The reviews for Natural City describe it variously as an homage to, a rip-off of, and a sequel of sorts to Blade Runner. Of the three, I’d select somewhere between homage and rip-off. Natural City’s debt to one of the greatest SF films ever made is plain, but it at least attempts to find territory of its own to explore, using the original film as a point of departure. The attempt is not a success, unfortunately; I spent more time wowing at the movie’s lush production design than I did feeling anything for the characters.
Natural City is one of the latest in a series of high-budget, high-concept Korean movies that meld a high-tech look and feel with deeply sentimental themes. 2009 Lost Memories was like this, where the only thing that upstaged the special effects and amazing sets was the operatic levels of emotion in the cast. Natural City tries to shoot for the same heights, but is riddled with so much crippling illogic in terms of the behavior of its characters that it doesn’t seem so much operatic as histrionic.
Natural City takes place in the year 2080, when humanoid cyborgs with artificial brains are used for routine labor, pleasure, and as paramilitary officers. The cyborgs have a three-year lifespan; at the end of their life, they grow demented and senile, and have to be disposed of in the factory where they were created (a process which forms the movie’s gorgeous opening sequence). Sometimes the cyborgs do not want to be taken offline, and when they go renegade, a special task force of police is called in to terminate them. One of the police is himself in love with a failing cyborg, and is trying to find a way to copy her consciousness into a fresh body (even though this is illegal).
The cop is named R (played by Ji-tae Yu, also from Attack the Gas Station and Oldboy), and his synthetic girlfriend is Ria (Rin Seo). His boss and close friend, Noma (Jeong Eun-Pyo) puts up with R’s indiscretions because…well, because he’s his friend, I guess. He’s not even a particularly good cop: in the shoot-out that opens the movie, R acts like an arrogant ass, gets several of his own men killed, and is put on suspension. R then spends the next few days moping, getting drunk, and dallying around with Ria. Ria is already beginning to show signs of cyborg dementia, which apparently makes cyborgs act like a broken Teddy Ruxpin.
R has plans to take Ria’s consciousness and place it into another woman’s body. He already has the person in question picked out, a drifter / fortune-teller / prostitute named Cyon (Jae-un Lee). The whole thing is to be engineered by an outlaw cyborg scientist named Dr. Giro. Unfortunately, there’s a complication: a renegade combat cyborg named Cypher also has his eye on Cyon. Why? Unclear at first, but it later becomes one of the few clear things in a movie that’s not very good at making anything clear.
Noma and R are so flat and so undistinguished that at first I had trouble telling them apart. (In a movie where most everyone is seen at night and in the rain, this becomes a real problem.) The only thing that makes one stand out from the other is that one is an ass and the other is…well, less of an ass. Cyon is one of the few people who has any presence in the movie’s lush digital canvas, but for someone who’s allegedly so street-smart she does an amazing number of stupid things. The rest of the people onscreen are throwaways, who serve only to pop up and provide the needed filler dialogue to move the plot along.
Much of the movie’s emotional core is ostensibly built on the relationship between R and Noma. The problem is that Noma seems unwilling to do anything to stop his friend from making an ever-bigger twit out of himself. When R is running around violating laws regarding cyborgs, driving his motorcycle through someone’s house and generally behaving like a psychotic loon, what does Noma do? Have him thrown into a psych ward? Cuff him to a chair in a basement and knock some sense into him, even? Nope—he just goes to his own boss and says, “It’s a phase. He’ll grow out of it [as soon as Ria expires].”
Another annoyance is not something particular to the movie, but is a general criticism of most SF movies today. In order to sell their story, or their depiction of another world, to a paying audience, they often have to inject action-movie material into it. As great a movie as The Matrix was, I can't help but feel it's ruined audiences on intelligent SF that doesn't consist of a gunfight every ten minutes. To be honest, there aren't that many such scenes in Natural City, but when they come they are so amped-up and hard to follow that they simply zip by in a blur of blue-tinted noise.
There are other problems. Why, for instance, is R so obsessed with saving Ria? The only time we see her is already after she’s well on her way towards dying, which makes her nothing but a milk-sop object of pity (emphasis on object). Why, for all of their training, armor and weapons, do the police get cut to shreds every single time a combat cyborg appears (which only makes the cops look all the more incompetent)? Et any number of ceteras. I don’t ask for a lot from a movie, but the basics of motivation and personality ought to at least be there, especially in a movie where everyone is being upstaged by the lighting.
That brings me to the one thing the film does magnificently, which is create a future city that seems real and plausible in a great many details. Unfortunately, too many of those details are again owed to earlier, better movies (giant floating billboards, etc.). What’s missing is any sense that people inhabit this place and that they are anything more than a contrivance of the plot. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis had characters that were little more than figures in a high-tech Passion Play, but its story had conviction and internal consistency.
Blade Runner turned 20 years old in 2002. It still feels fresh and new, partly because the insights it had into how the future might be seem more relevant, not less—but mostly because despite its flaws as a film it told a solid and compelling story. Natural City is going to look dated in five years, mostly because for all of its sound and fury about its characters it really doesn’t have that much to say. Nor, for that matter, is it all that much fun.
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