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+
Ready Player One was a best-selling book that established a future world built upon the pop-culture artifacts of the 1980s, a future that celebrates and looks back to the past, to a halcyon childhood of classic and not-so-classic video games, movies, comics, and music. It was no surprise that author Ernest Cline’s novel would become a success, as we’ve been in a full-blown 80s nostalgic renaissance for quite some time now. When living legend Steven Spielberg got aboard as director, it seemed like fate. As a non-reader, my worry was could the big-budget, Hollywood version of this movie, lead by a Hollywood master, be more than the sum of its parts, more than the nostalgia and pop-culture references? I feared the finished product would be Avatar meets VH1’s I Love the 80s (“Hey, remember that thing? We do too.”). My fears were overblown, but then so is Ready Player One a bit, an entertaining vision that glides by with little else but vigor.
In the future, most of humanity spends their days living out fantasies and dreams in the Oasis, a virtual reality hub with different worlds, games, and features, allowing players to design their own avatars and their own adventures. The Oasis was created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), a reclusive genius who also programmed a contest upon his death. Whoever finds three hidden keys would win ownership of the Oasis. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is a regular kid living in Columbus, Ohio (woot, represent!) but when he’s in the VR world he’s Parzival, a more confident and assertive player. He’s fascinated and intimidated by Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a fierce competitor who brushes aside others. Together they team up to thwart the evil corporation IOI (Innovative Online Industries) run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). They want to own the Oasis, riddle it with ads and product placement, and restrict the freedoms to a lucrative caste system. Parzival and Artemis must find the keys, stay ahead of IOI and their team of super players, and hide their real-world identities before they can be unplugged one way or another.
Ready Player One is a first-rate action spectacle from one of cinema’s masters of spectacle. Spielberg unleashes his incredible imagination with the full-force of a pretend world where any thrill-seeking adventure can happen. You can feel his genuine sense of joy at getting a chance to play in such a big world where anything is possible. This is best encapsulated with a race that challenges all laws of physics and good sense. The obstacles are extreme and as the cars careen into one another, King Kong trounces the track, and various nasty surprises await, it becomes a propulsive, thrilling, and ridiculously entertaining set piece. The last time I can recall a Spielberg film feeling this downright fun, first and foremost, was perhaps 2011’s Tin Tin, an underrated adventure. Spielberg has a delightful comic touch when it comes to constructing creative and satisfying action set pieces, laying the foundation for future payoffs and complications. There’s an extended sequence where the players have to infiltrate the Overlook hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and it’s glorious. It’s the most sustained pop-culture reference and nostalgia point, but it actually lines up cleverly with a mission goal. The overpowering flurry of pop-culture references I was worried about never come to much more than momentary visual signifiers (“Look, he’s driving the car from Back to the Future. Look, he’s got the Holy Hand Grenade.”). You don’t need the background to enjoy the film, and the references are just a bonus for those nostalgic aficionados in-the-know. It rises above the hefty anchor of nostalgia to tell its own story on its own epic terms.
With that being said, Ready Player One is also little more than its eye-catching spectacle. There’s very little substance here to be had. The film is 140 minutes long and feels breathless, allowing nary a moment to catch contemplate, deepen the characters, or explore the outside world in greater detail. The movie is packed with expository plot beats about the inner workings of the Oasis and every time it hops to a new level it resets and we have to learn more rules and surprises. It kept me entertained, don’t get me wrong, but when you come out the other end you can look back and see little. It’s a thrill ride first and foremost but one that feels entirely ephemeral. There’s so little to hold onto that generally matters. It’s the film equivalent of fast food, a tasty jaunt but something not exactly made from the best ingredients. It even takes that’s 80s pop-culture appreciation and transforms into feeling like an 80s movie, complete with an ending where even the bad guy gets his just deserts in a comical low-stakes way. We’re watching a bunch of teenagers fight against The Man taking control of their play space and corporatizing it. That feels like the VR equivalent of, “We gotta save the rec center from those evil land developers who just don’t get the communal power of art, man.”
I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters and it felt like the “be whoever you want to be” freedom of the Oasis could have been better employed. Take for instance Artemis, who in real life is Samantha and has a blotchy birthmark on her face. I understand that she’s self-conscious about the mark but she still looks like Olivia Cooke (a pretty girl with a birth mark still looks like a pretty girl). The romantic relationship between Parzival and Artemis feels like user projection, falling for the cool, kickass gamer girl. She rightly retorts, “You think you’re in love. You don’t know me, only what I show you.” This stand for female agency regrettably melts away and Artemis/Sam fall into that familiar dance of emotions. The side characters feel more like second or third tier team members on a spy mission, offering little variance. I didn’t really get a sense of any of the central characters from a personality standpoint except for their loving appreciation of pop-culture, which is then morphed into a pop-culture artifact itself. The larger mystery of Halliday’s past regrets is rather predictable and amounts to little more than “seize the day,” which is also a pretty 80s message if you think about it.
Another aspect hampering the impact is the dire lack of stakes. As far as I can tell, the biggest loss the players experience is their in-game credits and achievements. They may have spent months or years accumulating those, but if they were to disappear there’s no real larger harm to anyone. It’s a mere inconvenience, the same thing with dying in the game. I was waiting for another step where dying in the game would translate into the real world (“You die in the game, you die for real!”). They even introduce a fancy VR suit you can wear to literally feel the action of the game, though why anyone would want to feel the pain inflicted via a video game is beyond me (the pleasure I can understand). When we watch characters fight against incredible odds, the most that’s at stake is having to regenerate at a different location and get back into battle. It makes the struggle feel less realized and certainly less substantial. It plays into the already ephemeral spectacle. I heard from my seat neighbor, who had read Cline’s novel, that (book spoilers) one of the players is killed by the evil corporation by finding out where he lives and throwing him out a building. The movie needed a moment like that. Imagine, Sorrento being confronted by Parzival and friends, and he points to one and says, we know where you live, we’re breaking down the door now. The guy turns around, hearing the sounds coming from his real-life environment. Then Sorrento gets a radio call about breaching the room and a gun is placed against the character’s head. His scream is cut short as the sound of a gunshot echoes and his avatar disappears. Then Sorrento points to the remaining players and says we know where each of you live. That scene would have raised the stakes for the final act, not to mention be a sly nod to The Matrix. Unfortunately, even when the bad guys are trying to kill people, the stakes feel small.
I think part of the lower stakes is also because we never get a clear sense of life outside the Oasis. If just about every human being is wired into this VR world, how is all that electricity being generated to power this experience? What is the economy of this world? What do people do to subsist in their homes? Is money related to in-game achievements? These loyalty pods, which are essentially a twenty-first century debtor’s prison that profits off virtual slave labor, how are they legal? What exactly is the legal system like in this world? Also, we see people running outdoors with their VR helmets on. Won’t they run into traffic or a building or some kind of obstruction? I never understood how this world operated. Perhaps that’s the reason Spielberg spent a solid 75 percent in the Oasis, keeping our minds occupied with shiny things before we can begin to question.
Sheridan (Mud) is a handsome and likeable leading man, though he just came from another movie where he wears a visor over his eyes (X-Men: Apocalypse). He leaves enough of a favorable impression to make you wish he had more going on. The same with Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) who plays the spunky, spiky love interest and experienced gamer girl. It’s a role that Cooke performs nonchalantly, evoking the ethos of being enviably cool and thus desirable to legions of gamer boys. Cooke is capable of much more, as evidenced recently by her phenominal performance in Thoroughbreds, but I’m happy that she’s getting a big platform and from Spielberg too. The other castmates add a needed sense of diversity to this future world, though I was wondering why the pop-culture references were almost entirely American. Surely Halliday would have been the kind of guy that was entranced by the gee-whiz cool artifacts of other cultures like Japan. The best actor is Mendelsohn (Rouge One) who seems to be carving out a fine career in Hollywood movies as an officious middle-manager villain. He’s the right kind of slimy while still being weak at his core that fits so perfectly for these kinds of roles. Sorrento also employs a fierce female enforcer (Killjoy’s Hannah John-Karmen) with some sharp bangs who reminded me of Luv from Blade Runner 2049. Even more 80s-ness!
With Spielberg at the helm, it feels like he’s the perfect person to bring Ready Player One to the big screen considering he’s one of the biggest progenitors of our 80s nostalgia. It’s a loving homage to pop-culture without being suffocated by the cumulative artifacts of pop-culture. It’s a rousing, imaginative adventure with some terrific special effects and stunning action set pieces. It’s an enjoyable trifle of a movie, lacking larger substance, characterization, and sustainable stakes. It feels too light, but then maybe that’s another argument for its adherence to the feel of 80s movies, where problems could be solved with dance-offs or choice montages set to Jefferson Starship. Ready Player One should delight fans of the book and even those ignorant of all its myriad references. Whether audiences cherish this alongside those keepsakes of the past is another matter.
Nate’s Grade: B
Matt Reeves is a director who seems to have found his true calling refashioning the work of others. He remade the Swedish film Let the Right One In and improved it in several areas, though having Richard Jenkins and Chloe Grace Mortiz and a complete lack of CGI cats certainly helps. Then he inherited the new Apes franchise with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the fledgling franchise didn’t miss a beat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about these damn dirty apes ever since the 2011 prequel kicked things off. Reeves took control of the franchise and deepened it, following a very non-Hollywood playbook that embraced subtleties, patience, and quiet moments. It had its crazy apes action but it was a movie in service to its characters first and foremost. Reeves, serving as co-writer once more with Mark Bomback, brings the franchise to its natural and thrilling conclusion. War for the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster with soul.
It’s been fifteen years after the outbreak of the devastating Simian Flu. Mankind is dwindling and falling victim to a secondary virus as well. There are only pockets of humans left and small militias taking the fight to the super-intelligent apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis once more in mo-cap) and his followers have taken refuge near a waterfall. The ape community is ambushed by soldiers led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). With their home exposed, Caesar splits up the remaining numbers and sends them out to find a new shelter. He is determined to seek out the Colonel for vengeance. Eventually the other apes are captured and put into a slave labor camp and Caesar and company must rescue them and flee mankind’s last gasp at staying atop the food chain.
This may be one of the bleakest blockbusters in recent memory, especially when you consider that you’ll be actively cheering for the relative extinction of mankind by the end credits. Human beings are on the brink of extinction and this has drawn out the worst fight-or-flight instincts in the remaining numbers. This is about a final fight for survival on a visceral, us versus them level, and after two movies it should be abundantly clear what direction this is all heading. Even as humankind is doing a terrific job of wiping itself off the planet, humans still present a clear threat to the remaining apes. The second film explored how a working trust was improbable and unfathomable to many on both sides of the conflict because of the injustices. That’s pretty heady for a talking ape summer blockbuster. War closes the series with an even bigger and bleaker scenario, as humanity is entering the hospice phase of its social dominance. Roger Ebert referred to the movie theater as an empathy machine, and it’s amazing how far you will empathize with non-human characters. You will feel their triumphs, setbacks, loss, and anger, and you will root for the demise of mankind. We had a good run but maybe it’s time for a different species to become the caretakers of dear Mother Earth.
This is a final film that makes allusions to some of the darkest aspects of human history including, but not limited to, slavery and the Holocaust. It doesn’t traffic in black-and-white moral absolutes. There is good in some humans, several of whom were thrown into military service unprepared, under-trained, and simply existentially lost. There are apes that have made the calculation that it’s better to work with the humans than be killed. That’s right, there are collaborationist apes, and Reeves doesn’t look down on them. They too are allowed complexity and nuance and even the possibility of redemption. No one, man or ape, is beyond the capacity for compassion. You strongly feel their shame brought from moral compromises. It’s hard not to think about real-life analogues like the Jewish police that chose to work at the behest of their Nazi oppressors. They’re all still victims.
There is great suffering and vengeance on display with War, and it’s all too easy for characters to justify it on a literal specist argument (“Apes aren’t people, and they would have done the same to you”). Caesar is trying his best to manage a fragile co-existence, though this becomes untenable with every new attack. It’s a cycle of violence that only knows recriminations and fear. This struggle is personalized for Caesar as he wrestles with his own selfish, self-destructive impulses to seek out vengeance at the potential cost of the greater good for apekind. Caesar is still haunted by the ghost of Koba (Toby Kebbel, in a welcomed albeit brief appearance), the ape he slew in the previous film. Koba could not let go of the hatred he carried for mankind for their myriad abuses. It consumed him at great cost. Caesar is battling these same impulses but is self-aware about his responsibilities as the leader of his people, but even that might not be enough to dissuade him. To have that kind of emotional conflict within a CGI animal who happens to be the protagonist in a major Hollywood production is simply remarkable.
I don’t want to scare people away. War for the Planet of the Apes is still a very entertaining and gripping movie that can easily warrant stuffing your face full of popcorn. It’s also a blockbuster with tremendous weight. At a steep 140 minutes long, I still could have used even more of this movie. Reeves displays an uncommon sense of patience for a blockbuster filmmaker given a big studio’s checkbook. A majority of this movie is silent and this doesn’t panic Reeves. The director tells his story in a visually appealing and accessible way that doesn’t scrimp on characterization and depth. For long stretches the only communication on screen is ape sign language (small quibble: the apes too often fail to look at one another when they do this). There’s a lingering hush over much of the film, allowing the audience to immerse themselves fully. When the action does heat up, the sounds and music matter more. The solemn silences, hunting parties, and tense standoffs should remind people of Westerns and prisoner-of-war movies. This is the second big-budget 2017 movie making direct Vietnam parallels concerning a man-vs-apes conflict. The prison escape structure of the second half is immediately compelling and just as well developed as what came before. The multiple points needed for an elaborate escape are presented one-by-one and organically. The mini-goals and geography are clear at all times. It leads to an all-out assault climax that is thrilling on multiple levels but also deeply satisfying because of the extensive legwork.
Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has been the beating heart of this franchise and his work as Casaer has been a monumental achievement in the advancement of special effects (the series has never won an Oscar for its VFX). Caesar is a fully formed character with relatable flaws and doubts, and thanks to the wizards at Weta, you can see the nuances flash across his face. Serkis brings an impressive range of emotions to a non-human character that’s piercingly silent often. It’s a performance that deserves shared credit to the animators and to Serkis, who is deserving once again of awards consideration that I know will unfairly never come. Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) is definitely evoking a Colonel Kurtz homage, a man given over to the darkness. I appreciated that his character has a credible back-story that informs his actions. He’s not simply a maniacal madman. He respects Caesar and the apes, but views life as a zero-sum game, which makes genocide an appealing last-ditch option. The pleasant surprise among the cast is Steve Zahn (Captain Fantastic) who plays Bad Ape. It’s a character that seems prone to comic relief non-sequitors, but he’s scarred from his own survival experiences. This is an ape still going through PTSD and that presents even the comedic with a twinge of tragedy. The unseen actors behind their mo-cap performances breathe startling life into the numerous non-human characters, bringing unparalleled realism to this sci-fi realm.
As the conclusion to the Apes prequel trilogy, you will also experience plenty of powerful emotions. I full-on cried twice and teared up about four other separate occasions. I cannot even remember another major summer tentpole that triggered that kind of emotional response (maybe a Pixar title or two). We’ve traveled with Caesar and several of these apes for three movies and six years. We’re emotionally invested. I knew I was going to lose it if anything happened to the orangutan, Maurice (I won’t confirm his fate). The community and empathy we’ve shared with these characters for three movies comes to a gratifying conclusion that feels appropriate, sizeable, and aching with potential for further adventures in this new and exciting world.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a movie so rewarding, so engaging, that you walk away angry that other Hollywood blockbusters can’t be this good or aren’t even trying to be. It’s emotionally rich and resonant, hitting you in the heart just as often as it quickens your pulse. Because of the investment in the characters, and their ongoing progression, we genuinely care about what happens like few blockbusters. The characters don’t take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Serkis and his amazing cast of mo-cap performers have delivered performances that rival live-action actors. There are clever nods to the original series that fans will enjoy but this Apes franchise has been its own beast from the beginning. This is a thoughtful, reflective, and contemplative film that fits well for such a thoughtful and contemplative series, and yet it still knows how to deliver stupendous sci-fi action (our lives are just that much more complete having watched an ape fire dual machine guns while riding a horse). I would declare Dawn as the best action of the trilogy, but I think War is the best movie because of how much everything matters and finishes. I think once the initial dust settles, it’s time to start thinking about this new Apes trilogy place among the all-time great movie trilogies. It’s been consistently enthralling from the beginning and has treated its animal cast as equally worthy of the greatest stories movies can deliver. War for the Planet of the Apes is powerful proof of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of offering at its absolute finest.
Nate’s Grade: A
Days after viewing writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, I’m still contemplating what I just saw. That can be the sign of a good, thought-provoking movie, or it could be further proof that The Bad Batch is really an empty experience.
In a not-too-distant future, the United States has found a unique solution to crime. Those deemed irredeemable are tattooed with “bad batch” and abandoned into the American Southwest. It’s a dusty land of outlaws that the U.S. doesn’t even recognize. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is deposited into the wastes of the Southwest and she is abducted by cannibals who make a meal out of her right arm and leg. She escapes and finds Comfort, a small outpost where she can heal and find community. The makeshift leader of Comfort is The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a messianic figure who doles out free drugs to the townspeople. He also has a harem of pregnant women. Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the hunkier cannibals, loses his daughter and forces Arlen to help him.
I’m going to summarize the sparse two-hour plot, dear reader, to share with you just how little there is to this film (will keep spoilers mild). Arlen gets kidnapped. She escapes. Months later she kills one of the cannibals. She quasi-adopts a little girl. Her father goes searching for her. Arlen loses the little girl. The father finds Arlen. They find the little girl who was unharmed. They eat a bunny. The end. Now admittedly any movie can sound rather flimsy when boiled down to its essential story elements (Star Wars: “Space farmer accepts call to adventure. Rescues princess.”) but the counterbalance is substance. Characters, world building, arcs, plot structure, setups and payoffs, all of it opens up the film’s story beats into a larger and transformative work. That’s simply not there with The Bad Batch. It’s a vapid film that has too much free time to fill, so you get several shots that are simply people riding motorcycles up to the camera. I grew restless waiting for something of merit to happen. Arlen simply just walks out into the desert like three different times, and this is after she was captured by roving cannibals that are still out there in healthy numbers. If you went to a store and the owner captured you and cut off your arm, would you venture back in that direction? Maybe there’s a commentary about victimhood and the cycle of abuse and exploitation, or maybe I’m left to intuit some kind of grander implication out of a filmmaker’s lack of effort. There’s just not enough here to justify its running time. It feels stretched beyond the breaking point.
If the film is meant to be about immersion, something that holds together via hypnotic Lynchian dream logic, then it better work hard to hold my attention since plot has already been abandoned. This is where The Bad Batch also lost me. It’s just not weird enough, though even weird-for-weird’s-sake can be insufferable, like Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home at Night) has an innate feel for visual arrangements and little quirky touches that can burn into your memory, like the sight of Arlen sidling next to a magazine clipping of a model’s arm she taped to a mirror or a well-armed pregnant militia. The most interesting elements of the story are left unattended though. This is a vague dystopia where the government has decided to let the “bad batch” fend for themselves in a desert. It screams neo-Western with a lawless land populated with criminals and killers. There are only ever two locations we visit: the cannibal’s junkyard and the outpost of Comfort. Do we know anything about these locations? Are they at war? Is there some kind of understanding between them wherein Comfort offers sacrifices for protection? Is there an uneasy peace that could be spoiled thanks to Arlen’s vengeance? It’s all just vast wasteland, but even when they get to actual places, it still feels like empty space. How can you make something about dystopian cannibals be this singularly boring?
The characters just aren’t worth your attention and ultimately don’t matter in service of story or even a potential message. Arlen is much more of a figurehead than a person, and perhaps that’s why the director chose Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as her lead. The former model certainly makes a visually striking figure and knows how to arc her body in non-verbal ways to communicate feelings. However, I don’t know if there’s a good actress here. There’s no real reason to take away her arm and leg except that it looks cool and edgy. Initially it presents a visceral vulnerability for her and a disadvantage of escape, but after she arrives in Comfort, it’s as if she’s just any other able-bodied character. It feels like the director just liked the look and thought it would grab attention or say something meaningful. Momoa (Justice League) has a natural intimidating screen presence but he’s given so little to do. He’s just on glower autopilot. Miami Man is a killer and we watch him cook people’s limbs for some good eats. It’s almost like the movie wants you to forget this stuff when his paternal instincts kick in. Rather than embracing the light-and-dark contradictions, the movie just has him shift personality modes. There’s no confrontation or introspection. Reeves (John Wick 2) gets an idea of a potentially menacing character but even he isn’t presented as an antagonist. The Dream is living large thanks to the cooperation of those in Comfort. He has a harem of willing ladies for breeding but he doesn’t seem dastardly. He’s like the grown-up rich kid throwing the party that everyone attends. Then there are near cameos by Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey, and Diego Luna, which make you wonder why they ever showed up.
The depressing part is that The Bad Batch starts off with a bang and had such potential. Amirpour is so assured early on and draws out the terror of Arlen’s plight in a gripping and satisfying manner. Her drifting is then met by a futile escape, and then we witness the relatively tasteful dismembering of our heroine. It’s disorienting but establishes the conflicts of the scene in a clear and concise fashion. The odds are against her and Arlen uses her captors underestimating her to supreme advantage. The opening twenty minutes are thrilling and well developed, presenting a capable protagonist and a dire threat. And then the movie just drops off the face of the Earth. I haven’t seen a movie self-sabotage an interesting start like this since perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The first twenty minutes offer the audience a vantage point and set of goals. We’re learning about Arlen through her desperate and clever acts of survival. The rest of the movie is just bland wandering without any sense or urgency or purpose exhibited in that marvelous opening (hey, the amputated limbs special effects look nice).
Vacuous and increasingly monotonous, The Bad Batch valiantly tries to create an arty mood piece where it re-purposes genre pastiche into some kind of statement on the broken human condition. Or something. The story is so thinly written and the characters are too blank to register. They’re archetypes at best, walking accessories, pristine action figures given life and camera direction. It’s flash and surface-level quirks with distressed art direction. It feels like it’s trying so hard to be a cult movie at every turn. I’m certain that, not counting Keanu’s cult leader, there might only be 100 words spoken in the entire film. I feel like The Bad Batch is going to be a favorite for plenty of young teenagers that respond to its style and general sense of rebellion. Until, that is, they discover movies can have both style and substance.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two may be the bleakest Young Adult-adaptation ever put to film. It’s a franchise that began with the televised spectacle of children killing children, so it’s never exactly been the cuddliest environment for our emotions. This is a conclusion that is overwhelmingly dark and pushes the boundaries of the mainstream PG-13 ratings. If you’re expecting a happy ending, look elsewhere.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the face of the revolution between the Capitol and the thirteen districts of Panem. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been returned but he is recovering from intense brainwashing from the Capitol. He doesn’t know whether Katniss is a friend or foe. The fight is now being taken directly to the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The cagey leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to stay behind with the members of her propaganda team. Katniss sneaks off to the front lines of conflict with her District 12 pal/potential love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The Capitol’s gamemakers have designed a series of fiendish surprises for the rebels on every block. While Katniss and her team are behind the fiercest fighting, she is still a high-profile target sought for prompt elimination.
Mockingjay Part Two doesn’t hold back when it comes to the ugly realities of war, namely the innocent casualties in the pretext of an ends-justify-the-means pragmatism. I was reminded of World War II stories and photographs as Katniss and crew stumble through the bombed-out ruins of Capitol neighborhoods. There’s something eerie in the silence amidst miles of rubble. In Part One we saw similar carnage with Katniss’ home district, incinerated by Snow, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend that only one side of this conflict suffers. It’s not exactly a cutting edge commentary on the atrocities of war but it’s still appreciated. Put simply: plenty of bad things will happen and others will attempt to justify these bad things, and at one point that includes the knowing slaughter of innocent children as a political gambit (for you book readers, the body count remains the same. Sorry if you were hoping for a reprieve for certain characters). The series has explored the nature of trauma and nobody gets out free. When Katniss is making her way to the Capitol, it can be easy to forget all the prior character work animating her decision-making. When a Capitol loyalist points a gun at her head and asks for a reason he shouldn’t kill her, she says, “I don’t have one.” In a sense, that can be looked upon as lazy screenwriting or, and I’ll give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps acknowledging the realities of entrenched conflict when it comes to class warfare.
The attention to social and political commentary has helped give The Hunger Games a bit more maturity than the rest of its YA ilk who often rely upon simplistic oppressed/oppressor conflicts that naturally fall into authority vs. individuality. I appreciate that the filmmakers have followed author Suzanne Collins’ approach to human conflict, which doesn’t dabble in black and white but a larger series of grays (50 shades of them? I’m sorry). This intelligence has given the franchise a depth that could be easily ignored, either by audiences looking for their next fix or studio execs that demand dumbing things down. Part Two forgoes the political gamesmanship for more traditional action suspense sequences, several of which are quite entertaining. There’s an underground chase with snarly mutants that is terrifically teased out suspense-wise. I do appreciate conversations started on how exactly one moves on from tyranny and how easy it is to follow in the same footsteps in the name of justice. However, if you don’t predict where Katniss’ final arrow is going, then you aren’t paying attention to the lessons on recrimination being underlined by explicit on-the-nose dialogue.
There are a few improvements including finally making Peeta an interesting character. He was the noble, nice guy, the somewhat boring conscience for Katniss, but after being returned from the Capitol’s brainwashing, he’s struggling to identify what is real and what is false. It’s still hard to believe that Coin would allow his inclusion on Katniss’ team making its way to the Capitol that is until you remember that Coin also sees Katniss as a political threat for post-war leadership. The love triangle has long been the least interesting aspect to the entire Hunger Games series and part of this falls upon the character of Peeta, who, removed from the manufactured romantic narrative for the cameras, has struggled to be ore than a weak link. Here he can be a threat at any moment, triggered by whatever daunting stimuli that may make him slip back into psychosis. He becomes a ticking time bomb and something far more risky than a romantic alterative. When Peeta becomes a “bad boy” is when he finally becomes worthy of our attention.
If Mockingjay Part One was all protracted build-up to the climax, then Part Two is all climaxes, and yet given the lugubrious allowances afforded by filling the running time of two separate movies, the movie is oddly anticlimactic as well. We’ve been waiting for the confrontation between Katniss and Snow for three whole movies, and Part Two picks up immediately after where Part One ended, and yet we’re still made to wait. Coin wants Katniss to still be primarily a propaganda tool and stay miles behind the front lines, which causes more of Katniss chaffing against authority like she does. Once she does get to the gates of the Capitol, the movie follows a familiar deadly games setup, this time in a more open terrain but the basics are the same: Katniss and crew have to battle a series of deadly booby-traps to reach their goal and kill the bad guy. In a sense, the plot mechanics are similar to video game stages needing to be cleared. It’s a setup that predictably picks off the more expendable members of Team Katniss One, though I’ll give them credit for spreading out the sacrifices. The losses would hit harder if we actually cared about any of these characters on a personable level. Oh well. I also could have used more screen time for many of the supporting actors, notably Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Malone, Natalie Dormer, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is the last we’ll ever see of Hoffman on screen, and that fact made me quite melancholy by the end.
With the games long gone and the revolution at hand, The Hunger Games has always had some difficulty figuring out how to fill the space before the inevitable showdown with President Snow. In Part One we were mostly stationed in the bunkers of District 13 while we watched the other districts revolt. Like Katniss, we’ve been itching to get to the front lines, especially after Part One’s more plaintive pacing. Once we get to the action it’s more like mop-up duty, which robs the movie of some sense of satisfaction, which turns into a key theme. With the games we had the veneer of “paying” roles as media manipulation for survival, and with Part One we had the study of propaganda. With Part Two, it’s all dour action. I hope viewers aren’t expecting a fantastic finale between Snow and Katniss and their collective forces because then you shall be disappointed. The filmmakers, hewing very close to the novel, have the conclusion to the revolution play out in more realistic and grounded terms, which add points for realism and relevance, but it does detract from some sense of overall satisfaction.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has guided the franchise with sturdy skill and a keen eye for visual arrangements, but if there’s one significant visual complaint I have it’s that these movies are too damn dark. I’m not talking thematically, as I’ve already explained above, but simply from a light level. These movies are just hard to see. Lawrence seems to favor low-light environments to create an ambivalent mood. That’s fine, but I’d also like to see what’s happening on screen. In the last movie we spent a majority of our time in dank underground bunkers, but Part Two is an outdoors kind of picture, so why is it still so hard to distinguish what’s happening?
With the approaching end of The Hunger Games (until Lionsgate milks more money from its lucrative cash cow) it’s appropriate to take stock of its legacy. No other YA franchise has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist like The Hunger Games, but its ultimate legacy will probably be cementing the once promising young actress Jennifer Lawrence firmly into the upper echelon of Hollywood. In the time since our first foray to Panem, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and proven to be one of the hottest stars on the planet, the kind of actress that esteemed directors are fighting to work with and studio heads want to tap as their lead. Much like Katniss’ meteoric rise to renown, Lawrence has become her own version of the Girl on Fire. She has been better than the Hunger Games movies for some time, and yet Lawrence hasn’t failed in her primary duty to provide an anchor for the audience. Her gritty, conflicted, and commanding performances in the franchise have been a unifying resource for audiences and a reminder of her considerable talents. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two brings to a close a massively successful film franchise and an important chapter in the ascendancy of Ms. Lawrence. It’s thrilling, bleak, and inhabits most of the hallmarks that have come with the Hunger Games films, though in somewhat less supply to make way for the onslaught of action climaxes. There’s more anticlimax then you’d expect, and I credit the filmmakers for sticking with it even at the detriment of the experience. Mockingjay Part Two does enough to end the franchise on an appropriate if somber note. I’ll see everyone at the proposed theme park (seriously, look it up).
Nate’s Grade: B
Crafting movies around theme park rides is a rather risky creative proposition. For every Pirates of the Caribbean mega-franchise, there’s a Haunted Mansion. Theme park rides are more locations then they are stories, so it’s an adaptation where there’s nothing really to adapt except for a setting starting point. Tomorrowland has a few nods to its spiritual source material, but it’s an original science fiction film with much on its mind beyond entertainment. With Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, The Iron Giant) turning down the new Star Wars to make Tomorrowland, I had definite expectations. Bird hasn’t made a bad movie yet. He still hasn’t but Tomorrowland is definitely the worst film in Brad Bird’s heretofore-unshakable pedigree.
Casey (Britt Robertson) is a dreamer with a capital D. While her teachers bemoan the cataclysmic shape of world events and instability, she doggedly raises her hand to ask, “Yeah, but what can we do to fix it?” Her father works for NASA but the nation has lost interest in space and has stopped looking at the stars. Casey sneaks out every week to thwart the demolition of a NASA launch platform. She can’t let it go. She comes across a mysterious pin that, when touched, transports her to a hidden world, a future city called Tomorrowland. But there are others that are looking for this city too. A slew of androids chases after her to retrieve the pin. Robot child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) becomes a protector for Casey and the two set off to find Frank (George Clooney), a hermit and mechanical mastermind who once lived at Tomorrowland before becoming disillusioned.
This is one of the few movies where the more characters explained the plot the more confused I ultimately became. The story by Bird, Damon Lindeloff (Prometheus, HBO’s The Leftovers) and Jeff Jensen doesn’t exactly a clear narrative, and that begins with the structure, inserting two framing devices that are too cute for the movie. The first 15 minutes is Frank’s childhood experience discovering Tomorrowland, and this is probably because we won’t see Clooney’s grown-up Frank until an hour into the movie. It takes far too long to get going, instead becoming a series of unnecessary plot detours, like a trip to a collectibles store in Austin or a trip to the Eiffel Tower. Is there a reason that a return to Tomorrowland is saved for the very end of its final act? Probably because utopias are boring, which the movie itself admits and admonishes us for accepting. You see, dear reader, it’s all of us and our collective negativity poisoning the planet. Our use of cynicism and our love of dystopias in movies and literature are to blame. In this proclamation, a movie as madly genius as Mad Max: Fury Road is leading to the downward spiral of humanity, and nobody who sees that brilliant film could accept that. Tomorrowland has some legitimate points, precisely aimed at the inconvenience of action over the convenience of stasis. In one of the better articulations of its shiny happy message, a character says that people accept the worst because “they don’t have to do anything today.” It’s the global equivalent of, “I’ll start my homework tomorrow,” knowing we’ll probably never get around to it, to our own detriment.
Tomorrowland’s idealism would be easier to swallow if it wasn’t so oppressively scolding. First, allow me to reject its notion that popular culture wallows in darkness and there is no inherent value with this predisposition. If this was true then no one would read the wealth of Russian literature, which is reams and reams of pages of suffering, unrequited longing, confusion, anxiety, pressure, and finding what grace one can. One of Casey’s teachers upholds George Orwell’s 1984 as a living testament to what we’re going through today, but Orwell’s novel isn’t popular or well revered just because it’s desolate. Would millions of readers be foolish for finding something powerful and poignant in Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning dystopian cannibal road trip, The Road? Just because one is optimistic doesn’t mean you’re in the right, and just because one is pessimistic it doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong. Perhaps the culture is too hesitant to take necessary action because it’s easier to buy into the argument that our actions are meaningless; hence why the newest argument against environmental reforms to curb the effects of climate change amount to, “Yeah, but what difference will it make now?” If Tomorrowland was trying to rouse its audience into action, it went about it the wrong way. The movie’s tone is far too scolding and stuck on can-do platitudes to be anything beyond an earnest motivational poster that will ultimately be ignored.
Then there’s the film’s restricted view on what constitutes the Right Dreams. Casey refuses to allow the NASA launch station to be demolished because it supplies her dad with a job, but really it comes down to her idealism of man’s capacity to achieve. And yet, her chosen way of expressing this, besides general perkiness, is to cling to an older definition of what constitutes achievement. The space shuttles were grand but we’ve outgrown them and space travel itself has migrated into the private sector. Just because U.S. astronauts aren’t being launched into space with the frequency they once were, does that means the country has somehow lost its ideals? Or are we allowed to adapt to the demands of the times? Strangely, Tomorrowland holds onto a retro definition of what constitutes achievement, something also touched upon in Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughey shook his McConaugh-fist at all these young kids for not having the same level of interest in the old technologies and pursuits. Tomorrowland fixates on the scientific dreams of the 1960s, but that’s no longer a representation of our world. What it ends up pining for is a throwback to Disney’s own era of gee-whiz futurism, a world where flying cars are valued above, say, the Internet.
If you think about it, Tomorrowland’s utopia is pretty much a progressive version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In Rand’s famous ideological tome, the “best and brightest” (a.k.a. rich industrialists) decide they’ve had enough with the common man getting in their way, and so they up and leave and start their own secret paradise where they won’t be disturbed by the likes of us “normies.” With Tomorrowland, it’s not the business types who take their ball and go home but the inventors, scientists, and artists, the creative class, who are given magic passage to a hidden world where their work will be undisturbed by those deemed less creative and/or essential. It’s intended to be inspirational but it awkwardly falls into a murky class-consciousness it can’t escape. Who defines the value of creativity exactly? Is there a Tomorrowland board of directors that says, “You know what, we definitely need that guitar player. Forget having plumbers.” Are the day-to-day laborers and paper-pushers, the ordinary people that keep the infrastructure of the world running, are they just deemed less significant? Tomorrowland apparently only has the best and brightest when it comes to all things, including the people that take out your garbage and unclog your sinks. Are the gravediggers the finest from around the world? Is the world’s greatest and most creative gravedigger still a few notches below a rather lackluster environmental scientist? As you can see, it invites all sorts of questions that will go unanswered because, again, the film’s message is everything, and the particulars of its invite-only exclusive society are off limits.
The action sequences are also strangely dull for a filmmaker such as Bird. Each sequence has its moments of inventive orchestration, especially a brawl in the sci-fi collectible shop that squeezes in lots of homage. Too often the action is missing the creative spark Bird has showed in so many of his past films, particularly 2004’s The Incredibles. The mayhem is also a little too intense for younger children, especially with real people being so callously zapped into dust out in the open (not exactly keeping a low profile, robot henchmen). There’s also a child robot who factors into a lot of the peril, and then very uncomfortably into a late scene where she expresses her love for the grown-up Frank. I understand they had a connection when they were kids but the movie still ends with Clooney cradling a child in his arms and talking what could have been their tale of romantic love. It’s just a little creepier than affecting. Speaking of which, are children going to be entertained by something this message-laden and obtuse in plot? Are adults going to be entertained with this movie? Who is this movie actually for?
The saving grace of Tomorrowland is the performance of its plucky heroine played by Robertson (The Longest Ride, TV’s Under the Dome). She’s got great presence on screen and a naturally charm that is far less oppressive than the material she’s delivering. Clooney (The Monuments Men) is his standard appealing, handsome, wounded leading man, and it’s a mistake to hold his character out of the action for so long. When George Clooney is on the poster for your big-budget sci-fi movie about the power of dreamers, you shouldn’t wait a whole hour to get around to his character. Magnifying this problem is the fact that the narrative has so few characters who actually matter, mainly four, and one of them isn’t significant until an hour in and another isn’t until the very final act.
Tomorrowland is a sincere, hopeful, and idealistic film that shoves its message in your face and doesn’t offer much in the way of an alternative besides, “Do better.” The problem is that this message of hope and agency is lost amidst a plot that is swallowed whole by near-constant exposition, a clunky framing device, and a world-destroying scheme that seems horribly convoluted in a manner unfitting for the supposed smarty-pants antagonists. It’s simply not a very good story, not told in a very good way, and a message that needs to go beyond a simplistic slogan to be more inspirational. It’s a pretty film with some fun moments, but Tomorrowland is a reminder that not all nostalgia is credible, not all dreams are equal, and messages are digested better when the audience cares about what is happening and (key point here) understands it. Me? I’ll prefer going to see Mad Max: Fury Road again, but that’s just me dooming humanity. Worth it.
Nate’s Grade: C+