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

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

How can you have time when it clearly has you?

Dark  Season 2
(SPOILERS) I’m not intending to dig into Dark zealously, as its plotting is so labyrinthine, it would take forever and a day, and I’d just end up babbling incoherently (so what’s new). But it’s worth commenting on, as it’s one of the few Netflix shows I’ve seen that feels entirely rigorous and disciplined – avoiding the flab and looseness that too often seems part and parcel of a service expressly avoiding traditional ratings models – as it delivers its self-appointed weighty themes and big ideas. And Dark’s weighty themes and big ideas really are weighty and big, albeit simultaneously often really frustrating. It came as no surprise to learn of the showrunners’ overriding fixation on determinism at work in the multi-generational, multiple time period-spanning events within the German town of Winden, but I was intrigued regarding their structural approach, based on clearly knowing the end game of their characters, rather than needing to reference (as they put it) Post-It…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Doesn't work out, I'll send her home in body bag.

Anna (2019)
(SPOILERS) I’m sure one could construe pertinent parallels between the various allegations and predilections that have surfaced at various points relating to Luc Besson, both over the years and very recently, and the subject matter of his movies, be it by way of a layered confessional or artistic “atonement” in the form of (often ingenue) women rising up against their abusers/employers. In the case of Anna, however, I just think he saw Atomic Blonde and got jealous. I’ll have me some of that, though Luc. Only, while he brought more than sufficient action to the table, he omitted two vital ingredients: strong lead casting and a kick-ass soundtrack.

Spider-Man with his hand in the cookie jar! Whoever brings me that photo gets a job.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
(SPOILERS) Spider-Man 3 is a mess. That much most can agree on that much. And I think few – Jonathan Ross being one of them – would claim it’s the best of the Raimi trilogy. But it’s also a movie that has taken an overly harsh beating. In some cases, this a consequence of negative reaction to its most inspired elements – it would be a similar story with Iron Man Three a few years later – and in others, it’s a reflection of an overstuffed narrative pudding – so much so that screenwriter Alvin Sargent considered splitting the movie into two. In respect of the latter, elements were forced on director Sam Raimi, and these cumulative disagreements would eventually lead him to exit the series (it would take another three years before his involvement in Spider-Man 4 officially ended). There’s a lot of chaff in the movie, but there’s also a lot of goodness here, always providing you aren’t gluten intolerant.