Thursday, February 21, 2019

Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez.
Written by: James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez based on the graphic novel series by Yukito Kishiro.
Starring: Rosa Salazar (Alita), Christoph Waltz (Dr. Dyson Ido), Mahershala Ali (Vector), Jennifer Connelly (Chiren), Ed Skrein (Zapan), Keean Johnson (Hugo), Eiza González (Nyssiana), Lana Condor (Koyomi), Jackie Earle Haley (Grewishka), Michelle Rodriguez (Gelda), Casper Van Dien (Amok).
Alita: Battle Angel is a movie that tries to cram so much into its two-hour runtime that it almost cannot help that the film feels confused and disjointed at times. Perhaps that also has to do with the fact that you have two competing filmmakers competing from control here – as you can tell the guiding hand of James Cameron is behind the film somewhere (he has had the rights for years, and never did anything with them) – and he’s now the co-writer and producer of the movie. But the film was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who as he often does, shows a great hand here directing action sequences, but never seems to quite get the storytelling clear. The film is never boring – it races headlong into one sequence after another, and once the action starts, you never have to wait too long for another action sequence. But the film almost has the opposite problem of all those Netflix Marvel shows – which always feel to me like a feature film stretched into 13 hours. This feels like the first season of a TV show condensed into two hours.
The film is set 300 years after “The Fall” – a war of sorts that have left the have up in Zalem – a floating city above the earth – and the rest of humanity in Iron City on the ground – who are all essentially poor working stiffs, doing everything to support Zalem. On the scrap heap from above, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds part of the body of a young, female cyborg who remarkably has her human brain still intact. He brings her home, fits her with the body he made for his now dead teenage daughter, and brings her back to life. He names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). While Alita was manufactured to be a weapon, she doesn’t remember her previous life (at least at first – like every person with amnesia in movie history, it will come back to her in conveniently timed flashes throughout the film). When she wakes up, she is essentially a naïve, teenage girl, who has to relearn about the world. She quickly falls in love with Hugo (Keean Johnson) – and draws the attention of some bad people like Vector (Mahershala Ali) – the representative of Zalem in Iron City, and his underling Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) – Dr. Ido’s ex-wife – who desperately wants to return to Zalem. There’s also other cyborgs known as Hunter Killers – basically bounty hunters – who want to track her down. Oh, and there’s a sport called Monster Ball (I think) – which is basically a deadly form Rollerball from those movies.
All of this – and more – is crammed into the movie that ultimately cannot sustain itself. One of the best things the movie has to offer is Rosa Salazar’s motion captured performance as Alita. She is good as this naïve girl, who becomes a battle tested warrior – and even when she makes some weird decision, you are fully on her side. The screenplay though is a little confused and retrograde. While the film clearly wants to be seen as some feminist girl power, its character dynamics seem backwards. The relationship between Alita and Ido is creepy in a way that the movie never comments on. The relationship between Alita and Hugo never really gels in a way to make you believe that Alita would do what she does (and offers to do) – mainly because Hugo is a bit of a creep himself. When Alita has her adolescent body destroyed, and gets a new one – one with Nano-technology that will adapt itself into her own self-image, the self-image she apparently has is a kick ass Barbie Doll – skinnier waste, large breasts, etc. – which warrants a single one-liner from Ido’s nurse about how she’s “grown up” and then not mentioned again. Talented actors like Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali are completely wasted. Ed Skrein is better suited for his bad guy role, but it’s rather one note. There are plot threads and characters that clearly exist in this movie only to setup the sequel we are unlikely to see– like Michelle Rodriguez seen in flashback, and the actor who plays Nova (who I won’t name) – who doesn’t say a word, and appears at the end.
And yet, the action sequences when they come really are something. Yes, they are more CGI soup that I often complain about in superhero movies – but here, it’s distinctive CGI soup. Rodriguez has always known how to direct an action sequence – and there are several here as good as we’re likely to see this year. The film is incredibly violent – but mostly in a bloodless way – as Alita hacks, slashes, and smashes her way through her enemies. There is a sense once she gets her new body that she is completely indestructible – which doesn’t help things (if you don’t believe she can die, who cares?) – but Rodriguez stages the scenes with so much pizazz you likely don’t care.
I cannot help but wonder though that if Cameron had made the film itself would it have been better. For as much crap as he takes (some of it, to be fair, deserved) – he has made the type of relationships that ring false here work in the past. He has made his tin eared dialogue sound okay, at least in context. And he has never met a three-hour runtime he didn’t love – which may have given this film more of a chance to breath and develop things better.
Overall then, Alita: Battle Angel is a mixed bag. You won’t be bored by it – that’s for sure. But it won’t ever quite grab you the way it should – the way James Cameron’s films usually do, and the best of Robert Rodriguez’s films can do. It’s an odd film – but not really a successful one.

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