Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

I went in expecting nothing whatsoever from the Robert Rodriguez directed, James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis written manga adaptation, and went out pretty happy with a very satisfying bit of big budget cyberpunk action cinema. Now, the usual critics will offer the usual complaint that the film uses well-worn tropes in a plot very much written to the still most popular structural model in modern blockbuster pop cinema. These gals and guys are only half wrong, for the film is indeed filled with genre tropes and does indeed follow a certain Blockbuster plotting 101 philosophy. However, you can use well-worn clichés with a sense of joy (and perhaps even a bit of intelligence); the standard blockbuster plot style exists in so many movies because it actually works very well inside the genres these films usually belong to. And really, all jokes about plot structure timed to the second in today’s mainstream cinema aside, there’s always wriggle room to do something interesting or weird in seemingly rigid structures.

What I am obviously leading up to is this: sure, Alita is full of variations on stuff you’ve heard and seen explode on a screen many times before, but it does more often than not use these elements with such joy and abandon that originality simply doesn’t come into play when you’re actually willing to watch the film instead of trying to watch it antagonistically (which is not the same as watching critically, whatever parts of the internet and the critical classes may believe); and while the film’s structure is indeed well-worn by now, the script really flows and works very well inside this structure. Rodriguez also manages to create a world weird enough to be appropriate to the manga it adapts, where a cameo by Jeff Fahey and his cyborg dogs (potential band name ahoy!) isn’t just a fun aside but also makes sense as a part of the film’s highly strange world. The trick here is that Rodriguez never seems to have accepted the idea that there’s a strict dividing line between the goofy and the cool, and so can pick and mix from both sides of this arbitrary divide, put the fun stuff on screen and let the audience decide to either enjoy themselves or find all of this very silly indeed. Me, I’m with the enjoyment.

This doesn’t mean the film is absolutely brain dead and only there to put its – actually pretty damn awesome – production design in your face. There’s some obvious (and obviously underplayed, no surprise given that this is mass market entertainment made for a giant company) business about class divisions and what the incessant want to need to make it big to escape them does to people. The film also manages to hit its emotional beats about the travails of a young heroine to define herself and her own destiny, as clichéd as they are, with great conviction, providing the film with a degree of mainstream feminist heft in the process. Plus, on a more technical level, the script does ably deliver exposition and world building, even a handful of flashbacks, in a way that feels organic instead of tedious, something I particularly appreciate after I’ve suffered through the new Hellboy movie.

Also pretty fun is how easily the film convinces us of the tiny Alita with the weird CGI face as an ass-kicking heroine who becomes more fun to watch the longer the film goes on. That’s not just because this sort of thing is just naturally fun (which proper nerd sides with the big bruiser against a tiny slip of a girl, after all?), but also because Rosa Salazar’s performance, despite that weird decision to CGI away most of her actual face for no good reason, is pretty fantastic for this sort of thing, making Alita feel absurdly grounded and human. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the film’s handling of Alita is how little it is interested in this cyborg’s basic humanity – listen to Salazar give even the bad lines of dialogue, and her humanity really isn’t in question at all. The acting’s pretty wonderful for this sort of thing on the whole, with Waltz making a wonderful likeable father figure and looking perfectly dignified when using an absurd manga style weapon, and Jennifer Connelly selling a somewhat underwritten surprise face turn by sheer power of personality. Why, the film’s so good with its actors, I didn’t even mind Ed Skrein, though perhaps because he is the butt of many a violent joke.

Last but not least, Alita amply demonstrates that having a great action director like Robert Rodriguez is still important in the digital filmmaking age. You’d think – and I’ve certainly done this from time to time – that today’s blockbuster with all the technological expertise and money thrown at them basically couldn’t miss having at least solid action sequences, but then just look at the sad excuses for action featured in Venom or Shazam (to mention the worst offenders I’ve seen in the last year or so) and compare the staging, imagining and execution of their action scenes to the fast, imaginative and fun things Rodriguez does with the same sort of technology and budget. Apparently, having a visual imagination and an innate sense of pacing still is pretty useful when it comes to action scenes in the post-analogue era.

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