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: ‘Only the Brave’ Admirably Portrays an Elite Firefighting Crew

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CREDIT: Richard Foreman/Sony Pictures Entertainment

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

Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jennifer Connelly

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Conflagrations and References to Past Drug Use

Release Date: October 20, 2017

It is a frequently stated and generally accepted claim that mothers have the strength to lift a car when their children are in danger. Perhaps we need a similarly illustrative example for people who are naturally drawn to extreme situations in service of others. How else can we explain how relatively few people become firefighters but those who do must necessarily be dangerously committed? It is a little abstract to put in these terms, as the threat is often not immediate and it can be difficult for the human mind to comprehend the scale of the population that is being protected. There is also the fact that we already can explain firefighters’ ability via hardcore training and acclimation exercises. But the ever-present life-threatening nature of this calling earns it a more intense appraisal.

With that in mind, the best way to watch Only the Brave is by appreciating a group of experts performing their jobs exceptionally well under pressure. The film tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite Arizona firefighting crew, and the events leading up to their battle with the Yarnell Hill Fire, one of America’s deadliest wildfires in decades. The two most compelling performances come courtesy of Josh Brolin and Miles Teller. The former is the crew’s head, Eric “Supe” Marsh. We’ve seen his type before: when he isn’t physically out in the forest (which he almost always is), his mind is still there, dreaming about a charging bear drenched in flames. He is the kind of guy whose wife (Jennifer Connelly) must bear hearing clichés like “It’s not easy sharing your man with the fire.” Supe’s characterization comes nowhere reinventing the wheel, but Brolin imbues him with plenty of dignity.

More unique is Teller’s role as Brendan “Donut” McDonough, the crew’s newest recruit, a former addict genuinely trying to improve himself. When introduced, he in no shape to be a firefighter, puking and nearly dehydrating on the first training run. Back home, an ex-girlfriend has just given birth to their daughter, and he is making a genuine effort to earn a place in her life. There are plenty of moments that Brendan could relapse, or abandon his crew, or give up on being a dad. But he always sticks it through, proving his mettle as a man with willpower that is rare and admirable. Dramatic heft is often achieved through fighting past bad decisions, but Only the Brave manages to earn plaudits by continually keeping Brendan on the up-and-up.

Ultimately, I admire the story of Only the Brave more than I enjoy it as a film. Partly, I believe that is due to the narrative’s episodic sensibility, which is an odd choice, considering that it is leading up to a huge climax. Of course, that decision makes a certain sense, in that day-to-day life, no matter how dangerous, is usually unspectacular until the one day that it is unpredictable. This may not be as much of a problem to other viewers, but I do wish the editing had been as compelling as the performances.

Only the Brave is Recommended If You Like: Real Life Bravery

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Fire Bears