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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released June 29, 2001:

A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.

In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.

It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.

David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.

There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.

It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.

I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.

The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.

A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There are two aspects that people remember vividly about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and that’s the fascinating collaboration of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time and its much-debated and much-derided extended ending. Before we get into either, though, a fun fact about its very helpful title for Luddites. Originally the title was only going to be A.I. but the studio found that test audiences were confused by the two-word abbreviation and several clueless souls thought it was the number one and not the capital letter “I.” The studio didn’t want their high-concept meeting of cinematic masters to be confused with a popular steak sauce.

In the realm of cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick rise to the top for their artistic ambitions, innovations, versatility, and great influence on future generations, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a uniquely shared sensibility. Kubrick’s films are known for his detached, mercurial perspective, flawless technical execution, leisurely pacing, and a pessimistic or cynical view of humanity. Spielberg’s films are known for their blockbuster populism, grand imagination and whimsy, as well as the director’s softer, squishier, and more sentimental view of humanity. It almost feels like a mixture of oil and water with their contradictory sensibilities. And yet Kubrick and Spielberg developed A.I. for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Kubrick optioned the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt that Spielberg was a better fit for director in the mid-1980s, but Spielberg kept trying to convince Kubrick to direct. Both took on other projects and kept kicking A.I. down the road, also because Kubrick was dissatisfied with the state of special effects to conceive his “lifelike” robot boy. Kubrick died in early 1999 and Spielberg elected to finally helm A.I. and finish their creative partnership. He went back to the original 90-page treatment Kubrick developed with sci-fi novelist Ian Watson and wrote the final screenplay, Spielberg’s first screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and his only one since 2001). I view the final movie as a labor of love as Spielberg’s ode to Kubrick and his parting gift to his fallen friend.

Watching A.I. again, it is a recognizable Kubrick movie but through the lens of Spielberg’s camera and budget. In some ways, it feels like Spielberg’s two-hour-plus homage to his departed mentor. The movie moves gradually and gracefully and, with a few delicate turns, could just as easily be viewed as a horror movie than anything overtly cloying or maudlin. The opening 45 minutes introduces a family whose child is comatose with some mystery illness and the likelihood he may never return to them. The husband (Sam Robards) is gifted with a shiny new robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), as a trial from his big tech boss (William Hurt) who wants to see if he can make a robot child who will love unconditionally. The early scenes with David integrating into the family play like a horror movie, with the intruder inside the family unit, and David’s offhand mimicry of trying to fit in can make you shudder. All it would take is an ominous score under the scenes and they play completely differently. One scene, which is played as an ice breaker, is when David, studying his parents at the dinner table, breaks out into loud cackling laughter. It triggers his parents to laugh alongside him, but it’s so weird and sudden and creepy. David’s non-blinking, ever-eager presence is off-putting and creepy and Monica (Frances O’Connor), the mother, is rightfully horrified and insulted by having a “replacement child.” However, her emotional neediness steadily whittles away her resistance and she elects to have David imprint. This is a no-turning-back serious decision, having David imprint eternal love and adoration onto her, and if she or her husband were to change their minds, David cannot be reprogrammed. He would need to be disassembled. With this family, David is more or less a house pet kept around for adoration and then discarded when he no longer serves the same comforting alternative. Once the couple’s biological child reawakens, it’s not long before jealousy and misunderstanding lead David to being ditched on the side of the road as an act of “mercy.”

From there, the movie becomes much more episodic with David and less interesting. The Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) addition furthers the story in a thematic sense and less so in plot. Gigolo Joe is a robotic lover on command, and framed for murder, and just as disposable and mistreated as David. From a plot standpoint, David’s odyssey is to seek out the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, a book his mother read to him, and to wish to become a real boy and be finally accepted as his mother’s legitimate son. Thematically, David’s real odyssey is to understand that human beings are cruel masters. In short, people suck in this universe and they don’t get any better.

People, or “orga” as they refer to organic life, are mean and indifferent to artificial life, viewing the realistic mechanical beings, or “mecha” as they are referred to, as little more than disposable toys. Despite its cheery happy ending (and I will definitely be getting to that), the movie is awash in Kubrick’s trademark pessimism. Early on, David is stabbed by another boy just to test his pain defense system. David is only spared destruction from the Flesh Fair, a traveling circus where ticket-buyers enjoy the spectacle of robot torture, because the blood-thirsty audience thinks he’s too uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be confused whether he is actually a robot considering that the adult models look just as realistic. He’s not like a super advanced model, he’s just the first robot kid, but applying the same torture spectacle to a crying robot child is too much for the fairgoers. However, this emergent reprieve might be short-lived once these same people become morally inured to the presence of robot kids after they flood the consumer market. Once the “newness” wears off, he’ll be viewed just as cruelly as the other older models also pleading for their pitiful mecha lives.

The tragedy of David is that he can never truly be real but he’ll never realize it. His personal journey takes him all over the nation and into the depth of the rising oceans, and it’s all to fulfill a wish from a benevolent make-believe surrogate mother. His programming traps David into seeing the world as a child, so no matter how old his circuits might be, he’ll always maintain a childish view of the world and its inhabitants. He’ll never age physically but he’ll also never mature or grow emotionally. Because of those limitations, he’s stuck seeing his mother in a halo of goodness that the actual woman doesn’t deserve. Monica felt like she was being helpful by ditching David before returning him to his makers, but this boy is not equipped to survive in the adult world let alone the human world. He cannot understand people and relationships outside the limited confines of a child. So to David, he doesn’t see the cowardice and emotional withdrawal of his mother. She knew the consequences of imprinting but she wanted to feel the unconditional love of a child again and when that got too inconvenient she abandoned him. Their relationship is completely one-sided with David always giving and his mother only taking. David’s goal is to be accepted by a woman who will never accept him and care for him like her organic child. She will never view David as hers no matter how hard David loves her. He cannot recognize this toxic usury relationship because he’ll never have any conception of that. David is trying to be loved by people undeserving of his earnest efforts and unflinching affections.

Do these look like robots to you?

Let’s finally tackle that controversial ending, shall we? The natural ending comes at about two hours in, with David in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean and pleading with a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island to make him a real boy. He keeps whispering again and again to her, and the camera pulls out, his pleading getting fainter and fainter. The vessel is trapped under the water, so he’ll likely live out the rest of his battery life hopefully, and hopelessly, asking for his wish. It feels deeply Kubrickian and a fitting end for a tragic and unsparing movie about human cruelty and our lack of empathy. It’s also, in its own way, slightly optimistic. Because David is so fixated, he’ll spend the rest of his existence in anticipation of his dream possibly being granted with the next request. He has no real concept of time so hundreds of years can feel like seconds. Everything about this moment screams the natural ending, and then, oh and then, it keeps going, and the ensuring twenty additional minutes try and force a sentimental ending that does not work or fit with the two hours of movie prior. Two thousand years into the future, David is rescued by advanced robots (I thought they were aliens, and likely you will too) who finally grant his wish thanks to some convenient DNA of his two-thousand-year dead mother. These advanced robots can bring the dead back to life except they will only last one day, so David will have one last day to share with his mother before she passes back into the dark. However, David’s conception of his mother isn’t the actual woman, so his rose-colored glasses distortion means he gets a final goodbye from not just a clone but one attuned to his vision. It’s false, and the fact that the movie tries to convince you it’s a happy ending feels wrong. Also, the world of 4124 still has the World Trade Center because A.I. was released three months before the attacks on September 11th. It’s just another reminder of how wrong the epilogue feels.

This extended epilogue desperately tries to attach the treacly sentimentality that was absent from the rest of A.I., which is why many critics felt it was Spielberg asserting himself. Apparently, we were all wrong. According to an interview with Variety in 2002, the opening 45 minutes is taken word-for-word from Kubrick’s outline and the extended ending, including the misplaced happy every after, is also strictly from Kubrick’s original treatment. It was Kubrick who went all-in on the Pinocchio references and parallels. Even the walking teddy bear was his idea. Watson said, “Those scenes were exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what he wanted, filmed faithfully by Spielberg.” The middle portion was Spielberg’s greatest writing contribution, otherwise known as the darkest moments in the movie like the Flesh Fair and robot hunts. The movie is much more sexual than I associate with Spielberg. There has been sex in Spielberg’s past films, but it’s usually played as frothy fun desire with cheeky womanizers (Catch Me If You Can) or as a transaction with unspoken demands (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple). Then again, when Spielberg really leaned into a sex scene, we got the awkward and thematically clunky “climax” of Munich. With A.I., the perverse nature of humanity is another layer that reflects how awful these people are to the wide array or robots being mistreated, abused, and assaulted on an hourly basis in perpetuity.

Twenty years later, the movie still relatively holds up well and is good, not great. It’s more a fascinating collaboration between two cinematic giants, and the fun is recognizing the different elements and themes and attributing them (wrongly) to their respective creator. The special effects are still impressive and lifelike even by 2021 standards. Even though the movie is set in 2124, so over 100 years into the far-flung future, everyone still dresses and looks like they’re from the familiar twentieth century (maybe it’s retro fashion?). It’s a slightly distracting technical element for a movie otherwise supremely polished. There is a heavy emphasis on visual reflections and refractions of David in his family home, exploring the wavering identity and conceptions of this robo kid. Spielberg’s direction feels in keeping with Kubrick’s personal style and sensibility. A.I. is a labor of love for Spielberg to honor Kubrick, and he went another step further with the 2018 adaptation of Ready Player One where one of the missions was exploring a virtual reality recreation of the famous Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In my original 2001 review, I took the same level of umbrage with the miscalculated ending as I do in 2021. In the many years since its release, A.I. has been my go-to example of a movie that didn’t know where to properly end. As a result, it’s still a fascinating if frustrating experience on the verge of greatness.

Re-View Grade: B

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)

After watching it twice on Netflix, I have come to the conclusion that The Mitchells vs. The Machines is my favorite animated film since 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. It’s so colorful, so exuberant, so clever, while still being heartfelt on its own terms and packing more jokes into a minute than any studio comedy in years. Everyone should check out 2021’s first cinematic treat.

The Mitchells are known as the weird family in their community. Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) is more about the outdoors and hands-on activities. His teenage daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson), is more about the digital sphere and creates her own sardonic, strange videos. She’s leaving for college and eager to fly the coop. Rick feels his last opportunity to bond with his daughter is leaving with her, so he forces the family into a cross-country road trip to drop Katie off at her school. Linda Mitchell (Maya Rudolph) is doing her best to be supportive of her husband and daughter while trying to bridge their divide. Youngest son Aaron just wants everyone to get along and talk about dinosaurs endlessly. The road trip gets even more precarious with a machine uprising and flying robots rounding up humans to eventually jettison them into space.

This is a gloriously entertaining movie that looks absolutely gorgeous. The animation is accentuated with similar styles from Into the Spider-Verse, so the filmmakers have implemented an overlay that adds a two-dimensional shaping and shading to the characters to provide more distinct definition. It’s a new design I heartily enjoyed in the Oscar-winning Spider-Verse and I hope more major animation projects employ it. It’s combining the fluidity and scale of 3D animation with the tactile and personal flavor of traditional animation. The movie also echoes its Gen Z-YouTube culture with cute hand drawn additions that will pop on the screen as accents or take over as quick freeze frames. I thought it was fun and a good indicator of Katie’s meta-drenched sense of humor and creative voice. This is also an explosively colorful movie with vibrant arrays popping off the screen. There were several visual sequences that took my breath away just at the arrangement of colors. The heavy use of neon pastels made me wonder if Nicolas Winding Refn (Neon Demon) was a visual consultant. There’s a stretch that highlights pinkish sunsets and the beautiful light blues of approaching dusk that I said this was the Nomadland of animated movies. Even when this movie has nothing happening, it’s a pleasure just to take it in and appreciate the artistry.

But oh my goodness there is so much happening with The Mitchells vs. The Machines. It’s a longer animated movie at 110 minutes but it’s also so fast-paced and antic, filled with ideas and jokes and moments it feels like it cannot wait to share. In some ways it feels like talking with a hyper-literate, boundlessly excited little kid, and I don’t mean that as a negative. I’m sure there will be more than a few viewers who will tire out early or find the pacing exhausting, but if you’re a fan of The Lego Movie and its hyperactive style of comedy, then you should be able to adapt here. The movie is densely packed with jokes, some that zip by in fractions of a millisecond to reward multiple viewings. I was laughing throughout and besides myself at several points, laughing hysterically from the slapstick to the offhand one-liners to the callbacks and silliness. There’s a little of everything here comedy-wise and it all works. It’s a buffet of laughs. One joke that is simply a tonally serious push-in on the question of mortality had me howling and it’s only a one-second gag. There’s a segment in a deserted shopping mall with the re-emergence of Furbys that is inspired lunacy (“Behold, the twilight of man!”). You have to be this good to be this smartly silly. This is the kind of comedy you can only do in the realm of animation, packing as much into the visual frame as possible and moving at the clip of the creative’s imagination. The side characters are the film’s secret weapons. The dumb dog made me laugh just about every time he was onscreen, and the fact that the movie legitimately finds a significant solution with this dog later is fantastic. The family also come across a pair of malfunctioning robots (voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen) and take them in as part of their unconventional family, and the robots are a terrific team for comedy bits, from their early entrance trying to ineptly persuade the family they are in fact humans (“Yum yum. Yum yum good.”) to their one-off remarks from a confused perspective had me laughing regularly.

The movie is more than just an assembly line of expertly calibrated gags, though again it must be said how flat-out hilarious this movie can be, like it’s disarming how instant the funny can break. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is also a well written movie from a character perspective and makes the audience genuinely care about this self-described clan of weirdos. My girlfriend looked at the running time for the movie and initially balked at how long it was, especially since we had seemingly come to a part that could serve as its Act Two break. “It better be worth that extra time,” she warned, and by the end even she agreed that it was time very well spent.

The heart of the movie is on the father-daughter relationship and while the other characters don’t get shut out, they become helpers to their various sides of this fractured relationship. The conflict is relatable, about the disconnection between two loved ones who just don’t feel like they have much in common any longer. For Rick, he doesn’t understand technology, the thing that Katie thrives in, and he’s struggling to adjust to her growing older. Those familiar daddy-daughter points of bonding don’t have the same appeal to her as a young woman increasingly embarrassed by her Luddite father. There’s a sincere warmth between the two, it’s just they don’t know how to express it fully to the other person and be seen as how they would like to be seen. It’s a generation gap, yes (Rick’s fear of technology will ring true to those with Boomer parents), but it’s also just two people who cannot use the same old tools to get the same results. The screenplay serves up both sides so that we see where each is coming from, understand their frustrations and overreaches, and pull for their reconciliation and growth. The themes are kept simple but expertly developed and with wonderful payoffs not just for Rick and Katie but for everyone. Each member of the Mitchell family unit has a character arc with a payoff, and each is utilized in a meaningful way with our outlandishly joyous climax, and that includes the dog and robots! Even the villain’s perspective is a parallel to our central family conflict, and that is just good writing. The story is deceptively clever and there’s more going on under the surface.

Besides the visuals, the comedy gold, and the heartwarming family relationships, there’s amazingly even more reasons to enjoy The Mitchells vs. The Machines. The voice acting is great, with McBride (This is the End) being a surprise standout as a loving middle-aged father. Also, of note, is that 2/3 of the principal cast of Netflix’s Disenchanted series are found in this movie (where for art thou, Nat Faxon?). The thrumming musical score by Mark Mothersbaugh is a synth-heavy blast that made me recall the scores for Blade Runner 2047 and his own Thor: Ragnarok score. The movie even features inclusivity in a casual manner; the son’s autism and the daughter being LGBTQ are treated with “yeah, sure” acceptance. At no point is either called out or featured in a moment to highlight this but neither are they dismissed as unimportant. Stick around because there are extra levels to the end credits, and I was happy for each because I didn’t want this wonderful time to end, so I kept hoping for more resolution to play out.

The movie was originally meant to be released a year and a half ago but COVID pulled its release date, and eventually Sony sold their project to Netflix for a cool $100 million. It’s hard for me to put an exact price on a work of art (what is this, an NFT? Seriously, someone explain these things to me) but I’m happy Netflix saved this movie and gave it a home. At this point, I’m willing to give producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the utmost benefit of the doubt when it comes to anything animated. After Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, Spider-Verse, and now this, they haven’t let me down yet. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is an eye-popping action movie and a superb comedy that the whole family can enjoy.

Nate’s Grade: A

Space Sweepers (2021)

Luc Besson sci-fi opera by way of South Korea, the unfortunately named Space Sweepers is a wonderful surprise of a movie that could unfairly get lost amid the glut of Netflix. It’s immediately engaging and filled with intriguing world-building. In 2093, Earth is a garbage dump and the rich (and primarily white people) have migrated to an orbiting space station that needs protecting from space debris. That’s where the space sweepers come into play, ragtag teams competing to claim space junk to sell back to The Company, though never able to escape their crushing debt. The Company is looking to colonize Mars and put more effort into making it habitable than salvaging Earth. A little girl might be the key to a flourishing Mars or resurgent Earth. She finds her way into the custody of a colorful group of malcontents, each with a clearly defined personality, motivation, and character arc, including the snippy robot who likes to harpoon ships in space. Spending time with this world and these characters is such an enjoyable experience because it just uncovers more and more layers to the hefty world-building and history. The story itself isn’t revolutionary, and the villain is a megalomaniacal CEO (Richard Armitage), and you’ll fully anticipate that the same space scrappers that want to sell off this little girl will eventually grow close to her and will be willing to die for her. The plot itself, at least in broad strokes, might be familiar, but it’s the level of detail and imagination and especially execution that sets Space Sweepers apart. I enjoyed how diverse the depiction of this future was, where people from different languages would simply speak their native tongues and be perfectly understood thanks to in-ear translators. The action sequences are exiting and visually immersive. I’ve never seen a harpoon in space battles before. It feels like a living anime moment. The special effects are consistently impressive. The set designs are large and lived-in. The small details all manage to add up, and small character moments still resonate, like one character’s constant loss of his shoes for greater sacrifices or a robot that feels seen for the first time as they are. A late twist had me nearly applauding for the emotional impact it altered with a big standard doomsday scenario. It’s a supremely fun and imaginative setting, enough that I thought it would have sustained a whole series on Netflix. I was happy it was a movie, though, because then I got all the payoffs and climaxes in one slightly two-hour setting. I’m impressed every year at the sheer high quality of the genre movies that South Korean filmmakers have been delivering. I highly advise fans of frothy, fun sci-fi like The Fifth Element to find this movie on Netflix and give it a watch. It’s a surprise treat and proof positive that old concepts can still shine with the right effort and careful development.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

I wanted to love Willy’s Wonderland. It’s easy to see the pitch: Nicolas Cage in Five Nights at Freddy’s. That sounds like everything you would need for a gonzo movie experience with, hopefully, an unrestrained Cage. The problem with Willy’s Wonderland is that it seems to have peaked at its inception. I’ll credit the creature designs of the many killer animatronic animals inhabited by the spirits of a dead Satanic cult demanding sacrifice. They’re chintzy and creepy and effective in their Chuck E. Cheese/Freddy’s reference points. However, the movie clearly appears to be out of ideas pretty early. Cage plays a janitor hoodwinked into working overnight at the abandoned pizza parlor and he doesn’t say a word for the entire movie. For those looking for the splendidly crazy moments that can define Nicolas Cage performances, I think you’ll be slightly disappointed. The character has a few quirks, like his surprisingly ironclad work ethic, but the character is just as underwritten, absent personality, and replaceable as any of the killer robots. For a movie where Cage fights a bunch of bloodthirsty robots, it starts to get a little boring because of the narrative redundancy. Toppling one robot after another feels too easy and the specific set pieces are unmemorable. There are a slew of highly annoying teenagers that stumble in so there are more victims to be terrorized. In one moment, these teens will denounce doing stupid acts and the unreasonable risk, and then the next minute they’re splitting up to go have sex in the scary birthday room or murder and not keeping their distance from the murder robots they know are alive and murderous. If the movie was more satirical, I might even give the filmmakers credit for the dumb teenagers reverting to form regardless of obvious circumstances. My disappointment is that what you get with any ten-minute segment of the movie is generally the same thing you’ll get with any other portion. It’s a lot of the same. Is that consistency or a lack of development and imagination? The movie still presents some degree of fun because that premise is enough to at least hold your attention if you’re a fan of horror, Cageisms, and movie kitsch. However, Willy’s Wonderland could have used more drafts and variety to really tap into the sheer gonzo potential of its ridiculous pitch.

Nate’s Grade: C

Love and Monsters (2020)

Imaginative, quirky, and monstrously fun, Love and Monsters is a winning sci-fi monster movie and more evidence to the unique amusements provided in full from a Brian Duffield (Spontaneous, The Babysitter) story. In the near future, after blowing up a world-threatening asteroid, the ensuing chemical debris causes many lizards and insects to grow to world-threatening sizes, killing a majority of the population, and forcing the survivors to live underground in vaults. Our hero is Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a very Jessie Eisenberg-esque guy who isn’t so good at survival skills in this new world. His group looks at him like he’s a helpless kid who can’t defend himself. Joel discovers that his teenage crush, the girl he’s been writing letters to, is alive and he pledges to make the 80-mile trip on the surface to reunite with her. The resulting journey can be episodic but each section is impactful, each monster encounter is different and contributes to a fuller understanding to the world, and the character arc finds ways to surprise you, like when it acknowledges that Joel’s foolhardy romantic gesture is exactly that, him not fully accepting how the world has changed both he and the object of his desire. That sparkling creative voice of Duffield’s is alive and well throughout. His worlds feel well thought out, lived in, crazy but with purpose, and his characters are often teenagers with pointed attitude but they feel like characters rather than mouthpieces for overt stylized dialogue and pithy banter. O’Brien (The Maze Runner) is an interesting choice and gets to be far more neurotic and physically comedic than I’ve ever seen him. He’s an underdog that’s easy to root for. There are moments of wonder, moments of unexpected empathy, moments of suspense and terror, and plenty of moments of comic bemusement in the face of this crazy world. Joel befriends a very Woody Harreslon-esque father (Michael Rooker) with an adopted daughter in tow (the Zombieland character dynamics are pretty apparent but not a major detraction) and they form an enjoyable fractured family to help Joel become a better survivalist. I loved a small moment with a beaten down robot helper that manages to be sentimental as well as subverting sentimentality. The conclusion feels like a Walking Dead episode but it brings together many of the dangling storylines and proves satisfying for the character’s arc, a better understanding of the creatures in this world, and for Joel’s sense of self and community. The special effects are amazing for a movie that shockingly only had a tiny $28 million budget. Love and Monsters is a movie that makes the most of its time and money to tell a bigger story but one with enough wit, heart, and personality to draw you in and leave you happy for more post-apocalyptic monster adventures. All hail Duffield, king of spry and accessible quirk within the Hollywood system.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

Bill and Ted might be one of the most inexplicable franchises in Hollywood. It began as a riff on 80s high school movies by writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, taking the California surfer/stoner goofball supporting character staple and saying, “What if people deeply uninformed about history traveled through time?” 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure movie was a comic delight, and Bill and Ted became unexpected icons, action figures, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. The 1991 sequel could have easily repackaged another escapade through time but instead it went a completely different, darker, and weirder direction. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey followed its characters through death, hell, heaven, and back again. It’s been almost thirty years since Bill and Ted left the pop-culture spotlight behind. What more challenges could you present? Bill and Ted Face the Music is a sweet sequel that explores the, dare I even utter the word, legacy of these cheery doofuses, and while it’s not at the same level as its clever predecessors, I was more than happy to take one last trip with these gents. Most excellent.

It’s been decades since Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) hit the big time with their band Wyld Stallyns but life hasn’t quite worked out how they imagined. They had been told their music would bring peace to the world, but they’re in their 50s now, fame now behind them, and they have yet to live up to those heavy expectations. Bill and Ted are struggling to still write that perfect, magical song, the one they were destined for, but both men have growing doubts over whether or not they can make it happen. Their adult daughters (Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine) want to help and take the ole phone booth time machine for a spin, collecting famous great musicians throughout time to help collaborate with their dear old dude dads before all of reality unravels if that fabled song cannot be written.

Just as Bogus Journey rejected being a lazy reprise, Face the Music inclines to chart its own path as a sequel rather than replicating the hits of old while also staying reverent to why people loved the originals. This is more a time travel movie, and the daughters even go on their own Excellent Adventure rounding up famous musicians through history as a B-story, but the main story is squarely on Bill and Ted facing off against themselves and their collective insecurities. When challenged, the Bill and Ted of present-day figure that they can skip ahead to the future and simply take the world-saving song from their future selves, who obviously would have written it by then. It’s a move the franchise has used before, relying upon future actions to take care of present problems, so it’s fitting for the characters but this is the first film to explore this as a negative. Bill and Ted are desperate and looking for an easy solution and skipping to the end will do that. However, their future selves are pathetic has-beens who have yet to write the ultimate song, and they resent their past selves for setting them up for failure. There are many face-to-face meetings between present and further future versions of Bill and Ted and their interactions become an adversarial tit-for-tat. I looked forward to each new pit stop with future Bill and Ted to see how their lives were and if they were still trying to set up the past Bill and Ted for a long-simmering retribution. The fact that this storyline has a genuinely sweet and even poignant reconciliation is a joyous addition.

Thankfully, Bill and Ted are still the same lovable, affable, and relentlessly positive dudes we’ve known and loved since the 1980s. I appreciate over three movies how much these guys legitimately appreciate and love each other. That’s one reason why it’s so enjoyable to hang out with these guys regardless of what their adventures entail. It would be easy for Bill and Ted to have become jaded in their old age, cynical from not fulfilling their hallowed destiny. They could have some animosity between the two of them that need to be buried in order to work together, rekindle that old magic, and save the world. But the screenwriters know who these characters are. Even when things aren’t going their way, they stay who they are, hopeful and supportive. I also appreciated how this translates to their relationships with their daughters, who clearly love their fathers and want to follow in their footsteps. They even refer to them as “dads” rather than “dad.” The conclusion rests on the daughters and fathers working together, and the positivity that radiates through their relationships allows the ending to reach a surprisingly emotional high for a family of good-natured goofballs.

Face the Music is a bit overstuffed with subplots and characters, and I do wish there could have been some careful pruning to allow more room for the daughters. Bill and Ted’s wives, the princesses from Medieval England, have been recast again (Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mayes), and once again they are barely featured. There is an early conflict between the wives and husbands, and the prospect of losing them motivates Bill and Ted to save their marriages, but this conflict is entirely sidelined after the “end of the world” dilemma overtakes the plot. The wives are in their own subplot and also traveling through time or to parallel dimensions, though we never spend any time with them. There must be entirely cut scenes with them. Their perspectives could have been a whole other movie but they’re only an afterthought, as these characters have always been. Kristen Schaal (My Spy) appears as the daughter to Rufus (the late George Carlin), and we’re introduced to her mother, a deadly robot (Barry’s Anthony Carrigan) set to kill Bill and Ted for questionable reasons, the return of the Grim Reaper (William Sadler), plus all the assembled historical figures with the daughters. Also, just about every supporting family character makes an appearance too. It feels like too much, like the movie is constantly racing forward, juggling people and stories, when we didn’t need it all.

The daughters are more reflections of their fathers than independent characters. Each character, Thea and Billie, is a younger impression of their father and little else. They like the same music their dads like. They have the same goals their dads have. They have the same personalities their dads have. Both actresses are fun and Brigette Lundy-Paine (Netflix’s Atypical) does a wicked impression of a young Reeves, including adopting his sway-heavy gait, but I wish they had more to chew over. It seems cliché to make the central conflict of a third Bill and Ted movie an inter-generational one, where the fathers cannot relate to their daughters, and the four of them go on a fantastic journey that helps to bridge their differences and allow each side to better understand and relate. It might sound cliché but it could also have been compelling as well, and it would have elevated the daughters and their relationship into a primal position, rather than using the relationship with the near non-existent wives as the throwaway motivation for their call to action.

It’s been quite a while since Winter and Reeves have played these parts, and while they both have clear affection for their characters, it’s not quite a seamless relaunch. Reeves (John Wick) has been playing hardass action heroes for so long that it feels like he can’t easily recapture goofball energy. His line deliveries can feel far more stilted and low-energy. Winter hasn’t acted onscreen since 2013 and has transitioned into being a documentary director. He delivers a more spirited performance and hits the comedy notes more effortlessly than Reeves, but the time apart from acting shows. Watching both men imitate their younger selves and going through the same shtick can have a different impact on the viewer. Hearing the same catch-phrases but with deeper, gravely voices isn’t quite the same thing and serves as a warning of the enterprise living in its own shadow. My pal Ben Bailey found an old Bill and Ted to be rather sad. I think that’s part of what Face the Music leans into (including its knowing title). They haven’t succeeded like they wanted. That weighs on them. Neither character is about to contemplate suicide but there is a sense of disappointment about how their careers turned out that they’re barely staying ahead of, which adds a melancholy dimension to these characters still falling back on what they know because it’s all that they know how to do. It’s not overpowering but it’s an acknowledgement of the loss of time.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a charming, likable, and sweet-natured sequel that wraps up the franchise well, reminding fans why the Bill and Ted characters were so enjoyable from the start. In our COVID times, I’m finding it easier to shrug away some of the movie’s flaws, like its low-budget being noticeable, chintzy CGI special effects, and too many supporting characters on top of not integrating the daughters into the main action in a more significant fashion. It’s 90 minutes of laid back, light-hearted fun with actors and filmmakers who clearly love this franchise, and the screenwriters could have merely coasted and did no such thing. We didn’t need a third Bill and Ted big screen adventure but I’m happy that it still feels, even thirty years later, remarkably like Bill and Ted.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Beach House (2020)/ Archive (2020)

Sometimes when watching a movie I will get disappointed because I sense a path not taken that should have been, an intriguing premise that hasn’t fully been developed, and I get sad that the movie I’m watching isn’t really the best version of its potential story. Call it the Black Mirror Syndrome (oh, hot take). I felt this same assessment while watching two small indie films recently released on demand, one horror and one science fiction. Each has its own artistic merits and each I felt wasn’t the best version of itself.

The Beach House follows a twenty-something couple on a beach side retreat. They have problems in their relationship, there’s an older couple who arrive at the same house, and after awhile the film essentially becomes The Color Out of Space, an atmospheric horror movie about humans dealing with a biological unknown. Something from the sea is coming out, via mist or jellyfish or… something, and it’s affecting human psychology and physiology. The Beach House is far too vague for its own good and takes far too long getting its story moving. I started falling asleep at several points, so my attention was not exactly rapt. It ends in an expected downbeat manner but without greater explanation or even theories about what is happening, and there’s just not enough story and drama present to fill that void. The characters come across a subdivision of beach homes mysteriously absent any neighbors. It reminded me of a Stephen King story beginning, an environment where something bad has transpired and the new characters have to figure it out. As far as creepy atmosphere goes, it’s fine, and there are moments of unnerving body horror, like a protracted sequence where our heroine fishes out a jellyfish tentacle inside her wounded foot. Still, the general obtuse nature of the entire enterprise, and the underdeveloped characters we’re stuck with, made this feel like a disappointment for all but the most desperate for atmospheric horror.

Archive follows one scientist (Theo James) trying to replicate his dead wife Jules (Stacy Martin) into a physical robotic form. She died in a car accident but he was able to save her consciousness onto a server available to consumers, but it will fray over time and only delays her inevitable passing, so he’s toiling away at a remote mountainous lab to create a new host to download her into. He’s gone through two different robots, each more complicated and more representational of Jules’ full brain; the first (J1) is like a box with legs and has the capacity of a child, the second robot (J2) is more like a teenager and reminiscent of the robot from I Am Mother, and the the third one (J3), under construction, looks the most human and will contain the full brain activity and hopefully the full Jules. Archive is fine and goes just about where you would expect, with exception to a last-minute twist that doesn’t make any sense. You can pick apart why it doesn’t work but I guess they wanted something shocking. The problem is that this movie needed to be told from a different lead perspective. Rather than being told from the scientist’s point of view as he doggedly tries to save the woman he loves, Archive should have been told from the second robot’s perspective. J2 looks at what her master is doing with the third, seeing the time and attention he’s putting into her, making her more feminine, and J2 feels pangs of jealousy and loneliness. She pleads for her master to make her better, asks why she isn’t good enough, and wants to be better while he essentially strips her for parts for her replacement. I felt so much for this second robot and her sad plight with a cold, selfish, oblivious creator. If Archive had been told from J2’s perspective, it could have been something special. She is going through a wealth of emotions, desiring to be all the things her creator projects onto his latest project, and she feels like she is failing him. When Archive focuses on its robots it’s at its best, and when it goes back to its human trying to avoid losing his wife one last time, it becomes too ordinary. It does have some commendable production values and special effects for a lower budget indie. I wish the movie could have been rewritten from the start and given us the superior dramatic perspective to serve as our guide.

Nate’s Grades:

The Beach House: C

Archive: C+

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

By general consensus, it’s been 28 years since the world had a truly great Terminator sequel. What has been so challenging for filmmakers to continue this franchise? The absence of creator James Cameron is obvious, as it’s hard to find anybody with the blockbuster acumen to fill that empty director’s chair. I submit that I think it’s because the Terminator franchise is, at its core, a very limited franchise of stories (I never saw the short-run TV series starring Lena Headey as Sarah Connor). It’s about a killer robot after its target. That’s it. There’s some time travel jazz thrown in but that’s never been given tremendous contemplation, especially 2015’s brain-hurting alternative timeline reboot, Terminator: Genisys (with Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor). Now comes another attempt to revitalize this dormant franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate and this time they’re not just bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger but also the original Sarah Connor as well, Linda Hamilton. The early trailers and ads did not exactly give me much optimism. It looked like the same. Another killer Terminator. Another good Terminator. I saw little to earn enthusiasm. Then the positive reviews poured in. I’m here to report that Dark Fate is the best of the sequels, a satisfying mix of action, character, and world building, but I’m also ready to let this series go away into its own dark fate.

Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has been hunting down different Terminators for the last twenty years. Her path crosses with Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican autoworker who happens to be a very big deal to a future human resistance against future angry machines. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a future soldier sent back through time and given enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. She is to serve as protector for Dani, though Sarah seems to feel she has a claim to that position as well. Together the women will try and outrun a new Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and seek shelter from an unlikely ally, a retired and reformed Terminator (Schwarzenegger).

The Terminator franchise has been one built upon chase scenes, trying to escape a nigh unstoppable being and find refuge while it lasts. Because of that and a generally simplistic “save X to prevent future Y” goal, the franchise can often be reduced to a series of successful or unsuccessful set pieces, and as the movies continued the characterization flattened out, replaced by an influx of humor (Terminator 3), grimness (Terminator 4), or confusion (Terminator 5). What made the Cameron movies special was his magical ability to apply character to action, pushing everything forward so that every set piece felt naturally developed, with organic complications and mini-goals relating to the arcs and needs of the people on screen. The action in Dark Fate gets closest to that Cameron gold standard with some engaging sequences of big screen violence but tailoring it better to specific location and character dynamics. When Grace first rescues Dani, it’s at the factory where, oh great irony, machines are replacing human workers. The machinery of this factory floor gets utilized for the rough and tumble activity. There’s a mid-air collision that goes through a series of stages as things get worse and worse, including an extended sequence of zero gravity fisticuffs that is extremely fun to watch. The action is solid throughout.

Thankfully, the strong action under director Tim Miller (Deadpool) is aided by the storytelling core of three strong women. Arnold doesn’t even come back into the picture until much later. Each of these women has a different style to her, a different personality, and a different goal, whether it’s killing all Terminators first, spare the future leader at all costs, or looking for a sane middle ground that keeps everyone alive. It’s refreshing to watch the franchise return to its roots of strong female lead characters being given the reigns. The screenplay by David S. Goyer (Batman vs. Superman), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Justin Rhodes puts the spotlight where it belongs and tweaks some of the politics of old; Dani is derisively told by Sarah that it’s a woman’s womb that presents the biggest threat to the system, as they share the notoriety of being mothers of future male saviors. There’s a level of polish given to the characters that I appreciated, providing room to have them butt heads in a manner that felt genuine. There are some significant differences that makes this trio interesting but also satisfying when they work together for their common survival. The general mystery around the back-story of our genetically-enhanced human being Grace was a plus rather than another blank slate robot bodyguard.

Hamilton is back and so is Arnold, though he was also pretty central in 2015’s failed alternate timeline reboot. Fortunately for the audience, Dark Fate actually gives them things that matter. Both are given characters going through a sense of loss and rediscovery, working together to rid the world of a common evil, one out of vengeance and duty and the other out of penance. The interplay between them is rich in dramatic potential, as is the prospect of a Terminator model that wants to be moral without having its programming fiddled with by some enterprising human. This is a Terminator that wants to change and adhere to a code of ethics and principles. That’s interesting, and adding layers of personal animus just makes it more interesting. The screenplay lets the characters have enough little grace notes, smaller moments to breathe and remind you that these action stars were also more fleshed-out characters once long ago. I’m not going to say there’s some great lost play somewhere in a Terminator movie, but I was very appreciative of some of the smaller, more contemplative moments that dwelt on accountability and redemption. It’s not just all apocalyptic doom and gloom, there can be room to explore mature characterization too.

Another aspect I was not expecting was how politically relevant Dark Fate would become with the U.S. immigration crisis. Our heroes are traveling north via a caravan of immigrants, and for a while it felt like I was watching Sin Nombre but with killer robots. Then they have to sneak across the border and are captured and placed in crowded detention centers. There’s an entire jail break sequence with Terminators in an ICE-style prison. The evil Terminator makes use of the government surveillance network to track the other characters on their trek along the border, using the machinations of a police state to hunt down these fugitives. There’s not much in the way of commentary to be afforded beyond the simple empathy of watching other human beings struggle for a better life and being treated as less than human by an indifferent bureaucracy. There’s even a mixed-race blended family that serves as a focal point of a change of conscience. There’s a refreshing amount of diversity. I wish the movie had gone even further or staked more with commentary but I also suppose there’s a reason that none of this was seen in advertisements. I suppose the Dark Fate filmmakers didn’t want to turn away the dollars of any sensitive conservative ticket-buyers.

I have some general questions not so much for this movie, though they do apply, but for the Terminator franchise as a whole, and I figure I should address these as a separate section:

1) Why does the future only ever send one killer Terminator robot at once? If the goal is to kill one special target and it seems one Terminator keeps getting foiled, why not send more than one to accomplish the mission? Maybe there’s some technological limitation of time travel where only one machine can be sent at a time and there needs to be sufficient time to recharge. If you’re machines, you got time, and the way time travel works, it would not matter when robots were sent, just that they are arriving at the same date. I began to envision what this might look like and started composing a comedy sketch in my head where a classic Terminator T-100 knocks on a door, asks about seeing John Connor, and then an old landlord says, “Oh, he sure is popular today, come on in.” It’s here where the T-100 would come inside and be seated in a room with other Terminator robots throughout the ages. What would then proceed would be an argument among the many Terminators over who deserved to be the one to kill John Connor. One would say they were transplanted 30 years prior and had been waiting diligently until this moment in time, another would argue they are the most advanced, newer model and would have the best likelihood of success, and another would argue they had gotten the closest to him, etc. I’m sure someone may have already had this same idea but it amused me highly.

2) We’ve had shape-shifting Terminators since the first sequel in 1991 and there hasn’t been too much variance on them after. The problem is once we enter into the liquid metal, body-reshaping era, there doesn’t seem like there’s much more advancements to be had. The Terminator in the third film could also do some technical wizardry. The fifth one made use of nanobots, I think. I’ve tried to forget much of Terminator: Genisys, including the spelling of the subtitle. With Dark Fate, we get a new Terminator who can… have its metal skeleton jump out of its body… and serve as a duplicate? I don’t really know whether once the skeleton leaves if the “body” is more vulnerable or whether there are limitations. It’s unclear world building. Also, there are tentacle-enhanced Terminator robots seen in the future that would be deadlier. Regardless, none of these updates are as big a leap as the T-100 to the T-1000 and its shape-shifting. You have a master hunter that can take on any face, so why does it keep settling on the same face even after its targets know who they should be running from? Why do the shape-shifting Terminators not adopt a host of disguises in order to get closer to their prey? If I knew one face in the crowd to run away from, I would think my predator would not want to keep that face. I can understand from a filmmaking standpoint why you’d want a default look so the audience knows which character is which visually. I feel like these killer robots are undervaluing the shape-shifting.

3) Why do the Terminators have to work harder, not smarter? You have one target, usually, to murder to wipe out futures, so why take any chances with one assassin limited by their bipedal arms and legs? Why not send a thousand drones to blow up one human from the sky? Why not place a reward on the Dark Web and see how long it might take? Or, even better, why not send a robot with a nuclear bomb in its chest? That way all the Terminator needs to do is get its target in slight visibility and boom. It’s not like the machines seem to be worried about collateral damage.

4) No matter how many Judgment Days are averted, it seems like there will always be another down the line, so is mankind just biding its time before an eventual robot apocalypse? In the timeline of Dark Fate, mankind eventually creates a new A.I. that eventually attacks its human overlords, and it’s a new albeit delayed Judgment Day. Does this mean that the franchise is locked into an endless cycle of repetition, where victory just means postponement? A central theme throughout the series is “making your own fate,” the rejection of destiny, and the fluidity of personal choice and agency, and if the movie says, “Eh, human beings will keep making the same mistake over and over no matter how many interventions,” doesn’t that conflict?

I’m sure there are more questions for the Terminator franchise to be had but I’ll leave it at those. Dark Fate is the most accomplished of the Terminator sequels, post-T2, but this is still one franchise that feels low on creativity and interest. The prospect of another Terminator movie doesn’t fill me with any palpable degree of excitement. Even with this sequel that serves as yet another reboot, I’m not excited for further adventures. If there’s another movie, I’ll see it but mostly out of a sense of obligation. If this was the last we saw any of the original Terminator characters, it works as a fitting sendoff and as satisfying an ending as any before. What started as a special sci-fi series with one of the greatest action sequels of all time has become just another franchise on the decline with a fading brand name that studios keep picking at every few years, reassembling with new pieces that they hope might convince audiences there’s still vitality. Dark Fate is a perfectly good action movie with more thought and polish then I anticipated, finding legitimate reasons for bringing back its stars of old and giving them meaningful things to do. I had a good time with the movie but feel like this is one franchise that is ready for a merciful termination.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

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+

Bumblebee (2018)

Why haven’t they been making these kind of Transformers movies from the beginning? Bumblebee is a scaled-down, character-driven family film where the bigger moments re about fitting in, finding your sense of self, and keeping your new alien robot friend hidden from your parents. Set in the late 80s, Hailee Steinfeld (Edge of Seventeen) plays a high school senior dreaming of a life beyond her neighborhood and family. The ticket out is a new car, which just happens to be an Autobot from another planet disguised as a VW beetle. Because Bumblbee had his memory wiped from a fight years earlier, he’s very childlike and endearing, and the interaction between the big robot and Steinfeld will rekindle more than a few memories for The Iron Giant, E.T., and other classic “boy and his dog” tales. There’s a real attention to the characters, big and small, that makes this the best Transformers movie. Not everything has to be about the next world-destroying cataclysm. There’s plenty of formidable drama in watching a teen girl navigate the world with an unconventional new friend. Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) graduates to the world of live-action with a terrific feel for the visual parameters and material. It helps that Knight gives his film a sense of scale without sacrificing coherency. The camera prefers wider shots and longer takes so the audience can follow the action. The movie also has a sly sense of humor it knows when it call upon, like a highly enjoyable John Cena who is baffled at his government’s open door policy to evil robot aliens: “They have Decepticon in their name. Is that not a red flag to anyone else?” This is a well-paced, sweetly heartfelt movie with good humor, good characters, and good action. If this is what happens when you strip Michael Bay from the franchise, then lock him up.

Nate’s Grade B+

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