The mixture of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez definitely has a great angle to it. “Alita: Battle Angel” was a title heard years ago and moved around as myth actually for a time. Harrison Ford was attached per se at one point. This story of stories that Cameron had developed for years actually was something Rodriguez told Inside Reel in a Fest Track interview at SxSW in March 2018. Reading the first 3 volumes before talking with producer Jon Landau as well as leads Rosa Salazar & Keaan Johnson in Austin (see their Fest Track interview here), gave a good perception of the structure but what is one to say between an anime/graphic novel that was written many years ago versus the ideals of the actual script (which having been co-written by James Cameron definitely should retain his story sense). What “Alita: Battle Angel” does very well is keep itself focused. The one true balance that stays pretty crisp and clear throughout the film is Rosa Salazar as Alita. Many may think that it is simply a computer performance but that could not put the sense of innocence, anger and breathe in what is seen here. Granted it is not Andy Serkis but who can compete on that level. What Rosa brings is a soul to this girl who was originally built as a killing machine. Salazar has been missing in part from many of the media rounds per se (in large part) but that might be better so the character simply exists on her own. Rodriguez’s touch is here for sure but it is sometimes lost in the bigger sequences. Oddly enough, this reviewer kept seeing “Speed Racer” in the race sequences per se. They are good but at a certain point are more video game oriented.
The character build even though it takes a while in the beginning does the film correctly but there is no “a-ha” moment. The scene though where Alita first tries her new body with fighting moves shows a path to identity and the sequence inside a bar (a very visceral scene in the graphic novel) definitely comes to life. The reason why is that all the characters in there are so unique. It makes one think of “From Dusk Till Dawn”. What seems to be missing is some of Robert’s camera tricks and stylistic touches although to be fair Rodriguez did mention in that same interview that this was not him doing a Robert Rodriguez film but instead doing a Jim Cameron film. So in that respect it does work, the script is tight, the visuals are fluid and it does its job. It is fun to watch but it is not spectacular. There is never quite a moment where Alita becomes the chosen one or that her love against her own life will ring out. One scene inside the apartment of Hugo (played by Johnson) comes close and really makes the CG of Rosa as a cyborg really key into the story. The climax, like most, has to serve a story point and that is understandable. Christoph Waltz does an admirable job as the Doc and Jennifer Connelly & Mahershala Ali do their part within the structure but Ed Skrein as a competitor is the only one who brings an edge to the proceedings. Here is hoping “Alita” connects to the audience because unlike many recent popcorn films, it understands the concept of a beginning, middle and end within a true story arc. But it is in the silent moments, when you can hear the acting, that make the most impact. One simple act of Alita laying her head on her father’s shoulder has almost more power than a large action sequence. But that said, one does not exist in the large scale, big budget film without the other.
By Tim Wassberg
“Avatar” has long been hyped as the next age of cinema and on many levels in terms of sheer mastery of the medium, it is. It blends some of the schmaltz of “Titanic” with some of the balls-out rendition of “Aliens”. Now while it might be too early to render its true appraisal since the gee whiz factor enters so much into the equation, the third act of the picture, which takes the essential element of the battle scenes and sheer bad ass intensity while still staying within the PG-13 realm, is quite impressive. The photo real propensity makes you almost forget that the blue skinned “avatars” are not real in real life. Their adherence through performance capture especially with Sigourney Weaver’s Grace is so spot on since the image of Weaver (specifically in Cameron’s “Aliens”) is so ingrained to people’s minds.
Another lipnus test that was on supreme importance was interactivity of characters. Even though the blue alien love scene is a bit overplayed, the physical intermingling (like kissing) which I found problematic in terms of the technology back in 99 with “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is corrected here. The format “Avatar” was seen, which most of the theaters cannot do, is 3D IMAX. The digital negative seems to have been shot for the format with a 70mm (like “Aliens”) which means the image should be barely cropped. The sense of scale especially with this movie is necessary so the angle is important. At one specific point when the natives are going up to meld with a bird (takes some explaining), the straight down shot can induce vertigo if you want it to. The battle sequences especially towards the end in the air are as great as anything Cameron has done or better.
In terms of the story on first glance, the aspect of the natives seems almost like pat storytelling but in further examination, despite the details, becomes very mythic. Like “Star Wars”, alot of the elements come from Tolkien which Cameron admits inspired him. Actually it was Peter Jackson’s work on Gollum speaking to himself in “Rings” that made Cameron believe that “Avatar” could finally be pulled off after all these years. The irony of course is there. However what “Avatar” reminds me of more in structure is Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Like Paul Atreides, Jake (played here by Sam Worthington) is an outsider from another planet brought in to help secure a mineral resource. Here, in true vague fashion, this material is called “Unobtanium” whereas “Dune” had “The Spice”. Jake is run from his people (in Paul’s case, royalty – in Jake’s case – The Marines) and ends up embedding himself with the supposed savages (in “Dune”, they were the Fremen). With their care and guidance, Jake must learn their ways and eventually takes a mate (like Paul did with Chani in “Dune”).
In “Dune”, Paul must tame a massive worm and then transmute the dangerous Water Of Life. Jake must tame a wild bird and then transcend his Avatar. Very similar but everything is in reverse with certain elements. The planet here is green with life whereas Arrakis is barren. The Earth the military comes from in “Avatar” is one where everything in terms of living has been destroyed. It is a dying world.
Despite these close similarities, Cameron is a student of cinema. Most of his films have been franchise based. This is no different. You need a universal theme which this does deliver. Granted despite the bad ass elements, there seems to be a tree-hugger friendly message but that is the biggest criticism. You just expect Cameron to say “fuck it all” and take it into the fire. Messages seem to be following him as he grows older which might be his recent interest with documentaries and education.
All said “Avatar” is pretty amazing to watch. Not a perfect movie by far but with a wonder of elements going for it. In ambition definitely a good follow up from “Titanic” doing something original but presenting a marketing challenge at times which is understandable when creating a new world. Out of 5, I give it a 3 1/2.