Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Seriously, how easy is it to register as a hunter-warrior? Do you have to take a correspondence course? Attend a special meeting and sing weird songs like Weight Watchers? “Assume the position” a la Kevin Bacon? If all you have to do is walk past a bunch of CGI robots and talk to a silly little Tin Man head, I’m in. I know firsthand what it’s like to cut a corner or two. I wasn’t feeling that whole Driver's Ed "commitment" when I was of-age, so I discovered a little loophole. As long as I signed up and did a bit of studying, there was a 200-question written exam I could take, allowing me to bypass weeks of boring after-school classes. Sure, I wouldn’t get to dream about pulling a Corey Haim and hooking up with Heather Graham while escaping the clutches of a mad bus driver, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I didn’t ace the exam, but I passed, which has pretty much been the story of my life. “Just good enough.” A mere three-day driving course followed, wherein we ended up helping our instructor run errands, and I had my license a little while later. If the sweet but creepily giant-eyed cyborg Alita can stroll in and snag a hunter-warrior license lickety split, you’d think everybody and their bionic mother would get on that bandwagon. Get those credits!
As a proud owner of Robert Rodriguez’s “Rebel Without a Crew,” his 1995 recounting of making his breakthrough indie El Mariachi (1992), I’ve been a fan for a while. Desperado (1995) is a lot of fun, although I wish there was more love for Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), which is messy but features a wonderfully quirky turn by Johnny Depp and a bombastic, heroic score. Of course, From Dusk til Dawn (1996) is gloriously nasty, despite its unfortunate, ratings-necessary use of green blood, and I’ll go ahead and be controversial: I prefer Planet Terror to Tarantino’s Death Proof in Grindhouse (2007), despite the latter featuring an iconic Kurt Russell performance. The Machete trailer was great as well, leading to a rare Danny Trejo-starrer that surprisingly worked. I was hesitant about Sin City (2005), but I ended up loving it as well, seeing it twice in the theaters. I’ve always preferred the more hard-edged Rodriguez films. Not particularly interested in the Spy Kids saga or SharkTits and Lava Lamp or whatever the hell that is. His career did seem to be showing some signs of wear-and-tear, however, by the early 2010’s. There was the aborted Jetsons movie, the failure of the fourth Spy Kids film and Machete Kills, then the ultimate disappointment; a seemingly desperate return to his previous hit with Sin City: A Dame to Kill (2014) which failed to stick the landing. Film directing was Rodriguez’s dream job and his relentless pace finally appeared to catch up with him. Save for some shorts and television projects, it would be five years before he’d jump back in the saddle with the lightweight, but undeniably entertaining Alita: Battle Angel (2019).
Another major contributor to this adaptation of the popular Manga was mega-director James Cameron. While Cameron has been busy working on his “Chinese Democracy,” aka Avatar sequels which, as of this writing, are still coming, he found time since his last feature, Avatar (2009), to do a bit of producing and even a little writing on Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), a halfway decent attempt to salvage the franchise after the disaster of Terminator: Genisys (2015). The major selling point for Alita was the involvement of Cameron as a producer, along with his longtime producing partner Jon Landau (Titanic, Dick Tracy, Solaris), and as a screenwriter, sharing the credit with Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon, Shutter Island). This was a fairly big deal, but have you ever looked at the title of a film and just thought, “Nope. Not gonna work.” When I say “work,” I don’t necessarily mean artistically. A movie can be a masterpiece yet not make a dime, and that’s what I’m getting at.
The trailers introduced us to a young, ass-kicking, half-human, half-robot girl who divided her time between scooting around in Rollerball-style games (called Motorball here) and beating up enemies who resembled celebrity faces grafted onto PS4 robot monsters. Domestically, the film didn’t clean up, but a worldwide gross of around 400 million isn’t terrible. It’s just not great either. The initial complaint after the first trailer release was that her face, mainly her eyes, were off-putting and weird. The images veered into uncanny valley territory. Obviously, she’s not meant to look exactly human, so eventually one becomes accustomed to her look as the film progresses.
Released on Valentine’s Day, which has been lucky for rom-com's and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), it’s still firmly in the time known as “dump months.” Now that Disney owns Fox, it seems logical that the clearly-intended sequelized ending should happen thanks to the Mouse House’s deep pockets. The problem is that Alita isn’t Star Wars and it isn’t a Marvel movie. It’s simply a pretty cool flick with a decent concept and less-than iconic characters. At least Star Wars and Marvel have a solid library of beloved characters to cart in or at least reference, giving the viewer that warm and fuzzy feeling. All Alita has is the love of its diehard fans, who grew up with Yukito Kishiro’s Gunmm graphic novels and the two-part anime OVA Battle Angel (1993).
Whenever I see a studio logo transform to match the tone or style of the accompanying film, it makes me happy. Since the mid-80's, Warner Brothers has been consistently allowing filmmakers to mess around with the logo, from Who’s That Girl? to Beerfest to Jupiter Ascending. If they’re willing to let dreck like that (although I still love Who’s That Girl?, “Murray the Tiger!”) get a special logo, then any movie can have one. Ditto Universal, with its Earth-centric logo in Waterworld morphing into a planet covered by nothing but aqua blue. For 20th Century Fox, the towering gold logo undergoes a quick aging process and suddenly it’s 26th Century Fox, with our story beginning in 2563, after “The Fall,” an epic war between Earth and URM, or the United Republics of Mars.
Floating above, or according to Cameron, “suspended” above the poverty-stricken Iron City is the affluent Zalem. Supposedly, and mind you, this is never explained in the film, it’s up in the air thanks to a space elevator which only works near the Equator. So, there’s that. At least Elysium (2013) had the good grace to be all the way up in space. It takes real effort for somebody to get there. Getting to Zalem? Just climb a pipe. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Hop over some rotating blades and you’re there.
After his first Oscar win for his stunning villain turn in Inglorious Basterds (2009), Christoph Waltz went full Hollywood, acting in four movies in 2011 alone. It was at this point some critics felt he wasn’t the incredible talent he appeared to be in Basterds because his range appeared to be limited. This was driven home by a good-natured but somewhat accurate portrayal on an SNL Celebrity Jeopardy sketch. Still, while many prognosticators expected Tommy Lee Jones to pick up his second Oscar for Lincoln (2012), his own grumpy red-carpet behavior and the fact that Waltz is outstanding in Django Unchained (2012), won the day. Dr. King Schultz is a role he plays with great gusto but also with a wiser, more nuanced approach. It doesn’t hurt that he’s able to play a hero, albeit a bounty hunter hero. His bounty hunting experience serves him well in Alita as he moonlights as a hunter-warrior while maintaining a humble clinic for outfitting folks with robotic limbs.
While rummaging through the garbage dumps of Zalem, Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) comes upon the cyborg torso of a young woman and he whispers, “You’re alive.” He repairs her and she wakes up in the bedroom of his deceased daughter, Alita, with a brand spankin’ new body. The father-daughter relationship is played fairly well here. It’s extremely obvious and predictable since Ido names his discovery Alita (Rosa Salazar, Bird Box, Big Mouth), but while the good doctor remains stubbornly protective of her, it never enters into the realm of schmaltz or sickly sweetness. I do have a few questions about the specifics of cyborg technology. Essentially, she has a human brain and face (sort of), but the rest is robotic. That said, since everything is still connected, does she need air to breathe? That’s questioned later when she dives underwater to retrieve a URM ‘Berserker’ suit for later use. Does she feel pain even though only her head and some of her shoulders and chest are human? Did she even need that blanket Waltz laid on her in the bedroom? I’d also assume that while her brain is real, couldn’t she have a Black Mirror-style recorder of some kind that would help them figure out her forgotten past? Her brain needs nourishment, so her response to an orange and then to chocolate is highly amusing. This may be why I’ve always enjoyed the “food bits” of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series. There’s something fun about watching characters enjoy food. That may also be why the Food Network has so many cooking competitions.
The movie has a pretty standard boy-meets-girl plotline. The grungy Hugo (Keeann Johnson, Nashville) tries to save her from a security bot called a Centurion, a rip-off of an ED-209, but she’s more than capable of holding her own through unexpected sense memory. They gradually fall for each other and even share a super lame kiss in the rain because, how can you ever have a romantic first kiss without rain? While it doesn’t re-invent the wheel, the plot does take some unexpected turns regarding their relationship. He’s basically an underground chop-shop worker; attacking big-time Motorball competitors and stripping them of their parts for Vector, the head of the popular sport and also two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. He decides to go straight because...love...and is pursued by Vector’s cyborgs, who get taken out by Alita wearing her much more powerful URM nanotech body.
Later, the “idiot plot” takes over as Alita gets super upset that Hugo’s been up to illegal activities and he simply won’t explain or elaborate who actually killed the man he ends up getting framed for murdering. The real killer, a hunter warrior named Zapan played by expert asshole actor Ed Skrein (Deadpool, If Beale Street Could Talk) is literally standing right there, yet all he gets is a slice across his precious face and Hugo’s head is taken to be grafted onto a robot body, which must have been horrifying for him. It would be like those last few seconds after having your head chopped off by a guillotine and landing in the basket. In the end, he stupidly tries to get up to Zalem but ends up being sliced to pieces and falling to his death (?). I haven’t read the manga, so I don’t know if he’s supposed to come back later. Their best scene involves Alita literally pulling her robotic heart out of her chest so he can buy his way to Zalem. At least the film has the common sense to acknowledge that the scene is intense but ultimately silly. The real problem is that the movie chugs along at a relatively strong pace but then the plot becomes astonishingly muddled and unconvincing in the last half hour.
Thanks to her early work in such iconic films like Labyrinth, Once Upon a Time in America, Phenomena, and The Rocketeer, Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly is always a welcome sight on screen, but she’s utterly wasted here in a gloomy, colorless role. She’s Ido’s ex-wife and she just hangs around, working for Vector before getting harvested for her “parts;” her various internal organs grotesquely on display. Her work output has definitely slowed down and I would’ve liked to have seen more from her. I admit that revisiting Labyrinth (1986) a while back, I was struck by how poor her acting was in the film. It feels as though her striking looks and passable emoting was enough to get her through the 80’s without any real big acting achievements. She got progressively stronger as the years wore on, with a standout being her uncompromising portrayal of a desperate woman in The House of Sand and Fog (2003).
Alita fancies herself a real revolutionary in an unearned and hilariously overblown monologue delivered at the exclusively hunter-warrior Kansas Bar. Zapan helpfully introduces each bounty hunter, who include a robot-dog-loving Jeff Fahey, before getting into a huge fight with Alita. A fight in which he’s beaten almost too easily. Prior to this, she tries rallying her fellow hunter-warriors, and remember, she just became one herself like five minutes ago, to go after Grewishka, a huge cyborg voiced by Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children- Oscar nomination, Breaking Away, Watchmen). She talks about honor and defending the weak. They pretty much laugh their asses off, and I see why. At least in Avatar, Jake’s big rallying cry to various tribes isn’t heard. We just get big heroic music over a montage of various Pandoran tribes listening in rapt attention. In Alita, your standard, predictable bar fight ensues (where halfway through, the filmmakers seem to say fuck it and only feature human-on-human battles), followed by Grewishka showing up, getting beaten once again, then returning for a third time to get beaten up later. Rinse. Repeat. Cash the fucking check.
The world-building is pretty fun, although the dirty Iron City neighborhoods feel like that fancy store-bought dirt, i.e. manufactured. The illegality of guns makes for an intriguing situation and allows for many scenes of mechanical buzzsaws and snake-like spike weapons. While most of the Motorball scenes feel straight out of a high-end video game, the final one in which Alita competes is fairly exciting. There’s even a bit of tension as she’s warned of the game being a trap in which she’s going to be attacked and destroyed. Instead, she makes scrap metal out of most of the other racers. A trip to the badlands to jog her memory is pretty mundane and the entire idea of the hunter-warrior laws would be more interesting if we didn’t learn about them 30 seconds before they’re put into effect. Alita’s flashback to her previous life is intriguing, but it’s not helped by Waltz literally saying: What you saw was a flash of your previous life. WE KNOW!!! It’s a fucking FLASHBACK!!!
Peter Jackon, Richard Taylor, and James Selkirk’s Weta Digital did the visual effects here and they’re mostly passable. It almost feels as though Cameron didn’t want to give away too much of the good stuff he’s presumably saving for his Avatar sequels. Cinematographer Bill Pope works his usual slick magic as he did in The Matrix (1999) and Baby Driver (2017) and Dutch composer Junkie XL’s electronica meets big band score strikes the right chord, pun intended.
The film rushes to its climax at a frantic pace, but we at least get a satisfactory look at the man-behind-the-man. The villainous leader of Zalem, Nova, has been watching everything progress through Vector’s eyes; it’s referred to as “riding,” and after Vector is mortally wounded “That looks fatal,” he reminds her that “I see everything.” Alita becomes the star of Motorball and if she wins the championship, she’ll be given the opportunity to move to Zalem, an otherwise unachievable goal any other way. She stares upward at the giant city and an uncredited Edward Norton as Nova stares back, smirking. It’s obvious why Cameron was so taken with this story and I admit that this bold set-up, especially with so many unanswered questions and a cameo from a big-name actor, does make a sequel very desirable. I say bold because many filmmakers tend to hedge their bets with an ending that works as a conclusion and a sequel set-up. While Starship Troopers (1997) had sequels, they all went DTV, so the triumphant conclusion of the sci-fi satire works quite well as being a final say but leaves the door open for more bug-blasting adventures. Other films embarrassed themselves, like Masters of the Universe (1987) and Mac & Me (1988), by having the clear intention of a sequel that didn’t have a prayer of happening. For Alita: Battle Angel, its modest success means it’s not out of the question, but it’s very much in the air. Faults aside, I was very entertained by the film and would welcome a sequel. Then again, I also wish there was a sequel to Warrior of the Lost World (1984). So, that’s how much my opinion counts.