In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This fortnight, we take a look at one of Takashi Miike’s recent sci-fi actioner, Terra Formars.
I have a confession to make.
I’ve betrayed you all in one key way. This column was dedicated to showing you all the underground gems of cult film that define that area of criticism.
This edition of the column isn’t that.
What we have here is a film that deserves to be a cult classic, and ever since I first saw it on it’s Blu Ray release last year, I have made it my life’s purpose to make it a cult classic, and this is just another step in that process. Watching ‘Terra Formars’ for the column was my third time of watching. The second time was purely to show it to two of my friends and enjoy their confused, befuddled, disgusted, scared expressions. Part of the reason I love this film is not because it’s good per se, but because it’s special. It’s a truly unique experience.
Helmed by Takashi Miike, famed for such avant-garde freak fests as ‘Audition’, ‘Visitor Q’, and ‘Gozu’, as well as more conventional but equally as artistically exciting works like ‘13 Assassins’, ‘Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai’, & ‘The Bird People of China’; ‘Terra Formars’ follows a group of criminals, poor people, & people who fall into both categories, on a mission to a terraformed Mars to rid it of cockroaches. Doesn’t sound like a premise that can lead to all-out insanity? JUST YOU WAIT! Just even starting to unpack the strange directions this plot goes in, is a task that only the most foolhardy columnists will undertake. Luckily for all of you, I’m a borderline idiotic columnist so watch me prostrate my own linguistic skills at the alter of Takashi Miike for a watching public.
I hope you’re happy.
So, Takashi Miike’s ‘Terra Formars’ is a 2016 movie that only came out in the UK & USA in 2019 via Arrow Video straight to DVD because it bombed that goddamn hard in Japan, and on first blush, it’s not hard to see why. It’s based off a manga and anime, neither of which seem to be particularly loved. The anime has middling IMDb ratings, on a website that’ll give any series of at least half-decent television an 8.5 at least. No edition of the manga has particularly stellar Goodreads ratings either. The film takes this sprawling sci-fi action series and condenses it’s long sprawling plot into just under 2 hours. A trick he’s pulled off again with ‘JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable Chapter I’, much to the latter’s detriment, and the final product is just endlessly strange. The result of the condensing is basically quickfire weirdness, plot revelations, and Miike’s trademark wackiness. If you’re not keeping up with the plot, which it’ll be pretty impossible to do on a first watch because of how weird it is, you will get totally lost. Not that the plot is even the primary draw to this movie.
What Miike has done with ‘Terra Formars’ is that he’s taken what he did with indie provocations like ‘Visitor Q’ and transplanted it into the modern blockbuster format. He has created a truly transgressive experience, that takes you to such places of sensory assault that the experience of watching it becomes exhausting verging on the spiritual. The only way I can describe the unique vision that is Terra Formars is, imagine if David Cronenberg made ‘Cats’. There are mutant cockroach monsters, and I’m not the first one to draw the comparison with the strange cockroach-human hybrid creations in ‘Cats’, where it really does look like Tom Hooper looked at ‘Terra Formars’ and went, “yes, I want that but, but I want it to look like it was designed, shot, and rendered in a weekend”. There are strange human facial protrusions and insect-human transformations that evoke works like ‘Naked Lunch’, ‘Shivers’, & ‘The Fly’. Whether or not Cronenberg would like ‘Terra Formars’ or have a viscerally hateful reaction is unclear.
High-end visual effects have never been a priority for Takashi Miike. Where he can use practical effects he always has but through a blood squib here in ‘Blade of the Immortal’, a strange mutant beast with stranger phallic extensions there in ‘Dead or Alive: Final’, shonky digital effects have been slowly seeping into Miike’s movies, although more of ‘Terra Formars’ is practical than you might think. That being said the VFX are unquestionably janky, however for me that is absolutely part of the charm of it. I cannot explain why, but the mixture of very convincing yet horrific practical effects and very janky digital effects creates a strange, eerie tone that takes over your brain trying to process the images you’re seeing. It’s like you’re having two streams of different information entering your brain at once, one in each eye, similar to the effect of interlaced frames in the last act of ‘A Field In England’. Your brain goes into executive dysfunction as it tries to catch up on what it’s missing because just processing the information takes time that you don’t have as the film romps along. The endless plot twists, some of which don’t go anywhere, come out of nowhere or are just damn nonsensical, (the film explicitly states that evolution was driven purely by alien DNA trying to drive life on earth to the point where the alien DNA can be returned to space, then it never comes up again), only make matters more confusing. I can only describe the experience as ‘Cats’ if the kind of overload you get from it was more akin to Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’.
It was only on my latest watch that I noted that the film has bothered with interesting plot structures and political commentary. One of the recurring ideas in the film is the criminalisation of poverty by those in power, and the erasure of your personhood and autonomy because of crime, poverty, or both. The main characters frequently make parallels between their own job of exterminating bugs, and society exterminating their own metaphorical insects, (that being the main characters).
The spirit of Ridley Scott is deeply baked into this movie. There’s a subplot in the movie over stealing an egg, that when it opens looks exactly like a giant version of the eggs from ‘Alien’, the interior of the spaceship has a very ‘Alien’ vibe, and the film opens in a dystopia that is basically a rip off of ‘Blade Runner’. That being said the film is distinctly Un-American, and I kind of love it for that. I always find it fascinating watching media that comes from other countries that does not care a jot about being accessible to American audiences. I think studying that kind of international outlook at cinema is incredibly important.
At the start, I said this edition wasn’t quite fulfilling the point of this column, I think that in itself might have been a mistruth. I’ve said that what I want to achieve through this column is to be one of those voices that shows people just beginning to get into Cult Film with ‘Fight Club’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘The Thing’ & ‘Blade Runner’ that there’s so much more out there. I want to make Cult Film a welcoming place that shows people the wide, diverse, and welcoming world of endless possibilities that Cult Film & Psychotronic Film is, the aspect of it that gets me excited and makes me love it.
How is ranting about the beautiful car crash that is ‘Terra Formars’ not that?