DIRECTED BY: ROBERT RODRIGUEZ/2019
Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Planet Terror, El Mariachi) and James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens, Avatar, Titanic) have finally teamed up, and are together to pay homage to Yukito Kishiro’s graphic novel series “Gunnm” with the new film Alita: Battle Angel.
After Rodriguez has partnered up with Quentin Tarantino several times, this most recent collaboration with Cameron actually makes a lot of sense. The results of yet another teen-centered dystopian film are decidedly mixed, but there is a heart beating at the center of this collaboration that might provide just enough entertainment for the masses before two big Marvel films hit the box office this Spring.
If you are going to tackle the teen-dystopian genre, you had better get a veteran. Rodriguez has snapped up Rosa Salazar, who has been a part of two previous dystopian franchises (Insurgent, Maze Runner), to be the heart of this graphic novel adaptation. Salazar helps create the character of Alita through motion-capture technology. What appears on screen is largely a creation of CGI, layered over her performance. Our screening was shown a behind-the-scenes look at how they brought the character to life, and it was quite impressive. If Alita has any heart to carry this story, it is to the credit of Rosa Salazar.
Motion capture is not new, but with James Cameron’s involvement, there is definitely some technical wizardry at play as motion isn’t the only thing being captured. For this shoot, Salazar had to wear a heavy contraption that had mounted cameras on it, capturing every facial expression she had as she acted every scene. This allowed Rodriguez to present an obvious CGI character on screen, albeit one with realistically captured eye and facial expressions that help create a character that feels remarkably real, in a fantastically unreal future world. Still, this technology trails most of what Andy Serkis continues to do in the motion-capture field.
Alita is basically the remaining head and torso of a female cyborg who is found in the junk heap by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz- Spectre, Inglourious Basterds), a surgeon who finds such parts to help create prosthetic limbs and the like for patients who come into his clinic. Having once had a daughter whose body was broken, Dr. Ido had fashioned a prosthetic body for his daughter to have before she was tragically killed. He soon fits it on Alita who has been re-awoken after Dr. Ido finds that her “heart” and “brain” are still intact and functioning. Alita does not remember who she once was, and as a result, each experience she has is full of amazement and possibilities, even something as mundane as eating an orange.
Soon, however, Alita is acting less like a child, and more like a restless teenager. She longs to learn more about the Rollerball-like sport that she sees being played, as well as get to know the first boy she sees, named Hugo (Keenan Johnson- The Fosters). Soon, she is learning more about the world she finds herself in, along with pieces of her history, and how it all leads back to a mysterious man who runs everything, and who is living on the floating city above theirs….the same city who dumps its trash into the landfill below…..the same place she was found.
All of these things will of course converge, leading Alita to confront her past, and begin to lead the people against the system, and the man, that is oppressing the world around her. In typical Rodriguez style, this will involve blood, death, action, and humor. Jennifer Connolly (A Beautiful Mind, Labyrinth) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book, Moonlight) figure prominently, and there are several supporting roles from actors such as Jackie Earle Haley, Ed Skrein, Jeff Fahey, Eliza Gonzalez, and Casper Van Deim.
As I stated at the beginning, all of this comes with very mixed results. Rodriguez largely keeps things moving, which helps cover up some pretty thin plot points in a script he penned with Cameron, and Laeta Kalogridis. There is obviously a lot of ground covered in the source material by Yukito Kishiro’s graphic novels, but too much seems to be packed into a very stuffed 2 hour running time. Much could be cut for the sake of running time, and yet more details could be added to help the audience better understand this mysterious city that floats above the masses after the apocalyptic events in what is called “The Fall”. It is a talented cast, but I get the feeling that none of them really know where this is all headed, and by the time the credits roll, the audience isn’t quite sure either.
Despite these problems, Alita: Battle Angel is harmless enough fun, and provides more entertainment than all three Divergent films, two of the three Maze Runner films, Mortal Instruments, The Giver, Seventh Son, The 5th Wave, or The Darkest Minds. James Cameron, serving as producer of this film, knows how to entertain, and his influence is all over this project, even as it feels very much like Robert Rodriguez’s film. It may not amount to much in a very quiet film month like February, but it is worth a view, especially in a Dolby-vision equipped theater, and in 3D.
While the movie-going crowd pauses in anticipation for Captain Marvel, and Avengers: Endgame, it is possible that Alita: Battle Angel might find itself at the top of the box office. In the end, it won’t really matter as it fades further and further out of the collective memory of the movie-going public as the rest of this cinematic year unfolds. It isn’t that the film is all that bad, but that it ultimately is just not all that memorable.