Wednesday, February 26, 2020



Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Written by Laeta Kalogridis and James Cameron (based on the comic, like, all of the comic, Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kushiro)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I think I understand why so many people have gotten in Alita's corner, and I won't even say it doesn't deserve their love: besides being the consensus-best American live-action adaptation of any Japanese property ever made (which is false, because that's still Speed Racer), it's also a bit of a corrective to the tone that contemporary blockbusters have increasingly taken over the course of the Disney-Marvel era, for Alita plays itself as straight as could be imagined, devoid of virtually all of the lampshading and quipping that those movies tend to use as a defense mechanism.  No, my friend, Alita: Battle Angel is straight-up Dork City, kind of like Aquaman, but even moreso—Aquaman is truly, sincerely dorky, but still highly alert to its own kitschiness—and it's extraordinarily refreshing (sometimes blush-inducing) to see a movie this bereft of self-awareness and pursuing its own very idiosyncratic vision of what's cool.  I think you may have to go back to James Cameron's Avatar to see this kind of money spent on such a thing.

Hardly a coincidence, then, that it was Cameron himself who conceived of an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's Ganmu aka Battle Angel Alita, in the time before he committed his eternity to Avatar and Avatar alone.  But Cameron, knowing that he would be spending most of the 11 years after Avatar's release inside of a beam of light blasted to and from a laser array near Avatar 2's major filming locations (he'll be rematerializing any day now), saw fit to delegate his other transhumanist manifesto to a terrestrial deputy.  This was Alita's actual director, Robert Rodriguez, an orthohuman Cameron could nonetheless count on to remain true to the uber-90s complexion of the project, despite the twenty years that had passed on Earth in the interval.  Ever humble, Cameron allowed himself only the minor credits of co-writer (with Laeta Kalogridis), producer, and technomage.

And yet, for all its straightforwardness and all the years of work put into it, Alita still replicates some of the worst possible problems any superhero movie could have (maybe it's more aptly described as a "Shirowesque sci-fi cyberpunk adventure" in its original cultural context, but it's a superhero movie in ours), and, even leaving superheroes aside, Alita is as guilty as any feature film adaptation ever made of belying its origins as a story that was never intended to fit inside the two hour bounds of a movie.  I don't think I've seen a film in years that's so obviously the result of trying to cram hundreds of pages of serial storytelling into so small and inadequate a package, and it leaves Alita with a sloppy, somewhat awful screenplay, lurching from one thing to another, mostly because those things would look neat when rendered in shiny CGI.  It's done with the barest possible explanation or motivation for the shifts, and then it ends with a big bad sequel hook, because it still couldn't come close to getting everything in.  (Somehow, the unsatisfying open-ended conclusion is potentially the best thing the screenplay has going for it, oddly downbeat in a compelling way that, if nothing else, undercuts a rampantly miscalibrated adventure story that starts its heroine out so invincibly powerful that there's almost never any dramatic stakes to anything that happens to her, and then gives her an upgrade.)

Still, it's fairly easy to relate the plot: the future of North America (the manga centers itself on the ruins of Kansas City) is a dystopian one, most notably in the fact that something happened over the last few decades to amputate the limbs of a sizeable fraction of the population, though an event described as "The Fall," which happened hundreds of years ago, appears to be the main reason that society has gone all Blade Runner in the daytime, with the rich and connected living in a floating city, Zalem, that lords Olympus-style over all the benighted poor left to rot on the ground.  Beneath Zalem, there is a junkyard that has been built up over the years, the product of the copious waste that's been extruded from the opulent sky anus above, and sometimes this means rich pickings for the scavengers below.  One of these scavengers is Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor specializing in cybernetic prosthetics (and business is buh-ooming).

One day poking around in the garbage, he finds the upper torso and head of a gynoid machine with a human brain inside.  He rebuilds her and, when he wakes her up to discover she has no memory of who she actually is, names her "Alita" (Rosa Salazar), after his dead daughter.  Alita takes to the role so rapidly and effortlessly it's actually somewhat disturbing—which is the film's first mistake, because that's not intentional—but she remains troubled by flashes of memory and the apparent power of her cyborg body, which she demonstrates when she follows Dyson out one night and learns he's been expiating his grief as a "hunter-warrior" (translated from Alita's dumb Futurese, "bounty hunter"), whereupon she decides, what the hell, she ought to be one too.  Which makes sense, frankly, though Dyson's against it.  From here, her travails begin, as she plumbs the Kansas City underworld looking for evil to punish; and meets a boy (Keean Johnson) and falls in love; and butts heads with her overprotective adoptive dad; and learns of conspiracies and cyborg serial killers; and joins a cyborg roller derby team for some reason.  And and and.  It's a bit of a slurry.

It's a largely coherent slurry, logistically (though the dungeon-dive into a crashed spaceship, where she finds a new, even-better cyborg body, one that's apparently been sitting in Missouri for centuries without being scavenged, is too arbitrary and stupid even for this loose framework to bear it).  It is less emotionally coherent than its rampaging sentimentality ever quite earns: it's in such a manic rush to establish its relationships as things worthy of investing in that it paints them in the broadest and swiftest strokes possible, even when you'd think it wouldn't even need paint in the first place—when Alita earnestly, yearningly asks Dyson if a cyborg can love a human, maybe some late 10s snark would have actually helped, because the answer is obviously "yes," and I half-expected Dyson to respond, "What, physically?"  (In which case the answer would appear to be "not fully-functionally," in the Data sense, but I'm sure there's an add-on.)  There's a bit with Alita's literal robot heart that would be amazing in the most adorably stupid way, if only we believed for a second in the great love she thinks she's found; it probably doesn't help that her bad-boy soulmate has a dark secret, less than a murderer but perhaps more than a rapist.

Salazar, at least, does God's work in selling this stuff—she is close to the only one who does, with veteran Waltz on autopilot and Johnson being unforgivably bland given the contradictions of the lowlife boyfriend he's playing (though further out on the periphery, Ed Skrein is great as a sneering miniboss and Mahershala Ali is excellent playing both a sleazy minion of the unseen mastermind and a cybernetic conduit for his presence, whereas Jeff Fahey gets to play a character who was almost certainly the most fascinating single-scene notion of all 2019)—but, in the end, it's Salazar above them all.  She does more than the screenplay ever does to get you to buy into this world and her experience of it, rendering her Alita as a collage of slightly agape expressions, wounded innocence hardening into determination, and big, staring eyes capable of superhuman feats of joy and fury alike.

Of course, those eyes aren't exactly hers.  They're simply the most confrontational aspect of the motion capture that was used to create Alita, who is, obviously, predominantly cartoon, as is her movie.  But there's genuine soul in there, and that's a hell of an accomplishment both for Salazar and for the tech, though it's also fair to say that if Alita ever manages to etch any permanent memory onto the pop cultural consciousness, it will undoubtedly be because somebody involved in its creation was absolutely dead-set on doing CG anime eyes in live-action.

I suppose if I were compelled to take a wild guess as to who that somebody was (and it seems I must, for there seems to be ample confusion regarding it), I'd say that Rodriguez was into it, but Cameron's the one who decided it, for is it not precisely the kind of gonzo flex the latter would pull?  Cameron is, after all, the kind of person who would have insisted that Alita have enormous, off-putting anime eyes simply because he could, first shrieking, "They didn't believe in Titanic!", later shrieking "They didn't believe in in Avatar!", but shrieking all along, "I'll show them!  I'll show them all!"  Personally?  It's sure as hell an interesting choice.  It's even admirable, in its crazy, film-destabilizing way.  Beyond that, it's absolutely useful shorthand for what Alita is all about: being the geekiest bullshit anybody ever spent $200 million on, and if it is also demonstrably the work of someone whose fetishes have devolved from Sarah Connor to River Tam over the years, the id-stuff of the film is what makes it authentic and interesting.  I only wish that even a single character would have remarked, just one time, that this was unusual—because literally every other creature in the movie, even the weirdest possible motherfuckers, still has normal-sized, human eyes—and the fact that it's not mentioned turns into a persistently unresolved tension that annoyed the piss out of me the whole time.  Then it gets a hugely oblique explanation that only makes it more likely somebody around her would have questioned it.  This movie, you know?

Well: although I think I've buried that lede good and dead, "this movie" is pretty dang decent, not least because of all the earnest, imagistic geekery.  (The moment I decided it was worth all the flatfooted emotional beats to come before?  When Alita cries, and then cuts her falling tear in half with a scimitar; there is an audience for this and I am it.)  That geekery all-too-naturally manifests in the look of the piece, which Rodriguez presents with a clear joy for the cartoon eye candy of Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner's production design, but Rodriguez only really recommends himself once he starts applying his penchant for ultraviolence to their Saturday morning cartoon world; in the process, he captures the spirit of action anime in a way that almost never happens in any American production that responsible businesspeople have to worry about.  (I suppose when your boss is James Cameron, that's a less pressing concern.)  Alita is PG-13, but that's no insuperable obstacle: Rodriguez manages all manner of splendidly gory spectacle anyway, basically pulling a Transformers: The Movie and exploiting the failure of censors to know what to do with blood that's green and body parts that aren't flesh.  We know how to respond to it, however, and Alita's robo-destruction carries much the same splattery thrills as the bio kind.  In fact, the novel possibilities for violence opened up by cyborg resilience are where the rare but ecstatic moments of true genius in Alita lie; consider a dismemberment scene, straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but driven by machine grace and played without so much as a nod toward comedy.  If I still laughed, and, believe me, I did, it was out of joy.  In these sterling moments, Alita could claim to be one of the most enjoyable pieces of pop entertainment of 2019; they may be relatively few, and perhaps too far between, but it's hard not to feel a great deal of affection for a movie that has those moments in it, even if the rest of it is so messy and banal.

Score: 7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment