Monday, February 18, 2019

"Alita: Battle Angel": review

[NB: no real spoilers.]

2019's "Alita: Battle Angel" is directed by Robert Rodriguez ("El Mariachi," "Desperado," "Sin City," etc.) and produced by James Cameron, who also had a hand with the script. It's based on a 1990s-era manga by Yukito Kishiro titled Gunnm (yep—that's the spelling; you figure out how to pronounce that). An animé based on the manga came out years ago, but this is the first attempt at a "live action" rendering of the story.*

"Alita" takes place in the year 2563. A great war called The Fall occurred centuries earlier, and the planet has effectively divided itself into a unified-but-decaying polyglot megalopolis called Iron City, on the ground where the poor and powerless live, and an enormous floating city for the rich and privileged called Zalem (think: "Elysium"). Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a cybernetics and robotics expert, routinely visits the massive and ever-growing junk pile beneath Zalem in search of robot parts. During one such scavenger hunt, he finds the intact head and partial torso of a special cyborg—a young woman whose cranium contains a living human brain. He takes the cyborg back to his grungy lab, where he normally performs free repairs for many of Iron City's numerous cyborgs, and attaches the woman to a fully realized body. The young woman wakes up, and Dr. Ido names her Alita (Rosa Salazar), after his own daughter, who had been murdered by a cyborg years before.

The movie explores Alita's dawning awareness of who and what she is: a relic from a long-ago past who turns out to be the ultimate, made-for-combat cyborg. Alita has no memory of her past at first, and just as the inhumanly huge eyes on her face would indicate, she approaches most situations with wide-eyed innocence and naivety, but she catches on quickly and begins to understand the nature of the dystopian world in which she finds herself. She's a strange admixture of centuries-old nanotech and a teenaged woman's brain, and this complicates her kind-of father/daughter relationship with Ido.

Alita is a cyborg, but she's also still very much a girl, and she falls for the charms of Hugo (Keean Johnson), a young man who does scut work for Dr. Ido, but who also works for the malevolent Vector (Mahershala Ali), a fixer who has connections to powerful people in Zalem. Hugo teaches Alita about a street game called Motorball, which is played while wearing supercharged rollerblades. The street version of the game is rough-and-tumble, and Alita takes to it like a natural. Later on, she has a chance to enter a professional-level Motorball tournament; by this point in the film, she has unlocked her innate martial-arts prowess and proven more than capable of taking care of herself in any number of dangerous situations.

As other critics have noted, the film doesn't dwell on the philosophical aspects of the story. Some issues, like What does it mean for a cyborg to fall in love with a human and vice versa?, are touched upon, but never explored. Certain social issues are brought to the fore, but they're the typical ones found in dystopian sci-fi/cyberpunk stories: systemic oppression, panopticon-style loss of privacy, etc. The movie is primarily all about the action and the visuals, and on that level, "Alita" more than delivers.

I had fun watching the film, which will appeal primarily to people familiar with Japanese animé and manga. I'm not into those things, but even I, as a non-expert, could tell that a great effort had been made to pay tribute to those genres. Reviewer Chris Stuckmann called "Alita" the first movie to successfully render animé/manga on film, and I agree with him. It's an impressive movie that allows its visuals to do much of the storytelling. The action sequences are unapologetically animé in style, and the sweeping panoramas of Iron City and Zalem stand as great achievements in world-building. I wouldn't be surprised if "Alita" ended up nominated for an Oscar or two for its technical achievements. The special effects, done by Weta Workshop (ILM's New Zealand-based competitor, and the effects house that put together the Lord of the Rings films), are top-notch.

The story elements will inevitably remind the veteran moviegoer of any number of other films. "Blade Runner" comes immediately to mind, and so do "Robocop" and "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence." Alita herself is somewhat similar to Robocop in that she has a human brain inside a robotic body. Unlike Robocop, though, she's not limited to eating baby food: she can eat oranges and chocolate, among other foods, and her robotic body is somehow able to metabolize anything she consumes, although we never see her go to the bathroom. The movie's divide between the haves and the have-nots will remind people strongly of "Elysium." The fight scenes will call to mind "The Matrix" and its many knockoffs. There are also echoes of "The Terminator" and even of the Borg queen from "Star Trek: First Contact," whose head and body can apparently spend time apart—something we see a lot of in this film.

Let me stop there and concentrate on the fight scenes for a moment. One common complaint among critics is that CGI sucks all the meaning, tension, and suspense out of fight scenes. Characters in those scenes look fake—like plastic or some other light, floaty material. In the Star Wars prequels, for example, it's obvious when old Count Dooku is being digitally faked. Same goes for Spider-Man in the Sam Raimi reboot films. I would argue, though, that that's not an issue in "Alita," partially because of the nature of the story being told. Pretty much everyone who fights anyone in this movie is a robot, so you'd expect a robot to move inhumanly fast, and with inhuman precision. When we find out that Alita was programmed to fight using a cyborg martial art called Panzerkunst (literally "tank art" or "armor art," the art of fighting while armored), her deadly proficiency makes sense.

This leads us to the Mary Sue issue. Is Alita like Rey in "The Last Jedi"—a flawless female character who can do no wrong? I'm happy to report that that's not the case. Despite the fact that Rey is ostensibly human, I had an easier time relating to Alita and her troubles than I did to Rey. Hugo even says, at one point, that Alita is the most human person he's ever met. The story takes pains to explain the how and the why of Alita, so her powers and her proficiency at combat all make sense. Alita also makes choices that end up hurting some of the people she loves, and because she cares so much for them, this care is itself a sort of weakness. If anything, I found myself mentally comparing Alita not to Rey, but to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman—another example of a strong female character done right. Wonder Woman, like Alita, approaches the world with wide-eyed innocence, but also with a deep sense of her own principles, and with a set of skills and powers that give her an underlying self-assurance.

Rosa Salazar, the actress behind the CGI'ed face of Alita, gives a warm, graceful, and even powerful performance. Alita's moon-eyed face may be initially off-putting to people, but once the viewer locates her in her proper context—i.e., she's a cyborg, not a human—Alita's features (which are probably a relic of the animé/manga aesthetic) simply become part of the story. Christoph Waltz does a fine job as Dr. Ido; he brings a fatherly concern to the proceedings as he wrestles with the twin ideas that he has somehow brought his own daughter back from the dead, and that this being before him is not his daughter, but is her own person, with her own choices to make and her own life to live. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly (as Chiren, the ex-wife of Ido, and a doctor in her own right) play only limited roles in the story, but they make an impression whenever they're on screen. Some actors were unrecognizable to me, like Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach in "Watchmen") as Grewishka, a hulking cyborg, and Jeff Fahey as McTeague, a cowboy-like bounty hunter with robotic dogs. Michelle Rodriguez also gets a cameo as one of Alita's long-ago mentors, but here too, I didn't recognize the actress, given all the CGI.

Not yet mentioned in this review is the shady, nebulous character known as Nova (an uncredited Edward Norton), the puppet master who controls everything in both Zalem and Iron City. Nova's control is so invasive that he can manifest himself through some of the humans and cyborgs who work for him, including through Vector. Nova is an eerie presence throughout the film, even though we almost never see him up close and personal. Assuming "Alita" gives birth to a sequel, I expect we'll see more of him then.

While Nova might be the ultimate focus of Alita's fury, it's curious to note that "Alita: Battle Angel" lacks a crucial element found in almost all action movies: the ticking-clock scenario. I didn't realize this until the movie was over, and I was walking out of the theater, but once I began to chew over what I had just seen, I realized that none of the bad guys were doing the usual bad-guy thing, e.g., threatening to eradicate all life on Earth, threatening to kill Dr. Ido if Alita failed to perform some mission within 24 hours, etc. There was none of that. The only other action movie I can think of that lacks a ticking-clock scenario is "Enter the Dragon." In that film, Mr. Han is an evil man doing evil things, but we're never given a reason for why it's necessary to defeat him now. Same goes for Nova: he's the man pulling all the levers, but no reason is given to take him down now, which could be why the movie ends the way it does.

The running time for "Alita" is 122 minutes. While some critics complained about pacing problems with the story, I found the movie quite engaging overall, with very few draggy sections. There were, however, some cringe-inducingly corny moments, and one character's death near the end of the film was unintentionally hilarious. Because the movie is so casual about the omnipresence of cyborgs, I would have liked to see cyborg culture explored a bit more deeply. One human character is turned into a cyborg as a way to save his life, and the more I thought about the manner in which the character had been "saved," the more morbid I found the situation. That should have been explored in greater depth: why didn't the character wake up, look at his new cyborg body, and respond with visceral self-loathing? There's a very morbid, gruesome, Frankensteinian dimension to this cyborg-filled universe that bears further examination, but that would require a movie intent on actually probing these deeper issues.

The story left me with many technical questions about how exactly Alita can even exist, and while it's tempting to list those questions here, I'll simply wrap this review up by saying that, all in all, I very much enjoyed "Alita: Battle Angel," and I look forward to the inevitable sequel which, if I'm not mistaken, will deal with the second half of the original manga's storyline. "Alita" isn't deep, and probably isn't meant to be, but it's visually stunning and crammed with enough action to keep even the most jaded viewers entertained.

*The term "live action" now awkwardly encapsulates movies that are CGI-heavy, but that feature a great deal of mo-cap (motion capture) visual effects, i.e., actual human actors on a sound stage, whose actions are overlaid with computer-generated characters. Think of Jon Favreau's "The Jungle Book," which has one normal human actor and many CGI animal characters, but which is called "the live-action version" of the story to distinguish it from the animated cartoon from 1967. The upcoming remake of "The Lion King" is being called a live-action remake despite its being almost entirely CGI. At a guess, this is because the CGI is photo-realistic enough to qualify as "live" in almost every respect.

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