"Did you plan for this to happen as well?"
"No. Its totally gone to shit"
This is the kind of film that makes one wonder what William Burroughs would have made of it, especially in that moment of one character (the one played by Rinko Kikuchi) emerging from within the body of one of the cockroach enemies, having used it as a costume, that is a bit like the surprise re-appearance of Roy Schieder's Dr Benway in Cronenberg's film of Naked Lunch.
After our tangential discussion of Andromedia and Christopher Doyle's over the top flamboyant baddie there, there is another incredibly over the top evil mastermind character (with a frankly impractical haircut) in Terra Formars that feels really
similar! Both of these characters are similarly distanced from the main events, safe and secure in their offices and talking to the other characters through a viewscreen or, in Terra Formars, through a hologram projection which allows the character to teleport around a set, change size (with associated up pitching of the voice to be squeakier in tiny form!) and even make his entrance sitting on one of the character's shoulders as if they were one of those angel/devil figures of the subconscious at one point! (And this all feels like a pointed comic nod towards the Guy Pearce hologram in Prometheus)
I would say that I did like Terra Formars and it is both incredibly silly whilst being played totally straight, as the best comedy should be! It plays out like one of those Sentai
superhero series (or Tokusatsu
ones? I'm afraid I am still getting familiar with the difference!) with every character being artificially implanted with insect DNA which allows the film to regularly stop for a bit of an etymological slideshow lesson as each person transforms! (I think that ties this in with a few other manga series that seem to be trying to teach otherwise dry subjects through fantastical approaches, such as Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture
and its quite in depth explanation of microorganism form and function. Or that recent series anthropomorphising the internal biology of the human body Cells At Work!
, both of which got adapted into anime series) I was actually surprised by how in depth things go, with each character having a (highly specific to a single situation!) 'superpower' based on the particular insect that they have been fused with, and that itself gets used for a couple of comic moments such as when a couple of characters get killed before they transform and the omniscient narrator who introduces all of the powers still
appears to say what powers they would have had, and that they probably would not have been that useful in the situation anyway! (Which made me think a bit about all those kids in Battle Royale who only got frying pans as weapons!).
It probably fits well with that 'costume superhero show' aspect though (as do the outlandish transformations and characters being able to change back and forth from one form to the other, unless they overdose! Also there is so much eyeliner
on display! Even on hollow-eyed starving urchin children in one of the character's explanatory flashbacks!) in that we get the relatively standard arc of finding out the threat and what they can do, then about the powers that each of our extended cast of characters have and their post-transformation look, and then watch them battle (or still fail spectacularly! This is one of those Pitch Black-like 'depressing, everyone can possibly die' type sci-fi films. Which perhaps ties this series in with Attack on Titan as well). Which does also remind me that Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo films are really just more extreme versions of this kind of material!
That variation of insect types amongst all of the cast of characters also makes the first half of the film about the threat from the evolved cockroaches (a massive force, but mostly uniform in look and behaviour. This is where the use of CGI for masses of figures in similar looking attacking armies actually helps, because that otherwise slightly distancing aspect of CGI often making everyone in a giant battle look and behave in a similar manner works to emphasise the inhuman overwhelming mass more) contrasting pointedly against the individual humans with their specific insect transformations and unique looks that allow for a diverse set of approaches to the situation. Which sometimes works out for them and sometimes (often!) does not, although for everyone having been surprised by what was done to them it is amusing to see that all of the characters quickly get a brain download to prepare them for just exactly what type of insect that they will become a form of. I guess that is an interesting form of cinematic shorthand though, to quickly brush past how characters know that their highly specific skill is going to come in handy right at that moment!
The other thing that came to mind whilst watching the first half and the introduction of all of the characters was, combined with what I have heard about Claire Denis' High Life so far, whether we are seeing a philosophical shift in the sci-fi film. Here the team sent to Mars to destroy the cockroach infestation is made up of a group of convicts and ne'er do wells: the child sex ring owner, the serial killer, the disgraced cop, the yakuza (of course the tattoos have to briefly come out at one point!), the illegal immigrant, the terrorist and of course the wronged ship captain who made the ultimate transgression of beating up one of his superior officers, and the tragic young lovers who only killed someone threatening to tear them apart. Plus the 'computer hacker' and one guy whose only crime was kickboxing! Apparently that sport is outlawed in the future of 2597!
After Interstellar took starry eyed idealism as far as it could possibly go, are we now seeing a new trend in general of prisoners rather than idealists going into space? That going off into the unknown is the ultimate punishment rather than an adventure anymore? Or maybe the only characters with a bit of vibrancy and life to them anymore that differentiates them from the rest of society immediately get criminalised for out of the norm behaviour! (It is also probably to allow for the majority of the characters to die horribly without being too much of a loss, I suppose!)
Anyway, there is a pretty clear split in the film at the half way point (about 55 minutes in) where the narrative shifts a bit from the above bug battling (and Pitch Black sense of people on a desperate quest to escape the planet whilst being picked off along the way), to something that feels much more like a riff on Alien and Prometheus, as the flamboyant company man (who seems more focused on asking what people think of his fashion sense than matters at hand! He also has some absolutely fantastic, slightly too mannered to feel realistic, shocked reaction shots to people having the temerity to talk back to him!) *shockingly* has a hidden agenda, based on previous expeditions bringing back a head of one of the evolved cockroaches (think the head in Prometheus) and now he wants to get his hands on a very H.R. Giger-esque egg! The group of humans splits into different factions (the problem with diversity, I suppose!), and everything goes into overdrive as a particular character unfortunately upgrades their insect abilities too much at once, and a few others return from apparent death after only having been hibernating!
I would say that whilst everything about the premise is incredibly silly, it is still a lot of fun, plays things as straightly as the material possibly can, and feels a lot as if Miike is pouring all of his big budget sci-fi ambitions into this one production (even including the flashback scene to the young lovers on the run in future Tokyo, which allows for a pretty blatant homage to Blade Runner in terms of crowded urban streets at night lit with neon signs, even before the flying car turns up! And I liked that even in this scene really early on that the main bad guy's police squad have armour that already looks like insect carapaces!), and it is amazing to see something that appears to be trying to match up to Prometheus in terms of scope and scale!
(Also, a bit like Icarus II in Sunshine, you always have to be suspicious when you are in a spaceship calling itself the second of something, because you will inevitably find out what horrible fate happened to the first ship at some point!)