Saturday, February 16, 2019
Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2019) Part One
Alita: Battle Angel
When I did my James Cameron retrospective in 2015, I occasionally mentioned this project he had been trying to make. After discovering it in the early nineties, Cameron apparently became a big fan of Yukito Kishiro’s long running manga, “Battle Angel Alita.” It’s easy to see why Kishiro’s action ready female protagonist and cyberpunk setting would appeal to him. Despite the series being more of a cult classic than a crossover hit, Cameron maintained his desire to adapt it to film for two decades. (He even co-created a television series with a similar title and premise.) Honestly, I had given up hope that Cameron would ever make his “Battle Angel.” Considering he’s committed to flooding the market with “Avatar” sequels, I guess Cameron got impatient too. He handed “Alita” over to Robert Rodriguez in 2017. I imagine the studio was happy about that, since Cameron is notorious for going over budget while Rodriguez is well known for being thrifty. (The movie still cost nearly 200 million dollars.) And now, in 2019 and after a few more delays, “Alita: Battle Angel” has finally been released.
In the twenty or so years I had been hearing about how Cameron’s “Battle Angel” was going to blow our minds, I had never actually read the comics or watch the anime. So, in the two weeks leading up to the release of Rodriguez’ film, I decided to transform myself into as much of a “Battle Angel” nerd as possible. I read all nine volumes of the original manga, as well as the “Ashen Victor” spin-off and Gaiden comics. (Kishiro has since created two sequel series, the second of which is still running, which I didn’t have time to read.) I also watched the brief anime adaptation from 1993. That only adapted the first two manga volumes, added some gratuitous sex, and took away some of Alita’s agency. On the other side of this marathon, I have to agree with Jimmy Cameron: This “Battle Angel” shit is pretty cool. Now that the movie is out, I can truly ask if it was worth the wait.
For the uninitiated, “Alita: Battle Angel” is devoted to two cities. The first of which is Zalem, a shimmering sci-fi utopia suspended in the sky. Below it is Iron City, an industrial ghetto occupied by cyborgs, psychotic criminals, feckless gangsters, and ruthless bounty hunters. While searching through the scrapyard under Zalem, cyber-surgeon Ido discovers the still living torso of a female cyborg. He rebuilds her, names her Alita, and begins to raise her as his daughter. Alita is young but hungry for answers. Her heart is 300 years old and she instinctively knows a forgotten martial arts. Her journey to uncover her past sees her falling in love, becoming a bounty hunter, participating in Iron City’s favorite death sport, and becoming determined to reach Zalem.
Chiren character, who was exclusive to the OVA.) The film's fidelity is such that a handful of shots are directly translated from the manga or cartoon. A slight problem is that Kishiro's early volumes are fairly self-contained. In order to combine these somewhat episodic stories into a smooth narrative, Cameron and his co-conspirators overreach a little. The personal connections made between Ido, Alita, Chiran and Vector – a fairly minor elevated to primary antagonist here – goes a bit too far. This focus ends up excluding some important stuff, like the exact reason why Alita's love interest is so determined to reach Zalem. I imagine the people unfamiliar with the source materiel might find the plot overstuffed or hard-to-follow.
In particular, Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis' screenplay piles on far too many sequel hooks. In the manga, we don't learn anything about Alita's origins until nearly the end of the original series. (Apparently, the sequels expand a lot more on this stuff.) This was a good tactic, as it turned the focus towards developing the world and the characters instead. The movie, meanwhile, reveals a lot of info about Alita's long-ago past very early on. We didn't need that stuff. Secondly, the movie goes ahead and introduces Desty Nova, the main antagonist of the manga's second half. He's played as this shadowy mastermind manipulating everyone behind the scenes, portrayed by an uncredited and big star, when he's more of a chaotic mad scientist in the comic. Naturally, he's also depicted as having a long-standing connection to Alita. All of this set-up for a sequel comes off as hopelessly optimistic, considering all of six people where in the theater with me today.
A lot of this is nerdy nit-picking and I'll be the first to admit that. Truthfully, as a big fan of Kishiro's original books, seeing so much of his world recreated so faithfully is a blast. I got a real nerdy thrill out of seeing specific elements from the books brought to life on the big screen. Like Ido wielding a rocket-powered hammer as a weapon. Or the Deckman, the bizarre and tube-shaped machines that police bounty hunting in Iron City. Most of this stuff will go unnoticed. A bounty hunter with a pack of cyborg dogs, a mono-wheeled motorcycle, or a rival hunter having the Blue Oyster Cult symbol on his forehead will likely be overlooked by most but fans will go nuts for that stuff. At least, I did. More than anything else, Kishiro's world is brought to life vividly and brilliantly. It's amazing to see.
transhumanism and whether machines can have souls, I see “Battle Angel” as a story of division. The world is divided, between the industrial hellscape of Iron City and the seemingly idyllic, shiny sci-fi heaven of Zalem. You see it in the characters. As Ido is both a kindly father-figure to Alita and an experienced bounty hunter. Or Hugo, her love interest, who she sees as a loving soul but who secretly has a history of crime. Alita herself is the biggest example. Like the title points out, she is both an angel – a teenager prone to girlish crushes and loving rich foods – but also a warrior ready for battle, ready to deliver blows with deadly accuracy at a moment's notice. Kishiro's world is one of contrast and complexity.
The heart of “Battle Angel” lies in the relationships between Alita and the men in her life. The bond between Alita and Ido is definitely parental, her status as a daughter-figure to him made even more explicit. He worries about her constantly but it's all based in love. He doesn't want to loose this person that means so much to him. Yet, like any teenager, she strives for independence too. How he eventually comes around to support her efforts is adorable. Similarly, her love and devotion for Hugo is based in the dreams and aspiration he inspires in her. She literally offers him her heart at one point, if there's any doubt about how sincere Alita is.
A number of up-and-coming young stars auditioned for the titular part, including Maika Monroe and Zendaya. Instead, relative unknown Rosa Salazar won the role. And she is so friggin' good. Despite Alita being largely brought to life by CGI, from her giant anime eyes to her high-flying fighting moves, Salazar has no problem showing Alita's humanity to the audience. She makes the character's girlish attributes adorable and endearing. Yet Salazar also conveys the confusion, frustration, and longing Alita feels at her lack of the past. Salazar is so good that she even makes some of the more comic book-y declarations – Alita's battle cries or declaration of standing against evil – come off as bad-ass, rather than silly.
a much more important character in the comic.) Jackie Earle Hurley, performing under a ton of CGI, rightly mixes pathetic and overblown grossness as the grotesque Grewishka. Keean Johnson is a little blank as Hugo, though fittingly hunky, while Jennifer Connelly never seems entirely comfortable with the material.
Kishiro's manga is frequently characterized by hyper-violent action sequences, featuring lots of exploding body parts and flailing entrails. The PG-13 movie dials that stuff back considerably, though still includes a surprising amount of dismemberment. Yet the lack of gore certainly doesn't mean a lack of intensity. Robert Rodriguez was likely chosen by Cameron due to his strength for action. He proves he was the right man for the job, in that regard. He punctuates the action with shots of slow motion, emphasizing the power of the blows. A bar room brawl Alita starts is spectacular fun. Her first confrontation with Gewishka makes brilliant use of the villain's trademark weapons and especially of how Alita navigates them. The Motorball sequence is a clear high-light of the film's back-half, the camera racing around the chrome bodies at lightning speed. You feel the kinetic force of the motion and the crushing power of the killing blows. Cool stuff.
Aside from the action scenes though, this honestly doesn't feel that much like a Robert Rodriguez movie. It's the biggest budget of his entire career. So even with the gritty practical sets, there's little of Rodriguez' indie spirit. While the film features a lot of coolness-for-coolness'-sake insanity, including a bad guy being vertically sliced in half as if by Machete, the melancholy so essential to Kishiro's stories stands apart from Rodriguez' typically adolescent attitude. Aside from small roles from Jeff Fahey, Marko Zaror, and Michelle Rodriguez, the director doesn't even include many of his key players. You'd think Danny Trejo would've made an ideal cyborg lunatic. You do get the impression that Rodriguez was acting as something of a hired gun here, conveying Cameron's vision for him. That's the aesthetic that truly directs the film.