Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

It’s been a bit of time since my last review, which was written shortly before my Dad, at only 63, passed away due to a completely unnecessary and negligent work accident (very much not of his doing). Needless to say, my priorities have undergone some serious realignment, in my day-to-day activities and in Life overall. But eventually, you have to get back on the horse, at least in some respects. And in THIS respect…an eagerly anticipated collaboration between two of my favorite directors, was just the ticket to get me back on that movie scribbles jack-ass I ride around on.

I’ve been familiar with the source material Battle Angel Alita for a while, going back to the late ‘90s and my mutual obsession with weed and manga at the time. Just saying…the two go hand in hand nicely. Anyway, I always thought the premise of a busted-up, amnesiac battle cyborg being found in a far-future junk yard by a kindly scientist and retro-fitted back to functionality was cool and rife with science fiction nerd-gasm fodder. Then a few years later, I started hearing rumblings that the director of my favorite movie EVER (Aliens), along with others in my Top Whatever List of Movies, was eyeballing directing a live-action adaptation of this property, which he’d recently purchased the rights to, and I got really interested. I love the way James Cameron handles science fiction in his films, ever since that fateful night in late ‘86 when I slept over at my buddy’s place and we watched Aliens on VHS, rented from a local Video Store (remember those, kids?!), for the first time ever in his intimidatingly dark basement…and it scared the living shit outta 8 year old me! Changed my life, no word of a lie. Cameron has a realistic, functional and worn-in aesthetic that I love, so that coupled with the Alita source material had me giddy. Then, in late 2009, he released Avatar…and that changed everything. When that Hippie-loving Military-Fetishishist Blue Cat-People Ferngully clone with REALLY good 3D raked in billions upon trillions of dollars, he decided that from here on in, he was going to splooge an unnecessary number of Avatar sequels onto us, whether we wanted them or not. Seriously, Jim…is a Trilogy just not good enough? Maybe consider NOT going crazy crafting a ludicrously extended 5 picture story-line that no one seems to be clamoring for a decade after the Box Office explosion of the first one, during which time fans have seen through the still-amazing visuals and ID’d the glaringly weak shortcomings in the story (I still really like Avatar, but I have to be honest about it NOT being among Cameron’s best material). But we all have our passions…and no one seems to be in a position to tell Jim Cameron “No”. Mr. Cameron, I want to see your cinematic fingerprint on other material, man! Luckily, another director that I also greatly admire, Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), happened to be in the right place at the right time and was offered to take on directorial duties, if he could ‘crack the script’…which he did. So…after a hugely delayed, on-again-off-again production, the curiously renamed Alita: Battle Angel was unleashed upon us.

Sticking close to what I remember from the manga, Alita: Battle Angel takes place on a war-ravaged Earth some 500+ years in the future, in ‘Iron City’, an over-populated cluster of humanity etching out an existence in the literal shadow of the last floating city of ‘Zalem’; a mysterious and near-mythical ‘Paradise’ that everyone longs to get to. In ‘Iron City’ is a doctor / scientist named ‘Ido’ (Christoph Waltz) who, while searching for scrap to salvage, stumbles upon the head and torso of a female cyborg, which turns out to still be alive. Taking her home and naming her ‘Alita’ (Rosa Salazar), he outfits her with a synthetic body and together they try to unlock her amnesia. Along the way, she befriends a local thug named ‘Hugo’ (Keean Johnson) and becomes the target of sinister forces, including a ruthless sports manager named ‘Vector’ (Mahershala Ali) and a mysterious woman from ‘Ido’s past named ‘Chiren’ (Jennifer Connelly), all connected to an unseen antagonist from ‘Zalem’ named ‘Nova’. ‘Alita’ also dabbles as a professional athlete and bounty hunter, and seriously fucks some shit up along the way.

This flick, while definitely not perfect, was pretty much exactly what I hoped for, some small criticisms aside (will get to those shortly) and that’s a testament to Robert Rodriguez’s talent and adaptability behind the camera. Rodriguez certainly has a style that you can clearly identify when you look back on movies like Desperado (1995), From Dusk till Dawn (1996), Planet Terror (2007) and Machete (2010), among others, and just like his buddy Tarantino, he loves delving in the ‘grindhouse’ motif…and is generally really good at it. But here…it’s clear that he wanted to deliver to James Cameron…a James Cameron movie. Seriously, if you’d stuck Jim’s name in the Directed By credit…I would’ve fully accepted that. This has Cameron’s fingerprints ALL over it, from the gritty, detailed aesthetic (right down to a welcome abundance of the color Blue) through to some of the awkward dialogue, though this can also be attributed to the faithful use of original material. Even the subtle camera movements, like the slow, wide-angle tracking shots around stationary scenes Jim likes to use, were present and accounted for. Rodriguez delivered…that cannot be denied. At the end of the day,  the flick was edgy and fun, just what it needed to be! Despite some choppy pacing and clearly Deleted Scenes, it moved at a good clip for it’s 2+ hour run-time (though I will admit that there is a bit of drag in the 2nd Act) and some of the characters were actually somewhat engaging, especially Rosa Salazar in the title role. Now I’d never heard of Salazar before this, but I hope we see more from her in the future. She’s great as ‘Alita’, giving the literally cartoonish character a certain humanity at her core, along with a charming innocence that went along way toward getting me invested in her plight. The motion capture work was great and once you get used to the idea of the world the story inhabits, she blended right in. I remember when I saw the first trailer for this and I…just…wasn’t…sure. It seemed a little too uncanny and awkward to look at for the live-action setting, with the photo-realistic eyes being Manga’d right the fuck out. But in context (and once completed) the effects work (by the same crew who handled Avatar) blend right in and really help bring it all to life. Which naturally brings me to the 3D. If you can, see it in the 3rd Dimension! This is one area where Cameron and Co. don’t go half-assed. They can’t afford to…they have a reputation to uphold. I thought that, for the most part, the 3D really added to the fun, especially during the big ‘Motor Ball’ scene (which was awesome and reminded me of the batshit crazy first race in Ready Player One!). Much the same can be said about the heavy-hitting Sound Design and, especially, the pitch-perfect Music Score by emerging film composer extraordinaire Junkie XL (Mad Mad: Fury Road).  In a nutshell, on a technical level, the flick is on the money!

Now for some gripes…

Some of the dialogue is clunky as hell and reminded me of the Subtle-Like-George Lucas-like shit Cameron sprinkled throughout Avatar, even though much is lifted straight from the manga here. He’s awesome at ‘world building’ and adding intelligent ideas to his presentations but I’ve noticed that post-Titanic, he seems to have slipped when it came to writing and directing dialogue that sounds like it’s coming from actual people, not just caricatures of stereotypes of people. Unfortunately, some of that made it into this script too, so not all of Cameron’s ‘fingerprint’ is good, believe it or not. Speaking of clunky, I do have to mention the First Act. It noticeably lacked finesse and I have to wonder if there’s a more fleshed out, patiently-paced chunk of film that hit the cutting room floor somewhere along the way that would’ve added needed ‘flow’ to the proceedings, similar to what happened to all the cool ‘future Earth’ shit that got cut from the Theatrical Version of Avatar. Honestly, given Cameron’s tendency to have the best versions of his films be the Director’s Cuts, like Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and, as noted, Avatar (2009), and given how much of a James Cameron flick this is, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we’re eventually blessed with an Extended or Director’s cut on Blu ray.  That being said, they also tried to shove more from the source material into this particular story-line than I feel was necessary and some of the pacing suffered for it. Had they shaved some of the extraneous plot-lines down and ‘leaned’ the flick up, it would’ve worked to their advantage.

All in all, I had a blast with Alita: Battle Angel and got pretty much exactly what I expected and hoped for, given the collaboration between two of my favorite directors. It’s got a main character that’s easy to root for, some very cool world-building, an interesting rogue’s gallery of cyber-enhanced villains and some kick-ass, highly kinetic action scenes that, at times, came close to pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating. It’s not all perfect though, as there are some clumsy mechanics and stupid-sounding dialogue on hand, but there’s easily enough cool shit going on to get any self-respecting nerd past the flaws. It gave me enough to walk away wanting to see it again, but also wanting to see more of the world that was set up. If you’re a fan of either Cameron or Rodriguez, the original manga source material or just well-constructed science fiction movies with kick-ass action scenes, then wade into battle with this angel…and make sure you do it in 3D!

*As an unapologetic fan of James Cameron’s only major foray into the Television market, 2000’s Jessica Alba-starring Dark Angel series, I can’t help but to wonder if that was his attempt to test the ground for Alita, as it’s said that he’d become enamored with the Battle Angel Alita manga around 1995 (the original came out in 1993) but didn’t feel that the effects technology was up to snuff at that point. But when you break down Dark Angel‘s main story-line: an escaped, genetically-enhanced living weapon hides out in a dystopian, cyber-punktuated future while being hunted by dark and mysterious forces, it’s easy to see a myriad of similarities between the two properties and to make this not-so-far fetched connection seem plausible. Hell, he even used ‘Angel’ in the show’s title! Not terribly subtle, Jim.

**I swear to Crom that one of the sets, a bar that gets trashed during one of Alita’s spectacular fight scenes, is a retro-fitted version of the Titty Twister bar from Rodriguez’s own From Dusk till Dawn. Take a look and tell me I’m wrong. I dare ya!

 

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