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

Leave a comment

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: ‘The Death Cure’ Wraps Up the ‘Maze Runner’ Trilogy with High-Octane Action and Personal Battles of Class Warfare

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Joe Alblas/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper

Director: Wes Ball

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Zombie Makeup, a Few Puncture Wounds, and Some Explosions

Release Date: January 26, 2018

Readers, I must be upfront with you: The Death Cure is the only Maze Runner movie I have seen. I was not yet on a regular reviewing beat when the first two came out, but as the trilogy comes to its conclusion, the assignment has fallen to me. Now, I suppose I could have made time to get caught up on the first two, but I often contend that viewers can watch multi-chapter entertainment properties in whatever order they feel like. The Maze Runner franchise is probably not the best choice for doing so, as it is the type of film series that doesn’t waste any time playing catch-up for newbies. But I decided to experiment a bit and see if any enjoyment could be had amidst the confusion.

The good news is that The Death Cure’s spectacle is exciting and well-crafted enough to be enjoyed devoid of context. The opening action chase sequence of vehicles barreling towards a cliff plays like a postapocalyptic cross between the opening of Fast Five and the tank chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is not as death-defying or as instantly iconic as its predecessors, but it sets itself apart enough to not be overly derivative. Director Wes Ball’s only three feature films thus far are the Maze Runner trilogy, but he has proven himself technically capable to fill in any openings that may exist in the action genre.

As for the story, I was generally able to fill in what must have happened in the first two enough to follow along, and it is not exactly what I was expecting. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his crew are dealing with the aftereffects of a virus that has infected most of the world’s population, leaving many zombified while those who are well-off wall themselves in the Last City. Thomas is one of a few who are immune, and he could be instrumental in developing a cure, but he does not exactly agree with the methods of those dedicating themselves to finding one. There is plenty to be gleaned here about the struggle between the 99% and the 1%, and I appreciate that that point is not underlined too hard.

It is also welcome that this series (or the conclusion of it anyway) is not too beholden to the stereotypical “chosen one” YA narrative. Sure, Thomas holds the key to saving humanity, but that fact is accidental, and it does not really have anything to do with what makes him a good leader. As for a (good) quality of this genre that The Death Cure does play into, there is its surplus of quality adult actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper) popping up in supporting roles.

Ultimately, The Death Cure is a bit too long. There is no need to flirt with two and a half hours when much of the last act involves one group chasing after another, and then that second group chasing after the first, moving along in a constant struggle to get to the last stand. But while it is a bit thick with narrative, it never lags. This is not particularly groundbreaking cinema, but it is also no cheap knockoff. It is unique enough and content enough to explore its own little world to make it worth a visit.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure is Recommended If You Like: The Hunger Games, I Am Legend, The Action Sequences of the Indiana Jones and Fast and Furious series

Grade: 3 out of 5 Infection Checks