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+
Avatar cannot possibly meet expectations. Can it? The long-in-development pet project of director James Cameron has been dubbed as nothing short of a tectonic shift in moviemaking; it will “change movies forever.” Cameron had the idea for the movie 15 years ago but held on, waiting for the technology to catch up. After you’ve directed Titanic, the highest grossing movie in history, I suppose you have the luxury of waiting. The budget has been rumored to be wildly anywhere from $250 million to $500 million. Avatar was always planned as a 3-D experience and nothing short of the savior of modern movie and the theatrical experience. It would make going to the movies an event once again, something that could not be duplicated at home on puny TV screens. Given the reams of hype and anticipation, Avatar couldn’t possibly succeed, could it?
In the year 2154, mankind has posted a colonial base on the distant moon of Pandora. The planet orbits a gas giant and the atmosphere is deadly to humans after a few minutes exposure. The planet is inhabited by all walks of deadly, incredibly large life, including the indigenous Na’vi tribes, skinny, nine-feet tall blue aliens. The Na’vi also have connective tissues coming from their ponytails that allow them to connect with all nature by “jacking in,” so to speak. They are a relatively peaceful clan that makes sure to respectfully use every part of the space buffalo. It just so happens that they are also sitting on top of a huge enrichment of the mineral Unobtanium, which sells for a crapload of money back on Earth. A corporate exec (Giovani Ribisi) has hired a private army of mercenaries to forcefully move the natives. In the meantime, they are trying to reach a diplomatic solution. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the head of the Avatar program, where they biologically grow Na?vi bodies with some human DNA mixed in. People can then link their brains to the giant Na?vi bodies and walk and talk among the natives.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-Marine who is living the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His twin brother was apart of the Avatar program but was murdered, and he?s signed on to take his brother’s place (the avatars, naturally, are hugely expensive). Jake will plug into his avatar body and be able to feel like he can walk again. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, superb) likes the idea of having a former Marine on the inside. He makes a deal with Sully: provide useful Intel on the Na’vi, and he’ll get his “real” legs back. Jake and his fellow avatars ingratiate themselves with the Na’vi, and Jake is taught the ways of the tribe by Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). Their teacher-student relationship transforms into a love affair, and Jake begins having second thoughts about his mission.
To the heart of the matter, the special effects are transcendent. This is one of those pinnacle moments in the advancement of special effects technology. Avatar is now the new standard. The environments are so incredibly realistic that if I were told that Cameron and his crew filmed on location in some South American jungle, I would believe it without a moment’s hesitation. But everything in this movie was filmed on a giant sound stage. The visual detail is lushly intricate and altogether astounding. The planet of Pandora feels like a living, breathing world, with a complex environmental system. Every blades of grass, every speck of dust, every living creature feels real. Cameron and his technical team have crafted an intensely immersive, photo-realistic alien world. The level of depth is unparalleled. I found myself trying to soak up the artistry in every shot, admiring a tree canopy four dimensions back. The planet has an extensive night period, which has allowed the planet to evolve with an emphasis on bio-luminescence. Everything from moss that glows from being stepped on, to dragonflies that look like spinning flames, to glow-in-the-dark freckles on the Na’vi allows the movie, and Pandora, to feel like it has a rich evolutionary history. The ecosystem makes sense given the particulars of this world. Cameron isn’t just giving an extra leg or another eye to make the wildlife alien. The special effects are so good that you can easily take them for granted, like Jake’s atrophied legs. Those were special effects as well and yet they looked so real that I never stopped to consider them.
The Na’vi don’t necessarily have the same level of photo realism, however, this is by far the greatest motion capture accomplishment of all time. The creatures don?t appear rubbery or waxy, and there is honest to God life in those eyes, the same life that is absent in Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture movies. The CGI characters have believable facial expressions, capturing subtle movements and realistically capturing emotion. I’m still not a fan of motion capture, but at least Cameron makes effective use of the technique by recording actors movements and mannerisms and transforming them into nine-foot tall blue cat people. That seems like a better use of the technology than having Tom Hanks play a mystical hobo.
The 3-D is impressive as well but not the “game-changer” it was heralded to be. This is because Cameron doesn’t want to distract the audience and make them conscious of the 3-D gimmicks. There aren’t any moments where someone just hurls something at the screen randomly. There aren’t any clumsy swordsmen jutting forward. Because the 3-D glasses naturally dim the screen and make things darker, Cameron has smartly compensated by cranking up the natural light and vivid colors on screen. Nothing ever comes across as murky or hard to distinguish. Cameron has designed a 3-D environment that spaces out the different elements of the foreground and the background. There will be floating bits like ash or water that will seem right in front of your face. Short of that, you may find yourself forgetting about the 3-D because it’s not always utilized for a 160-minute action movie. It’s more just pushing the visual planes back with your depth of field. After all the praise about Avatar being the triumphant 3-D experience, I’m surprised that the best 3-D I’ve ever seen is still Zemeckis’ Beowulf. At least you still have that laurel, Zemeckis. For now.
From a narrative standpoint, Avatar has a lot of borrowed elements. It follows the exact same plot paces as Dances with Wolves. In fact, this story is exactly Dances with Wolves in space. Like Kevin Costner’s film, we follow an injured military man find acceptance and community with a native (Pandorian?) population. He falls in love, changes his world perspective, and realizes that these dignified people of the land deserve more than to be pushed aside for the greed of the Encroaching White Man. So he bands together and leads the natives against the superior military power of the White Man (It’s also the same plot formula for 2003’s The Last Samurai too). There?s even a young native that distrusts our hero at the start but eventually comes to call him “brother.” Add a few touches from Ferngully and The Matrix and there you have it. It’s the modern tale of colonialism where we, the people in power, are the enemy, though the villains of Avatar are corporations and private military contractors. That might not sit well with certain parts of the country; the same people that blithely think America can do no wrong simply because of its name. Cameron’s politics are pretty easy to identify on screen, and it’s probably too easy to dismiss the flick as “tree-hugging” eco-worshipping prattle. However, this is the same man that wrote and directed True Lies, which is nothing but the cool allure of the military industrial complex AND the villains were Arab terrorists.
Now, the characters aren’t too deep and the love story between Jake and his blue lady seems to be missing a couple reels worth of romantic development, but the movie follows its familiar beats with ease and the last act is terrific. It’s once again one of those all-out endings that gives way to a relentless series of explosions, but Cameron brings together all the creatures and characters he has established prior, which makes for a hugely satisfying and kick-ass payoff. Cameron is one of the greatest masters when it comes to constructing an invigorating action sequence, and he pulls out some great ones in Avatar. Geography is so key to staging a compelling action sequence, utilizing the particulars of the location and having an audience familiarized with the location. By he end, Cameron has fleshed out his world so well that we recall specific locations and remember their strategic value. The assault between the giant mechanical robot suits and the noble natives is great, with different points of action on the ground and in the air. Some have complained that the action sequences of Avatar are like a video game cut scene, and so what? My one complaint about the action is that we lose perspective by being with the Na’vi for so long. The audience becomes accustomed to seeing the world from the Na’vi proportional perspective, forgetting that these creatures are nine feet tall and even they look tiny on their flying dragon creature things, so how big must those things be?
The movie is not without some level of flaws, primarily in the storytelling department. The first 90 minutes of the movie feels really solid but then the next hour kind of simplifies everything in a rush to the climactic booms. The human villains become dastardly, the Na’vi become extra noble, and the romance with Jake and his blue lady gets consummated in a sequence begging for biological questioning (Do they “jack in” to each other? Is this somehow considered bestiality?). Jake could have benefited with some more back-story as well. The earnest “I see you” Na’vi greeting can get silly after a while. The whole avatar aspect doesn’t feel fully committed and could use more explanation. The Ribisi character is a shallow glimmer of the corporate weasel that Paul Reiser played so perfectly in Aliens. Cameron never says why the Unobtanium element is so valuable in the movie; apparently, Earth is out of energy resources. There are elements that border on the ridiculous, like the giant mech robot suit having a giant Bowie knife. The end leaves the distinct impression that the defeated human beings will just come back with bigger hardware and stronger nukes. If this Unobtanium element is so valuable to the energy resources of Earth, I doubt that one butt whipping is going to stop the exploitation of Na’vi resources. The sappy end credit love song by James Horner and Leona Lewis also might elicit more than a few guffaws.
The only real groundbreaking part of Avatar is the visuals but a familiar story doesn’t stop Cameron’s technical achievement. The plot is entirely predictable, and wholly borrowed, with a crazy different environment and a fresh coat of CGI. But can a highly derivative story kill a project built upon visual wonders? Not for me. Star Wars itself was derivative of many other stories, from samurai tales like Akira Kirosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, to Westerns like The Searchers, and war movies like The Guns of Navarone and The Dam Busters. Has that hindered the lasting impact of George Lucas’s quintessential space opera? I’d doubt you?d find too many folk with nagging complaints about Star Wars being too derivative. That’s because the characters were interesting and we cared about them, the story was satisfying, and the visual techniques pushed the medium forward. I could repeat that exact same sentence, word-for-word, about Avatar. It might not change movies forever as we know it, but Avatar is a singular artistic achievement that demands to be seen at least a few times, if, for nothing else, to stare at lifelike trees some more.
Nate’s Grade: B+