ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

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I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

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THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) Is Laborious & Dull

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I love the old Tarzan movies.

They’ve been around since the silent era and grew to epic proportions in the 1930s with the films of Johnny Weissmuller.  I watched these, but I grew up watching the color Tarzan movies of the 1950s and 1960s on TV, films that featured the likes of Gordon Scott and Mike Henry as Tarzan.  These films were colorful and fun.

It’s been a long time since there’s been a decent Tarzan movie.  I went into THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) hoping it would be the movie to the end the Tarzan drought.  It’s not.

It certainly tries, and it does attempt to be a classy and elegant telling of a Tarzan tale.  The trouble is Tarzan and the rest of the movie are just so darned boring. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character just can’t seem to catch a break these days.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN opens with the nefarious Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) trudging through the Congo to make a deal with Chief Mbonga (DJimon Hounsou):  Rom is to deliver Tarzan to the chief, and in return the chief will give Rom unlimited access to the diamonds there.  What the chief doesn’t know is that Rom is really there to convert the natives into slaves. Which begs the question, if Rom intends to overthrow Chief Mbonga anyway, as is implied later in the movie, why waste half the film chasing down Tarzan?  Why not just conquer Mbonga in the first place?

We first meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) living the life of a noble gentleman in London as John Clayton with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie).  They have put their time in Africa behind them, which is why John refuses to return when Her Majesty’s government asks him to travel to Africa as a special envoy.  But he’s persuaded to go by an American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who tells John his fears that someone is turning the population of the Congo into slaves.  Jane returns as well against John’s wishes.  He fears for his wife’s safety, but she convinces him to change his mind, explaining that like him, her true home is also in Africa.

So, they return to the jungle, and as expected, Leon Rom is there waiting for them, but his men bungle their attempts to capture John and manage to nab Jane instead, which as you might expect, doesn’t make John very happy.  Not to be outdone by the main character in the film, Samuel L. Jackson’s George Washington Williams tells John he’s following him into the jungle, and the two men spend the rest of the movie chasing down Rom and his henchmen.

It’s not difficult to deduce which side will win.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN has a lot of problems, but its biggest problem is the way it goes about telling its story.  Director David Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer make some odd choices.  The film begins with the Leon Rom sequence, then jumps to London, and in a series of flashbacks recalls John Clayton’s origins in Africa, where his father is killed and he is “adopted” by gorillas.  These plot points are revealed in increments, as the film switches back and forth between these flashbacks and some pretty dull dialogue between John and Jane in London.  The result is a terribly slow and laborious first third of this movie.

Things do get better.  In fact, the movie builds to a rather satisfying ending, but it takes forever to get there.

Another problem is the casting.  I didn’t warm up to Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan at all.  I found him terribly stiff and boring.  He makes for a quiet and somber Tarzan and gives the hero little or no personality.  I expected more from Skarsgard, who’s the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard.

Nor did I enjoy Margot Robbie as Jane.  She’s gorgeous and beautiful, but there’s something very annoying about her personality.  She pretty much tells Rom that her husband is going to fix him good, and that’s about it for depth:  she knows what Tarzan is capable of, and she seems to have zero doubt that he will rescue her.  Not one time does she even appear the least bit scared that she might die.  Nope.  Tarzan will save the day.  And I’m beautiful to boot!

Christoph Waltz is fine as the villain, Leon Rom, although he doesn’t stray very far from his comfort zone.  He could have easily walked off the set of SPECTRE (2015) where he played Blofeld, change clothes, and become Leon Rom.  Truth be told, I thought he was better as Rom than he was as Blofeld.

Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who seems completely out of place here.  The film is a period piece, taking place in the 1890s, yet Jackson’s George Washington Williams speaks like a 21st century character.   I kept waiting for him to don an eyepatch and declare he was Nick Fury in disguise.  In fact, at times it seemed this movie wasn’t a Tarzan film at all, but Nick Fury vs. Blofeld.

As a result, Tarzan is overshadowed by Jackson and Waltz. Skarsgard lacks their charisma, and there also wasn’t enough Tarzan in this movie. The satisfying scenes towards the end, where Tarzan interacts with the animals of the jungle, should have come earlier and been more frequent.

Things just don’t mix together well in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN.  You have Waltz on one side doing his thing, and Jackson on the other doing his, and a bunch of less interesting stuff in the middle.

The other jungle movie released this year, THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) did a much better job telling its story.  And both films include a similar elephant scene, but the one in THE JUNGLE BOOK was more effective.

Even the animals here are rather dull.  While the apes look good, they don’t look as good as the apes in the recent PLANET OF THE APES reboots, nor do they possess the sharp personalities of the apes in those movies.

My favorite acting performance in the film belongs to DJimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga, and it’s for one scene. When Mbonga laments that Tarzan killed his son, it’s the most powerful moment in the movie.  It’s such a strong sequence that I found myself wishing the film had been about Mbonga!

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is an oddly constructed tale that eventually gets better but is so long getting there it’s almost not worth it.

Tarzan is a really cool character. He deserves to be in a really cool movie.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is not it.

Before this movie, I was eagerly awaiting the next great Tarzan movie.

I’m still waiting.

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