Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Delivers Haywire Action and Drama

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Alita: Battle Angel is less a movie than a whirligig of storylines and melodrama. A joyously bonkers feast for the eyes. It races from one absurd moment of insanity to the next with hardly a breath taken between. Robert Rodriguez hasn’t made a science fiction epic, so much as a high flying grab bag of every genre trope and cliche suitable for the whole family.

Rodriguez is an odd director. Known for his El Mariachi and Spy Kids trilogy he is a director who embraces new filmmaking technology with zealotry fearlessness. No small wonder he has teamed up with another such filmmaker, James Cameron, who co-wrote the script with Laeta Kalogridis. Adapted from manga Gunm by Yukito Kishir, and the result is a film so stuffed with absurdities it pummels you into submission. 

The spectacular visual achievements of Alita might go unremarked by many if only because Weta and motion capture are hardly new. The cinematic landscape is littered from end to end with computer-generated effects and characters. The difference, however, is all the difference.

Alita (Rosa Salazar) is almost completely computer animated. Much like Josh Brolin’s Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War it is a motion capture performance. Only it’s not. The performances in Alita are “performance capture”. It may sound as if we are being pedantic but there is a difference. Rodriguez and his team have created weight and definition for Alita. Other have done so before, yes. But here, it seems we have turned a corner. 

Rodriguez and his cinematographer, Bill Pope give Alita’s world a life all it’s own. Which in turns, allows Salazar to turn in a complete and nuanced physical performance. Infinity War is a visually mediocre made for television movie with Hollywood Special effects. Pope shot the Matrix trilogy. He lends the camerawork a sort of death-defying feel. 

Salazar’s performance is the key selling point. She shines through all the facade and somehow makes us believe in Alita’s inner life. A warrior found in the junkyard under a floating city known as Zalem, Alita is rebuilt with a body of a thirteen-year-old girl; and it’s the least unbelievable thing about the movie.

Iron City is a city we’ve seen a thousand times in the likes of countless other science fictions movies. Above the sprawling deeply class fractured city hangs Zalem, the city in the sky that looms over everyone and everything. From time to time, junk and garbage fall from the city to the city below, creating a junkyard of sorts. As visual metaphors go for class systems it’s one of the most astute and visually forthright metaphors the movie has to offer.

Found, rescued, and reanimated by a cybernetics Doctor Dyson Dido (Christoph Waltz), she is given new life, with no memory of her old one. We soon discover that the body Dyson has given Alita, even her name, belonged to his daughter. The all too familiar trope of the wheelchair-bound daughter murdered by a drugged out Motorball player. His cybernetic body Dyson helped to build. Grief-stricken over the death of his daughter, a death he blames himself for, he begins to adopt fatherly overtures to Alita.

Motorball, in case you’re wondering, is much like Rollerball; both the actual game and the movie. Rollerball for those who may not know is an ultraviolet full contact gladiatorial game in which contestants race around a roller rink at high speeds. Rollerball is about a game invented and designed so that no one person could rise above the pack. It is not a game someone is supposed to be good at. 

Alita treats Motorball in much the same way. The dastardly head of Motorball is a shadowy figure known only as Vector (Mahershala Ali). Ali radiates an aura of menace and sleaze just by taking off his sunglasses. We don’t know much about Vector, except that he is rich and has connections. He seems to have an innate ability to get people to work for him on his empty promises to help them get to Zalem; the city in the sky.

Cameron’s and Kalogridis’ script is a hodgepodge of almost every movie ever written. I am shocked that no one uttered the line, “What is Zalem? The city in the sky? It’s the place dreams are made.” The script is a symphony of whole notes. Each dramatic and emotional beat being played for full and sustained effect.

Alita is jam-packed with so much bizarre and absurd moments we almost become immune to them. One of the best scenes in Alita exemplifies both its beauty and the lunacy. A small dog, who Alita saved earlier, follows her into a bar.

The dog is killed. Stomped on to be more precise. Alita bends down and dips her finger in the puppy blood and paints her cheeks, Rambo-style before hauling off and kicking butt. It is a pivotal scene but I had forgotten all about it.

I was far too busy thinking about the fate of Hugo (Keean Johnson); Alita’s boyfriend. The protypical “bad boy”. Hugo seems more at home in a boy band. In a span of ten minutes, he is mortally wounded, beheaded, and turned into a cyborg, similar to Alita. Moments later, he is sliced into pieces while climbing a giant pipe to Zalem.  Alita holds onto his hands as his arm begins to uncouple from his torso. “Thank you for saving me,” he whispers before his torso falls into the clouds below. The term “wild ride” feels incomplete and inadequate.

Let us return to the bar scene. Alita has become a hunter-warrior, a bounty hunter. She goes to the bar exclusively for hunter-warriors to try and form a posse to hunt down Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). Grewishka is a hulking mecha-human who while clearly a bad guy, somehow does not have a bounty.

The hunter-warriors act as a sort of privatized police force. Grewishka has no bounty, despite murdering innocents. The hunter-warriors leave him alone. Alita admonishes them and calls them to arms. It is a speech that absolutely should not work. Yet, somehow it does. I imagine it is because it evokes what seems to a natural feeling for justice.

Iron City is ruled mostly by Zalem, and yet feels as if it is largely ignored by the city in the sky. People are left to fend for themselves; ignoring each other. The speech Alita gives, while cheesy, speaks to a very human idea of fighting against injustice and corruption. Perhaps the audacity to merely speak it in in a time rife with injustice is what causes the moment to work.

It would be easy to poke fun at Salazar’s artificially animated widened eyes. An easy jab but unfair. Especially since her performance is so complete and fully realized. She has an impossible task. Salazar must play an amnesiac in the body of a thirteen-year-old girl who grows into herself as her memories return. Soon, she realizes her true self and destiny. She discovers a spaceship with Martian technology, don’t ask. The ship contains an advanced cybernetic body which seems tailor-made for her. Once she is connected to her new suit she grows even more confident and more mature. 

Kalogridis and Cameron’s script paint Alita’s transformation as a clumsy metaphor for puberty. But Salazar navigates the speed bumps from the patchwork script. Her speech, voice, and body movement, gradually evolves throughout the movie. She goes from the shaky legs of a girl with new legs to the over-eager jaunt of a girl exploring the world. Until finally, to the confident strut of a woman sure of herself and her beliefs.

Pope’s camera makes almost every frame of Alita feel alive and immediate. Cartoonish at times and surreal at others, Pope manages to bridge the chasm of the uncanny valley and make it all seem of a piece. Yes, you are aware it is all fake. But it never really registers and despite gaping plot holes and out of left field revelations Alita has moments of genuine emotion.

But Rodriguez, Kalogridis, and Cameron have too many plates spinning. By the end, Alita has left anything resembling rails. The final act of a movie is not interested in resolution or story set up for future installments. It plunges us into an operatic free fall. Prior plot threads are swallowed abruptly by new ones that have no time to go anywhere much less crystallize.

Like, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Alita: Battle Angel is a deeply flawed but engaging movie. Unlike Valerian, the leads and stars of Alita are perfectly fitted for their roles and the move itself. You can’t believe it all happened in one movie. Eventually, flaws, and all, you can’t help but smile at the audacity and ingenuity of all involved. I can’t wait to see it again.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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