Skip to main content

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Generally, one should start with the plot, but Alita leads with the eyes. Rightly so? I don’t know. There are some odd undertones, or perhaps they’re just overtones, to the whole conception of Alita, a teenage killbot designed to look like a doe-eyed child, in imitation of the predominant manga style, who is then furnished with the name and frame of a cyber-surgeon’s adolescent daughter (she’s named after his cat in the original). It isn’t until much later that Alita is given a fuller figure (which means breasts, pretty much), and while one might read various thematic reasonings for this – she initially sees this new twenty-sixth century world as through a child’s eyes – the aesthetic choices can’t help but feel dubious (her romantic interest has restraint enough to plant a kiss on her only when she has been physically enhanced). It isn’t enough just to blame Mars, or whoever designed the manga.

So the plot, then. Alita’s process of self-discovery is engaging stuff, playing into the destiny-foretold trope, and the discovery of her skill set (Panzer Kunst, the new Gun-Katana?) is envisaged with due air-punching triumphalism. Those who aren’t Alita – such as Jennifer Connelly’s Chiren and Keean Johnson’s Hugo – are invariably set on escaping the third world squalor of the Iron City for up-top Zalem (basically Elysium, excepting that we don’t get to see it), either by doing what big cheese Nova asks for or attempting to win the cyborg rollerball-derivative game of Motorball. A consequence of this is some rather awkward plot mechanics driving the third act, whereby Alita, rather than going to confront Nova as we might expect – who was, after all, her nemesis three hundred years earlier – enters a Motorball tournament in order to get Hugo, with whom she is besotted, his dream ticket to Zalem. The stakes are thus raised in the wrong direction – we’re asked to care for Hugo’s fate, a character so clumsily devised that he announces his resignation from the criminal life in a manner leading directly to his former partner’s death – no matter how involving the subsequent altercations may be.

Compounding this is that Alita’s love interest is a complete drip, so there’s nothing to invest in between them, particularly problematic when their tragic love story – à la Titanic – is supposed to be the key to the movie. Admittedly, what appears to be an attempt to put Alita and Hugo on the same physical-emotional level, when he has his head chopped off and placed on a robot body (there’s absolutely no effort to address the ramifications of the loss of one’s essential biology here, but let’s face it, even Robocop shied away from that in its sequels), is undercut when he plunges to his doom during a reckless climb towards Zalem. But it’s kind of risible, rather than impacting.

Other performances work better, although none could be said to fulfil their potential. Rose Salazar imbues Alita with a personality beyond the more overt distractions. Connelly isn’t thrown enough to make Chiren a rounded character, but she nevertheless conveys inner conflict. Mahershala Ali is a Matrix Reloaded outfit in search of intriguing villainy, but at least he looks cool, and the Nova mind-control element is the closest the picture comes to expressing the lurking potential for the surrender of one’s faculties that comes with invasive technology. Christophe Waltz is sympathetic as Alita’s surrogate father, and fares better than he has in many a Hollywood movie lately. I confess to having failed to recognise Jackie Earle Haley or Michelle Rodriguez or Casper Van Dien. And then there’s big villain Nova (Edward Norton, but virtually unrecognisable and lacking any of his usual edge, possibly because he doesn’t get to do anything, and now won’t next time either).

The future world is rendered through a mixture of immersive and not-so immersive CGI (whatever Rodriguez says about physical sets, he’s ultimately embracing the same whirl of pixels he always does, only considerably more professionally rendered ones this time); even Alita varies in terms of how real she seems, such that at times, we are simply looking at an all CGI environment with an obviously big-eyed CGI protagonist (the Mars flashbacks, with the numerous big-eyed Berserkers, in particular). The various cyborg constructions are often highly effective, particularly Ed Skrein’s Zapan and Jeff Fahey’s McTeague (plus his robot dogs), but the more elaborate their actions and capabilities, the less congruous they become.

One might suggest both plot and effects are curiously reflective of each other – a mixture of the engrossing and ungainly – in which case, the movie proceeds in like manner all the way to its non-conclusion, deciding to throw multiple potential climaxes at us that, wearisomely, aren’t actual climaxes; indeed, we finish at the point where most movies decide they’re going to confront the main villain, because this is the first in a planned series that simply is not going to come to pass (no way it makes enough to break even, not with a $200m budget).

I’m all for grand visions and SF going way out there, but Alita: Battle Angel is a mass of conflicting impulses, Rodriguez’ B-movie sensibilities adorning an A-movie production with results that are both impressive and cheesy. It doesn’t deserve to be labelled a turkey or flounder as a complete flop, but it’s in no danger of persuading you to fully invest in the proceedings, since there’s no attempt to dig into the material, beyond the immediate spectacle and the hero’s quest. As a consequence, Rodriguez’ movie feels rather inessential, despite the extravagance furnished on it.

And yet, it is worth seeing – this is one of the few Real 3D pictures out this year, and Cameron is still the format’s champion, if nothing else – even if the content is rather caught in a conceptual bubble twenty years past (unsurprising, as Gunm first appeared in 1990). In that sense, although much more appealing, it’s in much the same boat as Ghost in the Shell; when its live action version finally arrived, its moment had long-since passed (and you can better Warner Bros will stillmake their forever-languishing-in-development-hell Akira at some point). As far as Alita going belly up is concerned, though, I guess the upside is that it can hardly matter to Fox now they’re going to be Disney’s problem.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I am you, and you are me, and we are here. I am the dreamer. You are the dream.

Communion (1989)
(SPOILERS) Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story was published in 1987, at which point the author (who would also pen Communion’s screenplay) had seen two of his novels adapted for the cinema (Wolfen and The Hunger), so he could hardly claim ignorance of the way Hollywood – or filmmaking generally – worked. So why then, did he entrust the translation of a highly personal work, an admission of/ confrontation with hidden demons/ experiences, to the auteur who unleashed Howling II and The Marsupials: Howling III upon an undeserving world? The answer seems to be that Strieber already knew director Philippe Mora, and the latter was genuinely interested in the authors’ uncanny encounters. Which is well and good and honourable, but the film entirely fails to deliver the stuff of cinematic legend. Except maybe in a negative sense.

Strieber professes dismay at the results, citing improvised scenes and additional themes, and Walken’s rendition of Whitley Strieber, protagonist…

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

He did it. He shut down the Earth.

Escape from L.A. (1996)
(SPOILERS) It seems it was Kurt Russell’s enthusiasm for his most iconic character (no, not Captain Ron) that got Escape from L.A. made. That makes sense, because there’s precious little evidence here that John Carpenter gave two shits. This really was his point of no return, I think. His last great chance to show his mettle. But lent a decent-sized budget (equivalent to five times that of Escape from New York) he squandered it, delivering an inert TV movie that further rubs salt in the wound by operating as a virtual remake of the original. Just absent any of the wit, atmosphere, pace and inspiration.