James Cameron has been dreaming about making Alita: Battle Angel for decades. He bought the rights to the 90s manga and has been sitting on the property, having to continuously push it back because of technological demands and the demands of, at last count, a thousand Avatar sequels. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay and handed the directorial duties over to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), a talented visual stylist who has been struggling of late. The marriage looks good and the final 122-minute feature is the closest a live-action film has ever gotten into replicating the look and feel of an anime, for better and worse.
Hundreds of years after the fall of civilization, a lonely scrapper and doctor, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg with a still beating heart. He puts her back together with a new body and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She’s special and learning about the big new world, trying to unlock her memories of the past, and we’re talking way way back into the past. She’s old technology, something that’s quite valuable for the street gangs that strip amputees for parts and for the global corporation whose emissary (Mahershala Ali) needs to reclaim the powerful tech. Alita falls in love, learns about her sense of humanity, and fights lots and lots of robotic villains.
This visual decadence of Battle Angel is the greatest reason to see it, especially on the big screen if able. The future setting is immediately visually engaging, with people walking around with mechanical limbs that look like they were literally cobbled together with whatever junk was lying around. There is a have/have not dichotomy between the huddled masses trying to eek out a living in a garbage city and the floating metropolis above that regularly dumps its trash onto the people below. It’s easy to see the influences of Battle Angel in other media, like Elysium, as well as its own cyberpunk influences, from the likes of Blade Runner to recycling the chief sport of Rollerball. The character design is to die for in this movie, with exceptionally assembled figures that stand out in memorable, dangerous, sometimes junky ways. There are a number of different robotic killers with colorful and unique weapons and personalities, and the larger world invites further scrutiny. There is a bustling post-apocalyptic life here and it’s plastered on a splashy, broad visual canvas with some spectacular special effects. Not all of the effects are at the highest level, from some compositing issues with faces to the big anime eyes (more on that later), but Battle Angel is an expensive movie that puts it all onscreen. The world is fun to watch and the action sequences feel ripped directly from the manga, with larger-than-life creatures fighting in vicious and frenetic ways. Even when the movie feels like it’s losing its momentum there’s always the visuals to enjoy.
The central idea of this post-apocalyptic junk town being populated with deadly bounty hunters who work for a mysterious conspiracy is a great starting point. There is a bevy of killers with different allegiances and different codes, and then you throw in a powerful new addition who doesn’t remember her hidden past and you’ve got a recipe for drama and conflict with some crazy characters. There are even little dark touches that I would have thought would have been clipped in the adaptation process. Battle Angel has so much going for it that it can get a little frustrating when it feels like it’s spending so long to stay in the same place. The plot revelations are fairly predictable but still effective, but the long delays between them are filled with numerous action set pieces that diminish a sense of progression. I liked the Alita character and her relationship with her surrogate human father, but I didn’t think enough of any other relationship she had in the film. I wasn’t that invested in uncovering her past, which was still a bit too vague for me as a non-reader of the source material. At the end of the story, Rodriguez has set up his audience for a continuing saga of strife that feels too incomplete. Alita has learned more about herself (though I’m still confused) and has a goal of vengeance (against a force that is left too vague) and a renewed sense of purpose (built upon a relationship that doesn’t feel that affecting). It’s a curious end point and a questionable decision for a movie this expensive to assume it would secure demand for a presumptive sequel.
Where Battle Angel began losing me was because its title character, Alita, became too overpowered for her own good, eliminating a sense of stakes early on. The battle calculus skewed far too quickly. After the first act, actually from her first fight onward, there is never any doubt whether Alita will triumph. She doesn’t undergo any training or any real learning curve when it comes to her superhuman defense. Right from the get-go she’s doing amazing acts of fight choreography and making it all look easy. She even defeats an enemy when she’s only a one-armed torso. That’s admittedly impressive but another indicator that there is no real threat that can be posed against her. No matter how huge the cyborg, or how many pointy appendages at their disposal, it’s only a matter of time before our little pint-sized warrior is eventually triumphant. There is really only one fight where she’s presented with any slight disadvantage, the aforementioned one-armed torso sequence, but this too is shortly rectified. She goes from having a nigh-invincible body to an even more nigh-invincible body, making her, you guessed it, even more powerful. This reality takes something away from the numerous cyborg-on-cyborg battles, and without greater variance on the scene-to-scene needs, the fights become somewhat stale. Visually they are still impressive with a sense of fun watching the manga pages come to startling life, but without stakes and variance, it’s all the same punches with less power.
Now Battle Angel isn’t the only story to deal with an overwhelmingly powerful protagonist (see: Neo, Superman, just about every character on Dragonball). The solution is usually a specifically applied weakness or, most often, the vulnerability of those closest to the hero. It’s the regular people that can be gotten to, that can be endangered, that approximate the “weakness” for the overpowered protagonist. However, for this to work, you need an emotional connection to the characters in order to feel their potential loss. This cannot work if the characters are stuck in archetypal mode and add little help. That’s the problem with Battle Angel; I didn’t really care about any of the other characters. They had points of interest, a tragic shared back-story, a dream to escape their earthbound poverty, some secrets they don’t want getting out, but it’s never enough to make them feel that much more refined than the secondary background players. The film doesn’t even go the route of really threatening the more vulnerable people in Alita’s life, which is a strange miscalculation. What we’re left with is a very kickass robot woman doing her thing and taking down the big bad cyborgs. It’s entertaining and there’s enough of an interest in bullies being beaten by the underdog, but Alita isn’t really the underdog and so the many action sequences become a tad tedious.
Salazar (The Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gives an expressive performance and enables her superhuman cyborg to find a semblance of her humanity. Because of the character design the degree of performance capture relies much on the micro expressions of Salazar, so if she overdoes it then Alita can lose that tenuous sense of reality. She finds a balance that makes her feel real, at least real enough to exist in this world. Waltz (Downsizing) is enjoyably paternal with a few dark secrets of his own. His rocket-powered pickax thingy falls under my category of something that’s futuristic but not exactly practical. This wouldn’t present much of a problem except his character is an expert at using the parts he can scrounge up to get the job done. Skrein (Deadpool) has found a real career for being sneering villains with oh-so punchable faces, and he succeeds yet again. Ali (Green Book) and Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) deliver enough with so little that you wish the screenplay asked more of them than the occasional in-shadows skulking. It’s interesting to look at this cast, which has four Oscars to their names (possibly another one for Ali), and an additional nominee with Jackie Earl Haley.
Let’s talk about those eyes. The film is based upon a popular manga and anime and James Cameron was determined, from the earliest point, to recreate that stylized big-eyed look famous to Japanese art. It’s one thing on the page and another brought into real life, and the response has been all over the place. Some cite the uncanny valley and cringe while others argue it makes Alita more vulnerable, the eyes being the window to the soul and all. It does set her apart from the crowd, which is supposed to befit her character and where she came from, so to that end it works. It’s not as distracting as I feared and you do grow accustomed to them. However, was any of it necessary? Would we feel any different for Alita if she had more human-sized eyes? I doubt it. The costly effect of a very costly movie ($200 million reported) made me think of a similar quirk with the 2011 Green Lantern film where Ryan Reynolds’ suit was a CGI effect. Rather than simply wearing a costume the filmmakers spent millions applying one in post-production, and in the end what of value did it offer to the experience?
It’s hard for me to watch Alita: Battle Angel and understand why this was a property that James Cameron set aside for almost two decades. What about this makes it special or at least separates it from the pack of imitators? It’s a world with points of interest and characters that could be interesting, though many stop short at the design phase. The live-action version is entertaining and visually sumptuous, but I was finding myself grow tired of the film’s loose stakes, predictable plotting, simplistic themes, and archetypal characterization. The action can be pretty fun but even as Alita lines up more obstacles and more enemies we never feel threatened or concerned. Without a larger sense of danger and plot development the many fights start to grow monotonous. The special effects are wild but they service a story that seems ordinary genre. Alita: Battle Angel ought to please fans of the source material but it short-circuited for my attention.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It was hard for me to watch the initial trailers and advertisement for this movie because the animation just looked so … simple. I was forlorn that legendary director Hayao Miyazaki was taking a step backwards. He was stepping away from the complexity of his recent works. While his take on Han Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid tale is intended for young children, I was relieved when I finally saw the finished animation. I got what he was going for: a painterly aesthetic that is seductively simple. The boy meets fish-turned-girl tale is resoundingly cute with a delightful sense of wonder; however, it really just sort of comes to an abrupt stop. The character relationships are established, the conflict of a sea princess being on land is developed, and then all the magical creatures team up and chat with the humans, and then we’re pretty much done. It’s a curiously hasty conclusion and it makes the movie feel less formalized and finished; Miyazaki is still one of the most imaginative filmmakers alive, in any medium, but Ponyo, while visually appealing and mostly adorable, suffer from shrift storytelling that ultimately makes this a cute if passing diversion.
Nate’s Grade: B
I was wary of this film from the first frame. I think the original Speed Racer cartoon is dopey and insipid. I didn’t really want to pay to have my retinas destroyed by the candy-coated color scheme of the big-budget movie. But I must say, I didn’t hate this movie and that’s a major accomplishment. That’s not to say Speed Racer is a good movie; its script is cheesy, the dialogue is silly, the comedy is dead on arrival, and many of the races end up becoming incoherent flashes of color and noise. But God help me, the Wachowskis have produced a unique movie experience that will likely induce epileptic seizures. Speed Racer has way too much plot going on for a cartoon about a kid who races a fast car. The movie reminds me in a lot of ways of the Wacky Races cartoon where the various teams have theme-driven cars. This provides for plenty of outlandish action sequences that manage to tickle the senses, that is, when the images are somewhat stable. The movie aspires to be a “family film” and with that comes the half-hearted moral message (corporations are evil) and a reminder that family is important. Did I mention there’s also a monkey that gets treated like a member of the family? The movie sometimes feels like the cinematic equivalent of an ice cream headache, but you’re unlikely to see anything like it again in the near future. That may be both a good and a bad thing.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The flick is wonderfully imaginative, as to be expected from Miyazaki. The Pixar people really do an excellent job of bringing these films to an American audience and treat the English dubs with reverence. I’m not someone who’ll bemoan an English dub when it comes to anime but it’s nice to see effort and respect. The story is a bit similar to Princess Mononoke with the warring factions, the mystic and the industrial, and Miyazaki’s refusal to paint in black and white. There are so many delightful touches here from the fire demon to the door portal to one segment that just involves two old ladies ascending stairs for three minutes. And yet it’s the spirit Miyazaki infuses and the attention to story and character that sets his films apart. There’s a genuine sense of magic while watching his films and Howl is no different. The only bit of contention I had with the movie is how abrupt the ending is. Howl’s Moving Castle is a bit soaked with confusion and some narrative cop-outs (“Surprise! I’m the prince responsible for the war!”). I would have loved another 30 minutes in this world as well as a better opportunity for Miyazaki to bring his story down with a smoother landing. Still, saying this is a slightly lesser Miyazaki film is like saying a million dollars is less awesome than 2 million dollars. Howl’s Moving Castle is another sterling addition to a master storyteller.
Nate’s Grade: A-