Alita: Battle Angel ★★★★

"That's Zalem, last of the great sky-cities."
"Amazing! What holds it up? Magic?"
"No, something stronger. Engineering."

The most moving thing in cinema to me in 2019 wasn't a movie per say, but learning that James Cameron partnered with a UK tech company called Open Bionics to develop prothetic and bionic limbs, which he then gave away to amputees for free at the premiere of this film. It's considerably telling of James Cameron's at least, thematic relationship to technology - a technological wizard himself, if the films are conceptually basic at times. I'm reminded of the most beautiful scene in Avatar, where Sam Worthington, confined to a wheelchair for the films earliest sections is now able to not just walk, but run in his "Na'vi" form. There's a fundamental idea with Cameron that began with Terminator 2 (often criticized for making the "Terminator" the "good guy") revolving around technology and robots as a progressive force rather than as dystopian iconography - and as Cameron has moved on to finishing his Avatar series it's really no surprise that Alita appears as the culmination of many of these ideas. If I focus on Cameron over Rodriguez here, it's because (and I don't believe this is even close to a secret by this point) Cameron developed this film for nearly twenty years, a good portion side-by-side with Avatar and was the intended next project until that films success. Much of the production details confirm that Rodriguez was little more than the kind of hired-guns George Lucas would recruit for his original Star Wars trilogy - and as if it wasn't already obvious, Rodriguez was conspiciously absent from Alita's press-run, which Cameron himself lead. There's something interesting here perhaps for another piece - that is that what the modern-studio auteur is, remains uncertain, since it's abundantly clear that even though Rodriguez directed the actors, Cameron wrote the script, lead pre-production, designed pre-vis, produced the film and oversaw post. It's rather interesting - Rodriguez's position is no different than that of a Disney director working as a hired-gun for a film lead-by-committee, only this time it's no committee, it's one man. But that's for another time.

Back to the opening quote, I was also reminded of Cameron on making Titanic, and specifically how he saw the romantic melodrama as merely another formal mechanic in order to feel the weight of bigger, more conceptual ideas - class difference and juxtaposition, gender roles and the machinery of the Titanic itself. The main difference with Alita is that the melodramatic aspect is subbed out almost entirely - and when it is, it's to further the story - and that Alita becomes about the mechanics themselves, literally formalized as a emoting, fully animated character. I'd argue Alita is actually superior than Avatar in this regard: even if it is the more "groundbreaking" the prior film is at its best when its solely focusing on the literal mechanics of Pandora itself, and almost collapses on itself upon introducing more plot and dramatic elements - including very base-line political positions, though I think his heart was in the right place. Alita almost entirely supersedes all of these issues, so much so to the point where there is barely any plot until the films last 45 minutes, so that the vast majority of the picture is exploring the mechanics and dynamics of this world - it's not so much "world-building" than it is "world-exploration." This reminds me of what I liked about Blade Runner 2049, though there the exploration of mechanics rather saved the film from its otherwise cliched dystopian ideas. Alita on the other hand feels like the rare sci-fi blockbuster that is also genuinely progressive. There's the obvious connotation of Alita as a teen girl getting used to a new body, but what also makes Alita considerably more sophisticated and exciting than that other film (beyond the world itself) is that while we explore this world through Alita, she is less an avatar of the viewer and rather an avatar that has taken on their own life. In other words, Alita doesn't just make a great pairing with Spielberg's AI, it's literally about being AI.

This general structure also avoids the pitfalls of shoehorned melodrama - once we finally do get to dramatic moments, they appear all the more genuine and emotional. Like Alita asking Hugo if it's possible for him to love her, because he is human and she is not. Or the finale on the way to Zalem, which I found deeply moving even with shoddy dialogue. Of course it's not just structure, but also performance - are Rose Salazar and the technicians at WETA digital both to be commended as well as credited here? How does this work exactly? It's also a remarkable conceit - having Alita be a totally animated character when all the other actors are played live-action. Alita/Salazar/WETA's emoting itself is remarkable - and half the reason this film works as well as it does is because of this cross between performance and animation. This is the best motion capture performance I have ever seen bar none, and it's no surprise because the film must balance on it in order for the film to work - by Alita being a CGI animated "human" appearing robot in a film littered with humans we immediately acknowledge the difference between Alita and the others, at the same time we can acknowledge that they have emotions and even go as far as to feel empathy for and with them. This is a remarkable achievement in design and filmmaking, and it's of no surprise that Cameron took this long to make the film. We see Alita discover the world but also her own emotions, so by extension, its not just the mechanics of the world we explore, but also the mechanics of Alita themselves.

It's also the general absence of plot that helps Alita seem so fresh compared to ones average crop of blockbusters - one thing that took me by surprise on first viewing (which confused me initially, because I was expecting it) is the general lack of a large scale CGI action sequence, especially nearing the films end - the most we get are more like brief spurts, except for the Motorball set-piece, which only really serves the purpose of moving the narrative forward finally rather than anything of thematic significance. And sure, maybe the dialogue leaves something for want but its rare to see a film this big be this totally conceptual. Revisiting Alita I found myself impressed in how it completely tosses aside a three-act structure but furthermore doesn't feel cliched structurally in the least - I thought of the new Disney remakes and I don't know how many blockbusters and how they've structurally started to resemble a 90s video game, like how Disney's new Aladdin (a film I otherwise quite liked) almost appears to have levels and comes replete with a final boss fight. This made the choice to have Alita close on a emotional, character moment rather than a huge fight scene all the more impressive to me, especially when such money is involved.

There's so much more to go on about here (and of no surprise - beyond directing the performers on set, Rodriguez's principle function was whittling down Cameron's 600+ pages of notes into a 120 page script) and its a film completely rife with ideas and that makes me completely giddy. There hasn't been a better American film this year.

Anyways - these are more notes than through analysis - hopefully I get to something like that soon, but hopefully this also can tide over for now

Neil liked these reviews

All