Review of “Alita: Battle Angel”

In the 26th Century, the world is still recovering from a war 300 years earlier called The Fall. The rich and powerful live in the floating city of Zalem, the last sky city left from The Fall. Under Zalem is Iron City where life is hard, and people do whatever is necessary to survive. One of the few good people living in Iron City is Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a physician that takes care of the many citizens with artificial limbs. Zalem’s trash is ejected from the bottom of the floating city and collects in a massive dump in Iron City Dr. Ido is searching the dump to scavenge spare parts for his patients when he finds the head, shoulders and part of the chest of a female cyborg. Dr. Ido takes her to his office and attaches her head to a cybernetic body he already had on hand. When the cyborg comes back on line, she has no memory of her past. Dr. Ido calls her Alita (Rosa Salazar). While showing her around his neighborhood in Iron City, Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a scavenger that finds parts for Dr. Ido. Alita and Hugo fall for each other and plan to meet the next day. As Alita is on her way to meet Hugo, she is stopped by Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) who looks closely at Alita’s hand. Chiren is Dr. Ido’s ex-wife. The two divorced after the death of their daughter, also named Alita. The body cyborg Alita is using was built for Ido and Chiren’s daughter who was confined to a wheelchair, but she died before she could be transferred to her new body. There’s a violent sport called Motorball where the participants replace parts of their human bodies with cybernetic parts to improve their game play. Chiren works for Vector (Mahershala Ali), an entrepreneur with Motorball teams who gambles on the outcome that he also controls. Roaming the streets of Iron City are part cybernetic bounty hunters. One of the most successful is Zapan (Ed Skrein), a bounty hunter who is almost entirely machine. Alita is seeing flashes of memory whenever she’s involved in a violent conflict. She sees herself fighting a battle on the moon along side another female cyborg named Gleda (Michelle Rodriguez). As Alita becomes more known in Iron City, she becomes the target of people wanting her technology as it is something that hasn’t been seen since The Fall. The most dangerous person hunting her is Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a massive cyborg that doesn’t care who is hurt when he hunts. All the while, there’s an unseen master that is directing everything from Zalem.

Does the above plot synopsis of “Alita: Battle Angel” sound confusing? It’s pretty easy to follow as you’re watching, but there’s far too much going on in this adaption of the Japanese manga called “Gunnm” and the animated movie “Battle Angel.” Writers Laeta Kalogridis and James Cameron (yes, THAT James Cameron, who is also a producer) apparently wanted to stick in every subplot and side quest from the source material, overwhelming the audience and the plot, and making a scattershot film without a satisfying ending. It looks great, the action scenes are frequently impressive and the performance of Rosa Salazar is affecting, however “Alita: Battle Angel” is nothing more than a two-hour preview for “Alita: Battle Angel 2.”

As the movie was coming to an end, I got angry. I’ve been angry at characters and their actions, but few movies are able to create that feeling in me just for existing. “Alita: Battle Angel” is a rare exception as it caused me to question if I wanted to ask for my money back. Director Robert Rodriguez has crafted half a good movie out of a script containing enough material for at least three films and yet, there’s no ending. The movie concludes, but what happens is anti-climactic. As the credits begin to roll, it is clear the film is nothing but a long trailer for movies yet to come. It is infuriating that $170-million was spent to create a coming attraction for a film that may never start production as this entry probably won’t break even.

There’s something especially cynical about a movie, all of which are released with the hope and expectation that they’ll make money, that appears to only be a cursory introduction to characters so the audience will know them in the next movie when something will actually happen. Lots of things happen in “Alita: Battle Angel,” but none of them amount to anything by the end of the film. The audience is left with the knowledge that there’s more to come and, if we see it at all, it is several years from coming out. It’s like being promised a Christmas present, then that gets moved to Valentine’s Day, then your birthday and so on, until you just don’t care anymore.

The problem is I do care. I want to see a good story with these characters in this world. The world of manga and anime is one where great battles and epic stories are promised, and started, but we rarely get a real, definite conclusion. One need only watch an episode of any of the Dragonball series on Adult Swim to see what I’m talking about. Perhaps our patience will eventually be rewarded with a final showdown between Alita and the shadowy overseer that’s guiding everything from Zalem, but I don’t plan on holding my breath for a satisfying conclusion.

Despite my disappointment in “Alita: Battle Angel,” there are some nice elements in the film. First, Rosa Salazar is able to deliver a moving and believable performance via the facial motion-capture dots and cameras. Salazar squeezes empathy for Alita out of nearly every scene. Her caring for Dr. Ido and Hugo, and anyone who finds trouble on the streets of Iron City, including a stray dog, shines through the digital manipulation of her face to create the oversized eyes of Alita. The effects used to make her unique face don’t stick out like a sore thumb and, after a few minutes, you don’t notice much difference. Some of the action takes on the quality of a cut scene between segments of a video game, but those moments are brief and scattered. Some of the action is breathtaking and the violence is jarring as cyborgs are ripped apart, but the human head is still alive. That happens more than once in the film and it gets a little creepy on occasion.

“Alita: Battle Angel” is PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and some language. There are numerous battle scenes, mostly involving cyborgs, and mechanical limbs go flying. Humans get hurt and killed as well. There isn’t much blood and no gore. Foul language is mild, but there is an “F-bomb.”

“Alita: Battle Angel” has some good points and, if it had a better ending, it might have gotten a higher rating from me. Since the likelihood of a sequel is fairly low, I guess we’ll have to make due with this version of the manga and anime. It’s too bad, as director Robert Rodriguez and writer/producer James Cameron have produced some amazing cinema over the last 30 years. Perhaps they have too many projects on their plates to provide a complete story and a satisfying ending. What we have here is most of a movie and a fair one at that, but it feels incomplete and more than a little cynical.

“Alita: Battle Angel” gets two stars out of five.

Opening this week are two new films with family at their cores. I’ll see and review one of the following:

Fighting with My Family—

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest in movie, TV and streaming news, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Spectre”

For movie fans “sequels,” “prequels” and “reboots” are often looked at as dirty words.  The complaint usually goes something like, “Aren’t there any original ideas in Hollywood anymore?”  An exception to this criticism is the James Bond franchise.  After six actors and 24 movies, fans of the series wait for the next installment with nearly unbearable anticipation and the worldwide box office for these films continues to grow to record heights.  After the brilliant “Skyfall,” expectations were understandably high for “Spectre” considering the name of a classic Bond villain was the title of the film.  At the same time, is it possible to make a movie as enjoyable as its predecessor?  Let’s find out.

After creating chaos and destruction on an unauthorized trip to Mexico City, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is suspended by his MI6 boss M (Ralph Fiennes).  M is also facing a shake-up in British intelligence with a new boss, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), overseeing a recently merged MI5 and MI6.  Denbigh thinks the double-0 program is a relic of the past and wants it discontinued.  He also is spearheading a new intelligence sharing initiative involving nine nations.  Enlisting the aid of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Bond continues his off-the-books investigation he started in Mexico into an organization that appears to be involved in numerous terrorist attacks around the world.  Along the way he meets the widow of a man he killed in Mexico (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of a man that has plagued him since he became 007 (Lea Seydoux) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), a mountain of a man who doesn’t think twice about killing anyone in his way.

Comparing “Spectre” to “Skyfall” is a bit unfair as the previous film had an unexpected gooey center of emotion with the relationship between Judi Dench’s M and Bond.  “Spectre” lacks that humanizing element as this adventure is a more straight-ahead action picture.  While there is romance it is more of the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em variety we have grown to expect from Bond.  Also, “Spectre” is more of an effort to reboot the mythology of Bond as this is the first time in over four decades the filmmakers have been allowed to make reference to the criminal organization of the title after a long court battle.  Connecting events across three previous films that were not necessarily written to be connected might be seen as a stretch to some; however, the references to the previous films are handled mostly visually and it isn’t the kind of distraction it might have otherwise been.

As we’ve come to expect, Daniel Craig is the epitome of detached cool as James Bond.  The character is given a few more one-liners than in previous films and Craig is more than up to the challenge of being funny in the face of beautiful women and dangerous henchmen.  Craig has been the honest face of James Bond.  He looks world-weary, tired and suspecting of everyone he can see.  Craig is the Bond I will most miss when his run is over as he is to me the most believable in the role.  I know there are those that are fans of Connery or Moore and have been unhappy with every actor chosen to play the part since; however, the difference between those films and Craig’s is so striking they may as well have been about the Revolutionary War.

Now for my issues with “Spectre:” While both Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are excellent as Franz Oberhauser and Mr. Hinx respectively, they are criminally underused in the film.  I understand keeping your main villains in the shadows of your trailers and TV spots but your antagonists should be front and center in the film.  The movie is nearly two and a half hours long and, while I didn’t have a stopwatch keeping track of their time, I believe both Waltz and Bautista are on screen less than most Bond baddies.  Bautista has one word in the script but he doesn’t need more as his physical presence speaks volumes.  Mr. Hinx has a fight on a train with Bond that seems to have some real danger to it.  Perhaps it was the close quarters or Hinx physical domination of Bond that made it seem so personal and perilous.  Hinx is a henchman I hope we get to see again.  Waltz is charismatic and intense in the role and should have had a greater chance to shine.  While he makes the most of his limited time I would have liked to see him more.

The underused villains are connected to my next issue with the movie:  The story seems to have been given less thought and in other films.  I can’t give too many details for this as I don’t want to spoil the movie; however, there are things I expected to see in the movie, things suggested by history and the plot, that don’t materialize and other aspects that spring from very little.  Some characters are dispatched in ways that suggest they may return but don’t.  Romances blossom in ways that aren’t supported by events.  Plot twists are telegraphed in less than subtle ways.  It sometimes feels like the locations and the stunts received a great deal more attention than the story.

As with all Bond films, the cinematography and locations are spectacular.  From a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City to the Spectre headquarters in the middle of the desert, the movie is a travelogue of beautiful scenery shot with remarkable care.  Even the interior of a train looks luxurious and inviting when it isn’t being torn apart by a fight between Bond and Hinx.  Despite what is likely the dull nature of actual spy work, the Bond films make it look like the ultimate worldwide vacation with the occasional fight to the death thrown in to make it interesting.

“Spectre” is rated PG-13 for language, intense sequences of action, sensuality, some disturbing images and violence.  From planes chasing SUV’s to two sports cars tearing through the streets of Rome, there are several action set pieces in the film that might upset the youngest and most sensitive viewers.  There are also several fights between Bond and various people.  The most intense is the one on the train with Mr. Hinx.  There is a scene of torture that isn’t graphic but is troubling.  A couple of people get pushed out of a helicopter to their deaths.  Bond has two sex scenes but, in traditional Bond style, there is very little nudity.  Foul language is scattered and mild.

I liked “Spectre” a great deal; but, it works for the most part as a fairly standard Bond adventure.  After the enormous success of “Skyfall” there was very little chance we wouldn’t be a little disappointed by the next installment of the franchise.  With all the promise of the title and the expectations of what we might get “Spectre” comes across as somewhat paint-by-numbers when we all wanted a Picasso.  All that said, it is still a very good action/adventure movie with some interesting concepts and the promise of another chapter of the story still to be told in what would likely be Daniel Craig’s last time in the tuxedo and sports car of Bond…James Bond.

“Spectre” gets five stars but not without a few reservations.

This week, it’s the end of a franchise, a possible new holiday tradition and a crime thriller all hoping to get your entertainment dollar. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2—

The Night Before—

The Secret in Their Eyes—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.