroaches have deformed into giant bug-humanoid creatures called Terra Formars. When a few team members are wiped out, the mission’s egomaniacal Earth-bound commander Honda (Shun Oguri) finally tells the team that each member has been secretly injected with bug DNA so that they can take on the Terra Formars with bug-enhanced superpowers. The script never explains why Honda waits for a few casualties before dispensing that information other than for dramatic effect.
The most interesting part of the Terraformars’ concept is the various bug enhancements that the characters go through. Miike milks the concept as far as he can, giving each character a video game-style introduction sequence that explains the powers (a preying mantis, a bug that shoot fire, etc., etc.). But not only is the practical bug make-up campy and cheap, Miike doesn’t bring any thrills to the bug-on-bug fights, giving his effects artists free rein to bombard the audiences with visuals without a coherent flow.
Whereas the anime and the manga can literally freeze time for expository dialogue and slow-motion impact shots, a live-action film doesn’t lend itself to such pacing. The action is mostly shot in mediums and close-ups, as Miike opts for results – gooey white Terraformar blood spilling everywhere – rather than the battles. The film’s B-grade CGI succeeds in making the Terra Formars more convincing characters than the humans, but the wide shots showing the sheer number of creatures overwhelming the humans are purely Playstation 3 quality.
Even the worst Miike films have a few touches of his eccentric sensibilities, but they feel inappropriately at odds even by Miike standards with Terraformars. Slimy villain Honda may not have any facial expression, but Oguri is clearly having the most fun as he asks about his fashion choices at inopportune moments and throws out strange anime-like mannerisms from time to time. Without having to fight CGI bugs like his fellow cast members, Oguri seems to have found his own amusement on set. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast over-project like they’re acting in the worst production of Shakespeare in the Park ever.
Perhaps the only silver lining of Terraformars is that it’s not Miike’s worst film. The pace is generally tighter than the slog that is Yakuza Apocalypse, and it's a more polished live-action sci-fi film than what the cash-strapped Japanese film industry usually produces. With a disappointing box office take, no one will be rushing to make a sequel when Terraformars is quickly dismissed and forgotten by most. For many filmmakers, this would be considered a cruel fate. For Takashi Miike, it’s probably just Tuesday.
(Kevin Ma, 8/2016)