Alita PosterFilm Review

Alita: Battle Angel

By Jay Armstrong

 

Overall Experience: B+
Cinematography:  A
Acting:  B
Score: A+
Soundtrack: D

One can only imagine the weight Robert Rodriguez felt when James Cameron called to announce the $170 million budget being given for Alita: Battle Angel. As a director whose reputation was formed by doing government studies for cash in scraping together the funds for his first film, as one who has sustained his reputation working comfortably within modest budgets with consistent positive returns(we will ignore Sin City 2 for this entire article) while never turning in a film which left his core cult following to feel alienated by bigger ambitions. With the announcement and teaser for yet one more Machete film –in space no less– and the $7,000 film Red 11 due out next year, Rodriguez has seemed more ambitious towards one day filling the shoes of Roger Corman than carrying the weight of a film on his back which could potentially bury his career to low-budget straight-to-video hell. In a recent Q&A, Rodriguez with straight face said, “it was like jumping out of an airplane and having to build the parachute before hitting the ground.”

When the first trailer for Alita was released, predictably in this foul year of our lord where trolls and scoffers reign supreme, the rolling eyes and judgement hit the shoreline like it was Normandy gaining in momentum as the release day got closer. So many pompous bravado gun-jumpers shouting the film would flop, articles tossed around about the losses Twentieth Century Fox are facing financially, about what hacks Rodriguez and Cameron apparently are; even the tiniest of threads found towards discrediting the film yet unseen was tugged fiercely.  Anyone else noticing crickets after opening week? The sound of arrogant unintelligence being swallowed sure is hard to hear behind someones foot in their mouth.

We could label Robert Rodriguez with a handful of titles but a visionary he is not. Which is the conundrum I run into always when talking of his films. Saying one enjoyed Alita, respects Alita, recommends others watch Alita is easy to toss out to your friends but reviewing them often comes down to stating Robert Rodriguez is a fan who knows how to direct passionate fan films; Steven Spielberg and Richard Stanley create in a similar fashion; the line between the two being the precise defining moment Rodriguez found himself in–the sword of fate cuts both ways. Whether one appreciates the film or not, whether you agree with my take or not, Rodriguez walks away from this project unscathed. I for one would not have taken the bet things would work out so well.

Pardon me for drudging up some buried trauma but if you were to close your eyes and remember back to watching The Hobitt: An Unexpectedly Bad Film (or whatever it was called) and then imagine the polar opposite of that HD filming of a Mr. Rodgers set then you might have a decent enough grasp on how ideal the visual experience of Alita is. As one who leans heavily in the way of despising CGI, my opinion is once more humbled by Rodriguez. The depth is key, the bokeh worthy of the highest praise, the way our gaze sways in fixation from one side to the next constantly, all stunning. Often throughout the film I’m reminded of the greatest of James Cameron shots; the majority of the film is a recreation of two Cameron Terminator 2 moments; the opening battle with the T800’s, soldiers, and tanks rolling over the skeleton landscape and the portions of the Skynet building helicopter fight sequence when the camera pans across the entire room from the inside looking out. The graphic novel’s original film adaption Gunnm is used as source for how well the landscape comes alive when being stirred with even the most minuscule gestures. Unlike most action/super-hero/teen-aimed films this one actually NEEDS to be watched in theater. If you spent less than a grand on a home screen projector and especially if you are of the bedtime and a movie on an Ipad/Tablet sort, don’t dumb this film down by not seeing it in full visceral perfection. That being said, if you are not a fan of super-hero/teen-aimed films then sit this one out because we are not talking Apocalypse Now or Badlands visual importance. Best case scenario is asking yourself if Avatar had not been a slop fest would you have wanted to see it in theater? How you answer sums up whether you should see this one.

In ten years when someone brings up Alita I believe what will stick out personally will not be about the film itself, instead it will be a memory of the way it made me feel–but not in like a Karate Kid or Land Before Time sort of way. I caught myself laughing respectfully in how obvious it is Rodriguez created Alita for one person and one person only; James Cameron. Scattered throughout are homages to the producer but as we have seen repeatedly over his career Rodriguez knows how to repackage what captures us as fans underscoring a film and has the rare honorable ability to recreate those moments feeling fresh. El Mariachi, Roadracers, From Dusk Til Dawn are three key early films of his which wear their derivative nature on the sleeve yet stand out timelessly for blinding us to their inspiration as we lose ourselves seeping in a damn fine cinematic experience. Roadracers is a made-for-TV movie that absolutely rules. On From Dusk Til Dawn, once the clever dialogue and insane distracting buildup have all but worn out, when they get to Mexico and the Hitchcockian shifts to a traditional biker film on speed, Rodriguez is pointing his bat to left field only to Babe Ruth the experience out of the park. He is a master of fixing his vision in a single direction and making it work, on Alita his gaze stays on James Cameron…he never blinks.

Figuring out not only what attracted Cameron to want to adapt Yukito Kishiro’s manga, Rodriguez figured out what attracts Cameron to make films in general, how he makes them, why they work, hell I wouldn’t be surprised if he switched his deodorant and laundry detergent to match that of Cameron. Conscious or not, Robert Rodriguez could either have faced square the studio and a fickle blockbuster crowd which loves or hates films for often trivial reasons or he could face James Cameron and ask him humbly at final cut “do you like what I made.” Smart move. Cameron has never cared less about pleasing an audience or a studio and look where it got him. Why are people so hung up on Avatar as though it is some scarlet letter on Cameron’s career? Beyond grossing $2.7 billion at the box office, it allowed Cameron to pocket $230 million as a bonus for DVD sales alone. Sure Avatar did not match the hype built around it but that did not come by way of lacking risks or originality. Greatest film of all-time Avatar is not but if you were to argue it being better than any three Michael Bay films combined, you wouldn’t hear me shouting you down.

Alita Cast PosterThe less recognized strength of Rodriguez is his ability to cast hugely skilled yet below familiar name recognition actors. This gives his films an always fresh new car sort of feel. Outside of budding talent I noticed something about the way Rodriguez casts for the first time through this film; he has a fetish for textured distinctly unique voices. How have I not noticed this sooner? Christopher Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley, etc, all of them, every single one, has a distinct unique delivery, tone, grit, substance; similarly this is the key to what makes Wes Anderson films great. When the expectation is to cast by way of archetype–and Cameron is an archetype guy; think Aliens– Rodriguez takes the risk littered path less taken and once more it works out tremendously.  None on the cast touches how notable, how fitting, how ideal Rosa Salazar is. Playing the lead she births this new hero with fantastic poise. It is all heart-swoons and Judd Nelson fist pumping the air with the delivery of every Salazar line. Although I will avoid spoilers at all costs there is an intense build up to a bar fight where Salazar stands idle while another condescendingly reproaches her before an audience of bounty hunters, it was in the first line of her response which drew excited laughs from around the theater I was seated in, while smiling I caught myself whispering under my breath, “deadly little Miho.” Salazar as Alita is perfect.

We see again Rodriguez working with Eiza González. With little screen time she steals the scene in the same way she did every moment on camera in his From Dusk Til Dawn series. Recasting the role of Salma Hayek and watching him continue a creative relationship in the same fashion can only work as reminder of how long we have been on this ride with Rodriguez and how confusing treatment as though he is just arriving on the scene by critics is. Kevin Smith gets handled the same way. My favorite actor going into the film and regular co-worker of Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, has two lines. As someone who is obsessed with day-in day-out purposefully seeking the worst films ever made, I would like to note the excitement I have each time he appears in front of a camera. After sitting through at least twenty-five projects he has worked on and feeling the oh-so-often soul-crushing disappointment which proceeds it, I can speak with comforting familiarity of his being one of those actors who is only as good as the director he works with. Robert Rodriguez knows how to make him look great. Now if only we could convince Rodriguez to cast both Fahey and Gary Busey–who is cut from the same cloth–together then just maybe I could begin to get the taste of Ghost Rock out of my mouth.

The beauty of what stands out with Alita is in how it does not resign to merely being yet another heroes journey. Our lead character is not so much someone figuring herself out as she is someone who we as an audience find ourselves intrigued by her mystery; drawn to the shadow, squinting into the abyss with excitement for the potential sensed boiling beneath the surface. Alita is a martial arts film disguised as a heroes journey and that is what makes it great. Sure, there are the Titanic brushes of love moments but they are quickly flashed bonding the characters without overburdening the arc development. One criticism could be of just how quickly things develop both in the love interest between Salazar and nineties cool guy caricature Keean Johnson as well as with the father/daughter assumed dynamic of Salazar and Waltz yet if art is to reflect life think briefly on all the close friends (and maybe yourself) who can meet someone and immediately be full of infatuation with the idea of their making the other whole. Is this a healthy way to go about building relationships? Of course not but it is real. I hold a film about a cyborg brought to life out of a trash heap to no higher standard. A handful of days spent between teenagers is monumental.

Most criticism I’ve heard so far has been on the simplicity of dialogue which seems unjust. I wonder if the same people hold The NeverEnding Story or Gremlins to a similar standard? The script remains unflinchingly true to the source material of both Kishiro and Fukutomi while visually pushing the experience beyond the harshest expectations. Can we crowdsource enough funds to convince Robert Rodriguez to teach a private six month course to Zack Snyder on how it is done correctly? I say we give it a shot. The only criticism I cannot let slide though is in how someone who once turned me on to Hasil Adkins and the cornerstone of my love for rock n roll Link Wray decided to phone in the soundtrack on every project since. Alita was filmed in Austin,TX, he could have stumbled a quarter mile in any direction and found some insanely perfect music pouring out of every dive in town to soundtrack the film with yet instead we get some Disney Channel closing song I would expect for something a young Hillary Duff would have been acting in. The bar fight has some alternative-rock mediocrity played behind it which still would have been boring as part of a PS2 game, thanks to the visual tough excitement it keeps from surfacing into distraction. All those millions of dollars and he couldn’t find some minimum wage door guy at Beerland to toss a few better suggestions his way with the slip of a twenty spot? Soundtracks are one of the most important outlets for allowing unknown greats a chance at posterity. I thought he was buddies with Tarantino? I personally would never let one of my friends off the hook for an offense such as this but maybe they have better things to talk about than work. The score on the other hand is perfect. Where most superhero movies club you into submission by grandiose regurgitated tropes Alita moves in breaths of subtly.

Overall verdict: Go see Alita. Ignore (always) all criticism from anyone who likes Marvel films. Listen to better music. That’s what I’m getting at.

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