Movie Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Features Visionary Effects and a Convoluted Story

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Eiza González, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Idara Victor

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cyborg Limbs Flying All Over the Place

Release Date: February 14, 2019

Can slightly-larger-than-normal human eyes in a motion capture performance exist anywhere other than the Uncanny Valley? That is the conundrum at the heart of Alita: Battle Angel‘s box office prospects, but from where I’m sitting, they’re clearly the best part of the film. Yeah, those peepers might be creepy, but they are also a deep wellspring of an infectious personality. Rosa Salazar may have given her performance while dressed up in a bodysuit with a camera mounted on her head, but her enthusiasm to be part of groundbreaking cinema is consistently palpable.

Based on the manga series Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel was co-written and co-produced by James Cameron, but presumably because he’s busy with all those Avatar sequels, directing duties fell to Robert Rodriguez. This could have been a clash of auteurs, as both men are enamored with creating digitally rendered, visually rich fantasy worlds, but Rodriguez has never really worked on the same scale as Cameron. (To be fair, nobody works on quite the same scale as Cameron.) But the steampunk metropolis of Iron City in 2563 is a sight to behold, and its array of cyborg citizens are correspondingly fascinating. Rodriguez has mostly realized Cameron’s vision without putting his own unique stamp on the project, but even so, on a technical level, this is the best James Cameron movie that Cameron never directed.

Too bad the plot is incomprehensible. A bunch of sci-fi tropes about the dangers of creating and living alongside artificial life are thrown out there, but none of them amount to anything. There is some talk about how Alita resembles the deceased daughter of her scientist caretaker (Christoph Waltz), but that does not lead to any of the expected emotional confusion. Alita is also being hunted down by other cyborgs, but it is never clear what threat she actually poses to anyone. Also, she is centuries old and the last of her kind, which could mean that she is a sort of Rosetta stone to the past, and people treat her that way, but nobody ever clearly explains why that matters. With all the empty dialogue in Alita, it makes me wish that someone in 2019 would be bold enough to make a $200 million sci-fi extravaganza as a silent film.

Alita: Battle Angel is Recommended If You Like: James Cameron’s Brand of 3D Visual Effects, Overly Busy Impenetrable Screenplays

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Big Eyes

This Is a Movie Review: Miniaturization is Only the Start of ‘Downsizing’s’ Quest to Save the Human Species

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe

Director: Alexander Payne

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Scientific Full-Frontal Nudity

Release Date: December 22, 2017

How do you live in such a way that ensures both the health of the planet and yourself? That’s really what Downsizing is asking. Its light sci-fi innovation about shrinking people is just a quirky way to get in there and explore this big conundrum. No single piece of entertainment is going to answer that question to everyone’s satisfaction, but Downsizing at least knows how to grab our attention, and Alexander Payne’s take is interesting enough in getting us to where he wants to go.

Fair warning, if it is not clear already, that Downsizing is not exactly the movie advertised in its trailer. Its whimsical tale of the land of the miniatures is present, but it is ultimately just an entry point to smuggle a thornier story into. After all, there is only so far you can go with the visual humor of size differential juxtaposition. There are a few bits wringing laughs out of giant (i.e., regular-sized) crackers or Jason Sudeikis sitting on a cutting board and drinking from a tiny wine glass, but those moments are there to just add quick bursts of establishing color. In fact, most of the shots in the miniature world do not feature any contrast to the normal-sized surroundings.

The miniaturization process has been invented to reduce the strain that humans have been putting on the environment, which makes clear sense: if you’re only 5 or 6 inches, you consume many fewer resources than if you’re 5 or 6 feet. And from a personal standpoint, it’s a no-brainer as well, as the exchange rate is tremendous, multiplying the real spending value of your money by about a hundredfold. So Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), bored by his office job and feeling glum at home, signs right up. But his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) pulls out of the procedure at the last minute, portending that everything may not be as rosy as promised.

Downsizing is primarily interested in digging into the questions raised by this near future world. The practical and scientific matters (like, do babies born to downsized adults grow up to be similarly small adults?) are not explained too thoroughly, but those matters are not ignored; you kind of have to roll with the film a bit and accept that those things have already been settled. Instead, the focus is on the knottier philosophical questions and the unexpected implications of downsizing. Why has this scientific breakthrough happened while people with chronic diseases still suffer? Should downsized people have the same rights as the natively-sized? Will governments use involuntary downsizing to tamp down undesirable segments of their populations?

The answer to that last question turns out to be a resounding yes, and we see its fallout in the form of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, giving the most forcefully charming performance of the year), a Vietnamese dissident who has been downsized against her will and then smuggled into America in a TV box. As we and Paul are introduced to her life, Downsizing makes it clear that it believes that humans are wired to always separate themselves into separate classes, no matter what utopian urges drive us. As she and Paul become entwined, the underlying, most burning question of this film becomes clear: is it better to specifically attempt to save the entire species, or to focus on being a good person in your own particular space? The resolution that Payne offers is a little pat, but not dishonest. Miniaturized or not, utopian or practical, whatever your station in life, no matter how weird things get, you have to give yourself the room to be a good person.

Downsizing is Recommended If You Like: Being John Malkovich, Captain Fantastic, Robot & Frank

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Utopias

This Is a Movie Review: Tulip Fever

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At the end of Tulip Fever, I thought, “Oh, that’s what that was all about.” It ultimately becomes clear that there is an incredible amount of kindness inherent to the main characters. They struggle because they find themselves in situations that are far from ideal and beyond their control, but they ultimately find a way out. That is a fine bit of satisfaction. But for the first 95%, the floral mania is totally confounding and there is little in the way of enjoyability beyond the (not-that-out-of-place) comedic relief from Zach Galifianakis and Christoph Waltz’s nicknames for his penis.

I give Tulip Fever 1 Bulb Just Barely in Bloom.