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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+

Bird Box (2018)

As a film critic, I feel compelled to write about Bird Box because, apparently, one third of the entire Internet is currently talking about this Netflix sci-fi horror movie. It’s about killer monsters that cause people to violently kill themselves upon sight. Netflix has reported that over 40 million customers have watched Bird Box in its first week of its streaming release, which basically means 35 million people likely fell asleep to Netflix and it started playing the new high-profile movie on auto play. I know people that love this movie. I know people that hate this movie. I know people who hate this movie with a passion and go into apoplexy trying to describe their disgust. Bird Box isn’t a movie worth strong feelings, both good and bad. It’s a fittingly entertaining movie with too many structural flaws, underdeveloped ideas, and diminished tension and stakes.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is trying to navigate the post-apocalyptic world of monsters. She’s traveling down river with her two children, all blindfolded. Meanwhile, she flashes back to the first few days of the monster outbreak when she found security in a stranger’s home until things went from bad to worse to murderous.

Part of the problem with Bird Box is that the monsters never feel that threatening because the hazy rules manage to defang them. Given the unknowable nature of monsters, I’m not expecting a textbook but some level of consistency that won’t rip me out of the film. The monsters are only a threat when you look at them, which is fine, except they cannot or choose to refrain from physically interacting with their human targets. I don’t know if this is a natural limitation, a choice, or simply anecdotal evidence that will be disproved. Just because the monsters haven’t done something yet doesn’t mean they might not be able to. Just because the monsters don’t attack anyone wearing a blue sweatshirt with a googly-eyed reindeer doesn’t mean this is standard. We see at one point the collateral movement of a monster chasing after Sandy and the kids, shoving trees and other forest vegetation aside. They do physically interact with the world; they just do not interact with our characters. This takes away much of the danger of these creatures. There’s one scene where a character is struggling to get indoors and, oh no, the garage door is opening. Look out; all he has to do is… continue not looking at the monsters as he was doing without effort. It makes me think of The Simpsons Halloween episode where the key to defeating killer mutant advertisements was not to look (it had Paul Anka’s guarantee).

The monsters also adopt the voices of loved ones, so survivors would start to learn from these experiences and begin to carry a deep skepticism about suddenly prevalent loved ones begging for blindfolds to be removed. Does this mean the monsters can psychically read the thoughts of human beings to know what voices to tap into? It made me think of The Bye Bye Man and its Bye Bye Man-induced hallucinations (“Is this cop’s face really oozing black blood through empty eye sockets, or is that you Bye Bye Man, you scamp?”). This is an interesting aspect that never feels fully developed, the mistrusting nature of the calls for help. Instead of adopting the voice of dead loved ones, I wish the monsters had chosen more judiciously. You could feature a sequence with someone genuinely calling for help and being left behind by Sandy because, in their blindfolded state, they cannot tell the difference in the authenticity of the speaker’s claims.

But what I kept coming back to is why can’t the monsters go indoors? This was a hurdle I could never fully get over because it cheapened the threat for me. As with any apocalyptic or viral outbreak, there is danger in having to leave the sanctuary, and there will be a need to gather supplies, but once you have a home base the monsters can’t enter, it loses a level of stakes. It makes me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs where space aliens can travel the stars but cannot open a pantry door. Having limitations on your monsters is essential or else the threat will feel too overwhelming, but these limitations need to make consistent sense. The monsters in A Quiet Place had superior hearing but were essentially blind. The monsters in Bird Box are deadly to look at, will tempt you with auditory siren songs, but as long as one remains indoors and stays away from windows, you can live a happy and healthy albeit sheltered life of repose.

This is one reason why the story has to find a new threat that is allowed to venture into the safe spaces. There are certain people who seem immune to the suicidal impulses of the monsters. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) implies people who were crazy beforehand are unaffected, though what degree of crazy or mental instability is up to interpretation. These people worship the monsters and actively try to force others to look at them, to also be enlightened. This could have been an interesting addition to the world of Bird Box but it plays it too straight. These cultist people are just another obstacle, a group of standard movie crazy killers. I was hoping that the screenplay was playing coy with this subject and biding its time only to introduce this group in a more meaningful and manipulative fashion later. It never happens. They’re just crazy killers meant to enter buildings and pose a new indoors threat. Now you can’t trust anyone!

The structure of Bird Box constrains the overall impact of its story. The movie is divided almost equally between two different timelines, one shortly after the start of the monster attacks and one five years later. I was waiting for these two different storylines to inform one another, and they do in essentially superficial ways. We know in the future story that it’s only Sandy and the kids, so it’s only a matter of time before everyone in this house will end up dead. It also hurts that this segment is best described as “dime store Stephen King.” We’re stuck with a group of strangers who have all been given one note to play, therefore the extra time feels tedious because we don’t care about them or what happens to them next (sorry John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, and others). Winnowing these extended flashbacks and sticking with the current day storyline would have improved the movie. There’s a more immediate threat and it presents a more intriguing scenario of being on the run and learning as we go about the monsters and the accrued survival tactics. I think learning on the run would be more exciting rather than conveniently finding refuge with a guy who explains everything because he was doing a book report on the supernatural and somehow knows the rules. This would also better hone the theme because the “before” of our before-and-after dynamic doesn’t establish Sandy enough as a disinterested mother.

Much of this could be forgiven or mitigated if the suspense sequences were engaging and smartly developed. I can forgive any nagging plot quibble with A Quiet Place (Why don’t they live closer to the waterfall? Why don’t they have a sound system to draw away monsters?) because the suspense sequences were brilliantly executed and highly unnerving. This just isn’t the case with Bird Box. There is one clever sequence that seems to capitalize on the possibilities of its sight-challenged premise. During the house half, the gang climbs into a car and uses its motion sensors and GPS to navigate a trip to the local grocery store for a supply run. It’s fun and decently staged. The inclusion of caged birds being a monster alarm is interesting until it starts to become more ridiculous. People never seem to listen to these birds and pay the price. The initial outbreak in the opening, with cars flipping and people flipping out, has a nice escalation into madness and chaos. The movie never quite recovers that same tense feeling. Watching people wander with blindfolds doesn’t make for great visual tension unless we see what they do not and dread what’s to come. Bird Box settles into a generic paranoia thriller about who can be trusted, and that’s even before the crazy cultists come knocking. Outside in the woods, the final act involves running to sanctuary, but without the killer cultists, it’s only running away from a thing that can’t touch them. It makes for a curiously inept climax and a sentimental resolution that feels unearned.

The arc of the movie is about Sandra Bullock’s character accepting motherhood and attachment to others but this theme is murky. She named her children “Girl” and “Boy” because she didn’t want to think of them as her own. This is the kind of thing that seems more symbolic and meaningful in theory than practice. She tells the children that in order to survive in this brave new world that they must be ready to cut another person loose at any moment. Attachments to others will get you killed, or so Sandy argues but not in deed. Because this storyline covers half of the film, the relationship she has with the kids feels underdeveloped but not by Sandy’s choice, by the filmmakers. If Sandy’s character arc was going to end at the destination of her realizing love is not a detriment even in a horrible, terrifying world, then we needed more time spent on this emotional journey, which is another reason why we could have used more time in the present-day storyline. A degree of self-sacrifice feels missing to better signify the theme of attachment and the emotional stakes.

I reiterate that Bird Box is not worth the strong feelings of love or hate. It’s got a wobbly structure where either half fails to better inform the other, the limitations of the monsters guts too much of the tension and stakes, and the actors deserve better. Bullock delivers a strong central performance and serves as our entertainment anchor. She makes the movie more watchable and does her best with some less-than-stellar expository dialogue. It’s enough to make you wish this movie was better and better realized with its spooky premise.

Nate’s Grade: C

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