Mad Max

Alita: Battle Angel

17/02/18

This one has been a long time coming.

Back in the early 2000s, James Cameron had two pet projects he was planning to direct. The first was Alita: Battle Angel, based on Manga comic, Gunnm. The other was a little thing called Avatar. We all know what happened with the second option and (unless you’ve been living in a hole for a good while) we also know that, after much humming and hawing, Cameron has committed himself to filming four Avatar sequels. But clearly he wasn’t ready to give up on that other project. Enter Robert Rodriguez to take up the directorial reins as Cameron’s er… avatar… while he contents himself with co-writing and producing duties on Alita. What could go wrong?

Well, the word on the street is that the resulting film is a bit of a dog’s dinner and one that looks certain to lose an awful lot of money. But, if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that it’s unwise to underestimate Cameron, who has managed to confound expectations several times before. Most people predicted that Titanic would sink without a trace…

In the year 2563, the earth has been reduced to a devastated post-war shambles. Most people live in the ramshackle chaos of Iron City, while high above them, in a floating sky palace called Zalem, a mysterious ruling class look disdainfully down whilst quite literally dropping their trash on the less fortunate below them. A metaphor perhaps for the way in which the affluent West offloads it’s garbage on the poorer countries of the world? Quite probably.

Whilst searching through a rubbish dump, cyborg scientist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the head and spinal column of a young female cyborg. His scanners detect signs of life in it. So he whips it back to his laboratory, where he conveniently happens to have an artificial female body all primed and ready to go, the one he actually built for his wheelchair-bound daughter Alita, but which she never got to use.

The new version of Alita (played by a GGI augmented Rosa Salazar) wakes up with a powerful new body that works a treat but oddly, she has no memories of her previous existence. However, it isn’t long before she discovers that one thing she can do really well is fight, using an ancient martial art called Panzer Kunst… and fight she does. A lot.

Of course, given the genre, this is probably inevitable but it’s in the film’s early stretches that it is at its most accomplished. Alita is a genuinely exciting CGI creation (I hope to see Salazar in some less tweaked roles in the future) and the basic premise, with its shades of Frankenstein and even Pinocchio, is initially alluring. But why do so many action movies have such one-note lead characters? Think how refreshing it would be if Alita was good at music… or poetry… or… well, something other than kicking people repeatedly in the face. Rodriguez, by the way, somehow succeeds in giving us an ultra-violent movie that manages to hang on to its 12A certificate, mostly by virtue of lopping off artificial limbs and robotic heads rather than flesh and blood. A bit disingenuous, I think.

From this point the film is a decidedly mixed bag. We meet Ido’s ex wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), a fellow cyborg scientist who is desperately trying to earn her passage back to Zalem, mostly by buttering up the mysterious Vector (Mahershala Ali, proving that he’s not afraid to wallow in less hallowed projects than his recent Oscar-nominated films). There are some decent action sequences (the one where Alita is pursued by a murderous pack of weirdly constructed cyborg killers plays like a cross between Mad Max and The Wacky Races, but manages to generate some genuine thrills in the process). If there’s an overlying problem here it’s simply that the plot feels rather nebulous. I am never really sure why so many people are keen to kill Alita, nor quite what to make of the occasional flashbacks she encounters.

I do however like the fact that the mysterious overlord briefly glimpsed looking down on all the shennaningins from the safety of Zalem really looks like James Cameron himself – which would have been a brilliant idea. (Someone in the know assures me that it is actually Ed Norton, but I like my idea better.)

Alita isn’t the disaster that so many have predicted – but neither is it a triumph. It’s a curate’s egg of a film. Good in parts but, in others, indigestible.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Mortal Engines

14/12/18

A thousand years after a nuclear holocaust, the earth has been reduced to a vast wasteland in which gigantic ‘traction cities’ roam the earth in search of smaller moving towns to be devoured and converted into much-needed fuel. Most powerful amongst the travelling behemoths is ‘London,’ currently controlled by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who, we soon discover, is a thoroughly bad egg, hellbent on appropriating what’s left of the world’s meagre resources, no matter what it takes.

When London absorbs its latest conquest, (a Bavarian hamlet, since you ask) it takes on board a masked young woman with a grudge. She is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who seeks revenge on Valentine for something that happened back in her childhood. But her assassination attempt is foiled by young Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an employee at the London museum… yes, there still is a museum, plus a rough assemblage of some of the city’s salvaged tourist attractions, all arranged higgledy-piggledy across its skyline. (It’s at moments like this when I can’t help pondering how anybody could have managed to convert a city into a Mad Max-style vehicle of such enormous scale – I mean, where did they start?  But perhaps I’m missing the point.)

When Tom and Hester find themselves expelled into the wasteland, a relationship develops – but then they become involved with the Anti Traction League, based in what’s now simply known as ‘the East’ on the far side of what just might be the Great Wall of China. The league travel in fantastic airships and are masterminded by Anna Fang (Jihae). Meanwhile Hester is being hunted by an undead creature called Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang), who is pledged to destroy her and…

If this is starting to sound somewhat complicated, let me assure you, that it is – and that’s rather a pity because – as you’d expect from something that’s been produced by Peter Jackson – the world-building here is frankly astonishing and I can only speculate about the millions of New Zealand dollars that must have been lovingly poured into this enterprise. But, as is so often the case in films of such immense scale, the human characters are somewhat dwarfed by the process, only periodically managing to poke their heads up from the general grandeur to try and capture attention. Christian Rivers handles the directorial reins but this has Jackson’s fingerprints all over it and, not for the first time, I find myself yearning for those early low budget horrors he used to make, back in the days when he was skint.

Mortal Engines is based on a quartet of books by British fantasy author Philip Reeve. The first volume was published in 2001 and this project has been stuck in development hell for a very long time. I’d love to be able to report that it’s a great success, but something seems to have been lost in translation from book to film. While a story this complicated can work brilliantly on the printed page, it doesn’t always come through on the screen. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t worth a viewing. There’s stuff in here that will have fantasy fans enthralled. There are exciting chases, wonderful touches of invention throughout and, as I said before, it all looks good enough to eat – but sadly, that’s not enough to make this project fly as convincingly as it should.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney