There was probably no effective way to compress all of Tsutomu Nihei's BLAME!, that manga of cyberpunk metamorphic hellscapes, into a two-hour movie. The two-hour movie version of BLAME!, courtesy of Netflix and Polygon Pictures, wisely does not even try to do that. It selects a few key elements from the original material — the monolithic setting, the minimal hero, the overall atmosphere of crumbling dead-tech gloom — and casts them into a story that plays as a close cousin to the Mad Max saga. A loner who dispenses few words and much surgically precise violence journeys through a wasteland, encounters a helpless few trying to survive, casts his lot with them for a time, and helps them turn the tables against seemingly impossible odds.
No humans allowed
Nihei's original story sported a premise that lent itself to near-infinite extension. Some undatable distance into the future, the world has become overrun by a self-replicating megalopolis ruled entirely by machine intelligences. Human beings, once the progenitors and controllers of this technological envelope, are now considered infestations, and are eliminated on sight by scuttling killbots and lightning-spewing sentry towers. What few human survivors remain eke out a living in the ruins by salvaging weapons, retrofitting homes, and harvesting sludge for food.
Down these mean streets must go a man who is himself not mean, just a blank slate: Killy (also "Kyrii"), a young man of remarkable physical strength and resilience, a gun that emits beams capable of leveling city blocks, and a mission. He has no past, no preferences, no personality, just that mission — he seeks human beings with the "Net Terminal Gene", a biological quirk that would allow them to patch back into the city's OS and return it to human control.
The original manga started from Killy's point of view, inasmuch as he could be said to have one, and followed him across his monomaniacal quest with little variation. The movie changes this up in favor of a story told from the point of view of a small clutch of villagers whom Killy encounters and aids in their quest for survival. It's a smart way to make the material marginally more accessible, since it's far easier to most anyone, cyberpunk/manga fans included, to care about the villagers and their hardscrabble lives than about Killy per se.
The setup is straightforward enough, despite all the technogibberish ladled on top of it. A cadre of village kids, sort-of led by the stalwart Zuru, have stolen some equipment from their elders and gone prospecting for food outside the safe-zone perimeter that keeps wandering killbots at bay. Their weapons are little more than crossbows, their armor scarcely better than riot gear, and so when cornered by robot assassins they're nearly torn to pieces. Then Killy steps in, with his gun that punches through everything for miles in front of him.
It turns out that Killy's quest for Net Terminal Gene holders overlaps somewhat with the village's own plight. In a "shrine" near the village, Killy finds the long-dormant cybernetic shell of a female scientist, Dr. Cibo. She knows the way to an automated factory nearby, where the villagers can synthesize all the ration blocks they need (sort of like LEGO bricks crossed with Pillsbury biscuit dough), where Cibo can assemble herself a new body, and where they can also create a conduit that may allow Cibo to plug back into the city's network and restore the world to human control. With a team from the village, and Killy's gun, they ought to be able to pull it off.
The lone gunman
The first hour or so of the movie is not, as I speculated it might be, a stalk-and-shoot blast-fest. In fact, there's relatively little action until about the halfway mark — it's mostly storytelling to establish the village, the people in it, Killy's own quest, and the odds faced by everyone involved. In retrospect, this slower and more meditative approach is actually right in line with how the original comic worked, where the violence was for punctuation rather than the grammar of the story itself. Much of it was about the long, enveloping spaces between things, or eerie moments like the one where Killy reads from an old book, comes across the word "land", and wonders what they meant by that. It was a mood more than it was a story, but that was fine; it was a mood so singular and all-enveloping that it more than made up for the story's fundamental minimalism.
One consequence of BLAME! '17 being more story-driven than its origins is that it doesn't depend as heavily on atmospherics to have a reason to exist. But it still looks sensational and stark — yes, stark even in color, what with Nihei's black-white-and-grey art rendered in metallic blues, slate grays, and impersonal LED reds. Nihei's other Netflix manga-to-anime adaptation Knights of Sidonia was animated by the same production outfit, Polygon Pictures, and their all-CGI approach was a great complement to Nihei's Brutalist design work. It's even more fitting here, both because BLAME! was the progenitor for the look in the first place and because Polygon has polished its approach all the more since.
Because the story here is necessarily more condensed and focused, more immediate, it's easier to see where it's coming from and what it's trying to be. I mentioned Mad Max as a possible comparison, but BLAME! draws on many of that franchise's sources as well. Most prominent is the Western; Killy is all of the same family as characters like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, not just because of his gunslinging and his overall reticence, but through his habit of doing right for the wronged without asking anything in return. Same goes for how the villagers treat him, as the notion of hospitality for the stranger (or lack thereof) appears in Westerns as reliably as tumbleweeds (something Danny Peary pointed out in his essay in Cult Movies III about the movie Easy Rider). The movie seems determined to make the connection explicit pretty quickly, though; check out the Ennio Morricone-esque theme that appears on the soundtrack the first time Killy poses with his weapon, and several times thereafter.
If it's the Western the movie derives its story elements most directly from, the cyberpunk trappings exist mainly to give the goings-on wheels and propulsion, not meaning or substance. The real story is not in any of the cyberpunk pieces by themselves; it's in the way Killy's mere presence breaks the village out of its stasis and emboldens its people to do more than just wait for the end to come, and how the village kids, by way of their recklessness, help touch all that off. There's little direct thematic confrontation of the cyberpunk side of the story — that is, there's not much in there about, for instance, the way human beings have become an endangered species in their own world. It makes for a story that's serviceable and entertaining, if not as ambitious as it could be.
BLAME!'s story also has little in the way of genuine surprise; things unfold more or less as we might anticipate. That said, I didn't foresee two eyebrow-raising plot twists, one involving a villager and another involving the nature of Killy himself. The former is mostly a way to stick the heroes all the further up a tree and heave that many more rocks at them, metaphorically speaking, but we get a cracking great climactic action sequence from it. The latter, though, hints at some possibilities I would have liked to see tackled, maybe by way of a sequel. After all, the BLAME!-verse is large, it contains multitudes. No reason we can't go back for seconds.
Footnote: One of the theories I have long entertained about the connection between Sidonia and BLAME! is that Sidonia chronicles what happened to the remnants of humanity that managed to escape from the BLAME!-verse. Even if that isn't valid, Nihei himself has linked the two; at one point in Sidonia what looks like a movie version of BLAME! can be glimpsed unspooling on someone's TV.