Alita: Battle Angel review

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

Director : Robert Rodriguez
Cast : Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Keean Johnson, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Eiza González, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Idara Victor
Genre : Science Fiction/Action
Run Time : 2 h 2 mins
Opens : 5 February 2019
Rating : PG13

           James Cameron has long spoken of adapting Yukito Kushiro’s manga Battle Angel Alita aka Gunnm to the big screen. After developing the project through the 90s and 2000s, he turned his attention to the Avatar movies, passing the directorial baton to Robert Rodriguez. This is the result.

It is the year 2563. Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a kindly scientist living in the post-apocalyptic Iron City, comes across a discarded robot core in a trash heap. He attaches the core to an artificial body he has built, reviving the cyborg girl. Ido dubs her ‘Alita’ (Rosa Salazar). Alita has no memory of her previous life and adjusts to her newfound existence in Ido’s care. She meets and falls for Hugo (Keean Johnson), who introduces her to the sport of motorball. Alita aspires to enter a professional motorball tournament, but Ido tries to dissuade her because it’s a lethal sport.

Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido’s ex-wife, is now working with the shady and powerful Vector (Mahershala Ali), who has made his fortune in motorball. Vector sets his sights on Alita, sending cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunters including Zapan (Ed Skrein), Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and Nyssiana (Eiza González) after her. Alita gradually recalls her past as a soldier in a catastrophic war 300 years ago, reconciling this past with her current existence as powerful forces pursue her.

Alita: Battle Angel might have Cameron on board as producer and co-writer to lend it pedigree, it winds up a disappointment. The film boasts some good cyberpunk design elements and eye-catching visual effects from vendor WETA, but the familiar story structure and character types make it seem like something that has sat on a shelf for 20 years. Cyberpunk is very much an 80s-90s concept – while there still are creative and compelling cyberpunk works, we’ve already begun looking on cyberpunk futures the way we look at The Jetsons-style 50s futurism.

          Alita plays the young adult novel-style ‘chosen girl’ trope painfully straight and falls back on tried and tested sci-fi movie conventions. There’s a floating metropolis where the elites live, while everyone else leads a hardscrabble existence in a post-apocalyptic city. Bionic bounty hunters roam the streets as militaristic drones keep order. With its light body horror, the film sometimes approaches the off-kilter twistedness of the source material but is never brave enough to embrace it. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and a sense of going through the motions pervades Alita. There’s a dynamism to the action sequences but a limpness to everything else.

“I’m starting to feel like I wasn’t very important,” Alita sighs to Hugo. “Just an insignificant girl thrown out with the rest of the garbage.” Naturally, Alita winds up being the most significant girl. The character is portrayed via performance capture by Rosa Salazar. Alita’s enlarged anime-esque eyes deliberately contribute to an uncanny valley quality, reminding the viewer that she’s different from everyone else. The character is a blend of giggly innocence and formidable combat prowess, with Salazar switching fluidly between the modes. Salazar’s performance is one of the most worthwhile aspects of the film.

It’s always nice to see Christoph Waltz in a non-creepy role, and as Dr Ido, he is a serviceably likeable Gepetto-esque figure. There just isn’t enough depth in the material for the relationship between Ido and Alita for audiences to care very much about it.

Jennifer Connelly is mostly flat as a character who could’ve been interesting because of her conflicted nature. Fellow Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali is wasted as a generic villain who pulls the strings behind the scenes. There is a surprise element to the Vector character that differentiates him from other similar villains, but it just isn’t enough to make him memorable.

Keean Johnson makes for a boring love interest. Much of the film’s cheesiness is derived from its romantic subplot, which becomes a driving force for Alita. We don’t know what Alita sees in Hugo. Even given some moral ambiguity, Hugo is patently dull. It sounds mean, but the best way to describe the character is ‘lame’. There’s nothing passionate or transporting about the romance, which feels like it belongs in an early-2000s Disney Channel Original Movie.

The various cyborg ‘hunter warriors’ Alita must fight are various shades of cartoony and while they might approach menacing, never seem like a legitimate threat. This is in part because of how Alita seems to be physically stronger and faster than anyone she faces.

Alita: Battle Angel isn’t a complete loss: Rosa Salazar gives it her all, and the realisation of the ‘Panzer Kunst’ fighting style and the kinetic motorball sequences are exciting and entertaining to watch. The film was shot in native 3D and looks great in that format. It’s just a shame that this is a largely flavourless version of this story, saddled with awkward dialogue and melodrama.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Dark Tower

For F*** Magazine

THE DARK TOWER 

Director : Nikolaj Arcel
Cast : Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Franz Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 35m
Opens : 3 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

After ten years in various stages of development, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finally arrives on the big screen. At the centre of the universe stands the titular structure, protecting various realms from entities that seek to tear the universe apart. On Mid-World, the evil sorcerer Walter Padick/The Man in Black (McConaughey), has been conducting experiments on gifted children, attempting to use their minds to bring down the tower. The Man in Black’s nemesis is Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Elba), the last living descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur. On earth, teenager Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been plagued with nightmares in which he sees Walter and Roland. Locating an abandoned house he sees in his dream, Jake steps through a portal and into Mid-World, accompanying Roland on his quest to defeat Walter and prevent the collapse of the universe.

King’s series of eight books, with allusions to it scattered throughout his other works, has many devoted fans. This reviewer, being completely unfamiliar with the series, is not one of them. It must have been a challenge to adapt the series, which spans the genres of science-fantasy, western and horror, hence the succession of filmmakers who came and went. The approach with this is that it isn’t a straight adaptation, folding in elements from several books while also acting as kind of a sequel to them – we don’t fully understand the mechanics of that.

The resulting film is a serviceable fantasy adventure, but can’t help but feel underwhelming given the breadth of the source material. Director Nikolaj Arcel goes about the set-up with workmanlike efficiency, and the story isn’t difficult to follow at all. There’s just the nagging feeling that everything’s been condensed into its simplest form, and that the richness of the world that King has woven together is being sacrificed for something easier to digest. Visually, The Dark Tower isn’t too exciting, but the action sequences, especially Roland’s various reload tricks, are quite fun.

Actors including Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe have all been connected to the Roland Deschain role at some point. Elba is a fine choice for the part, cutting a heroic figure and possessing the stoic poise necessary to sell the character. There’s a strength and a grace to the way Elba moves, and he does have a larger-than-life quality to him. He just doesn’t have very much to do here, and even though Roland’s storied past is hinted at, the character feels a little flat.

The relationship between Roland and Jake is apparently key to the books, but it doesn’t get too much development here. It makes sense that Jake, as the audience identification character, is given more emphasis, but it detracts from the inherently interesting Gunslinger and Man in Black characters. Taylor, a relative newcomer, does his best as the troubled character and is generally sympathetic throughout the film. Jake winds up being an extreme example of the ‘chosen one’ trope, and the handling of the character nudges The Dark Tower into Young Adult fiction territory. He must overcome tragedy, has fantastical abilities he must hone, and stumbles into an adventure in a magical world. While this approach is too generic, it gets the job done.

McConaughey has as much fun as he can with the role of the mercurial, wicked Man in Black. There’s a seductiveness to his brand of menace, and McConaughey practices enough restraint so that he does not chew the mostly drab scenery to pieces. When McConaughey and Elba are pitted against each other, the sparks don’t fly as fiercely and as wildly as one hopes they would. Just as with this iteration of Roland Deschain however, the Man in Black doesn’t feel as substantial a character as he should.

There will be a TV series planned to bridge this film and its sequel, which Arcel has promised will be more faithful to the books than this film is. The Dark Tower is meant to launch a ‘Connected KINGdom’ cinematic universe uniting all of Stephen King’s works, with Easter Eggs from It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, Christine and others hidden in the film. Given all this, The Dark Tower feels sufficiently self-contained, and doesn’t come off as merely a long trailer for what’s to follow.

The Dark Tower is intermittently thrilling, sometimes entertaining, and runs a lean 95 minutes. It doesn’t have the feel of a sprawling epic, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, since the audience isn’t overwhelmed with exposition-dumps and massive amounts of lore to process. However, it makes more of a dent than an impact, and isn’t especially memorable given the potential in its premise and the extent to which King has developed his universe. We’re far from the most qualified to judge how this stacks up against the source material, but we have a feeling that those who’ve been waiting a decade for a Dark Tower movie to materialise might feel indifferent if not disappointed.

Summary: The Dark Tower has charismatic leads and doesn’t twaddle in setting up its plot, but it comes off as generic and slight when it should be an absorbing epic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong