OK, so I haven't seen Blade Runner, which this film has been repeatedly compared to. I have, however, seen Ghost in the Shell. Switch around a few plot specifics regarding cyborgs and the various bodies in which they might unexpectedly be found, and this is pretty much a live-action remake. Add in a bit of Minority Report sci-fi-noir and a flair for horror-suspense, a 5th-Elementesque mystical pleasure cruise ship that can take you away to a fabled land of forgetfulness, and finally toss in some Matrix-esque high-speed martial arts and sweeping, post-apocalyptic panoramics, and you've got yourself a movie. (I've only scratched the surface with the homages here: there's a fair number of nods to A.I., and one section of the soundtrack is jacked almost verbatim from a bit in the Truman Show. But never mind all that.)
The reason I liken this to Ghost in the Shell above the others is because they both have the following:
a) Beautiful, absolutely, astoundingly, beautiful visuals
b) A female cyborg character who wonders about the nature of life. (Fortunately, on this note I am pleased to report that Natural City's dialogue is a bit less rigid and more, well, human, than Ghost in the Shell's was.)
c) Nefarious, antagonistic, body-hopping cyborg villains.
Maybe it's because it's live action and not animated, but in general I found the characters to be surprisingly compelling for a cyborg flick. But their development is jarring and their motivations or thoughts are often maddeningly unclear. There's Cyon, the prostitute, who spends the first half of the movie sneering at everyone and the second staring in dull detachment at the ongoing events as they spiral out of control around her. What's going on in her head as she becomes a target for both hero and villain alike? She's the most human character in the story, so I'd like to know. There's Ria, the cyborg that R., our protagonist, has fallen for. A major problem with the movie is that we encounter her just 3 days before she "expires." She appears to not be functioning so well. Was she always this stupurous and obedient? What exactly is the humanness within her that makes R. fall in love with her? I don't often say this, but some well-placed flashbacks might have been helpful. This is the lynchpin of the story. Since R. loves her so much, WE should love her too, at least a little. I feel sympathetic for the character, but more in the way that I felt sympathetic for a pet dog that is about to be put down, not in the way I would for the love of my life.
Which brings me to R., the main character, whose love takes him on a completely destructive path that everyone can see but him. At the start, we sympathize with him, because blind love and devotion is an emotion that is easy to sympathize with. But he is so clearly out of control, it is difficult to fathom or relate to the increasingly desperate steps he takes to try to save Ria's life.
Which in turn brings me to my major issue with this film. Put simply, I don't like the resolution of the plot. I won't say whether it ends happily or not, because that would be bogus, but what I will say is that happy or sad, I like my plots to resolve in an emotionally satisfying manner. So if a film is trying to make a statement about life and what it means to be alive and human (as I believe, to its credit, this one is), I would like it to do so in a coherent (and preferably life-affirming) manner. At the end of this, beautiful though it is, I had to wonder, what's it all mean?