Alita: Battle Angel
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Genre films face a chronic problem in that they have to introduce viewers to new worlds quickly and efficiently. There’s often so much exposition to lay out that scriptwriters have to choose between clumsy information dumps, or leaving their setting unexplained for long stretches, so they can finally get to the action. By the time a film’s original science fiction or fantasy setting starts feeling familiar, it’s amost time for the credits to roll. That’s one of the many reasons studios find it so irresistible to turn these titles into franchises. By the second outing, the groundwork has already been laid, and the writers can hit the ground running. The challenge is producing a first film that’s worthy of a sequel. Alita: Battle Angel, based on Yukito Kishiro’s 1990s manga series Battle Angel Alita, is a triumph of world-building but regrettably a failure of storytelling. The film is set in a distant future following a devastating war that levelled all but one of Earth’s great floating cities. That last survivor, Zalem, is fuelled by the factories of Iron City, and the humans and cyborgs who live in Zalem’s shadow literally feed off its scraps while dreaming of a better life above. Scrounging for spare parts that Zalem dumps down to Earth, the kindly cybernetics genius Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a cyborg girl in the rubbish dumps who is marginally still ‘alive’ - so he repairs and adopts her. The amnesiac Alita (Rosa Salazar) progresses from wonderstruck child to moody teenager over the course of days, rebelling from Ido’s fatherly protectiveness to spend time with her generic criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold boyfriend Hugo (Keean Johnson). Alita has a particularly good reason for thrill-seeking, as a battle against the cyborg equivalent of Jack the Ripper triggers some memories of her past life, and convinces her that more violent conflict might reveal more information. Like a video game hero, Alita progresses through the film, earning gear upgrades and memories of extremely lethal martial arts that allow her to take on increasingly more powerful threats.
The clichéd game plot isn’t helped by the film’s cartoonish evil villains. Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, Ido’s haughty, morally compromised ex and fellow cybersurgeon. She stands out from the grittier denizens of Iron City, with her fine clothes and a forehead gem. Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), the hulking murderous cyborg hunting Alita for much of the film, at one point literally kills a dog just to show how irredeemably evil he is. Mahershala Ali fares a bit better, by virtue of a plot quirk that has him alternately playing sports mogul Vector, and Zalem’s maniacal ruler Nova. But his acting talents are largely wasted on what is an extremely clunky script, written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. Too much of the film is devoted to Alita and Hugo’s romance and to “Motorball,” a sport that provides the same action set-pieces and irrelevant narrative filler as Harry Potter’s Quidditch. The only clear way to make it from Iron City to Zalem is to become Motorball’s champion, making it an obsession of scrappy teens like Hugo, who play it with little more than motorised rollerblades, skateboard ramps, and a ball. But practiced professionally, it’s more like the eponymous event in Death Race, a sport for athletes who have traded most of their bodies for cybernetics, and are ready to creatively eviscerate each other for control of the ball. The fact that they can survive nearly anything, since they’re only losing metal bits, lets Alita deliver some pretty brutal fights. The film’s action however, is phenomenal, where the motorball matches and fight scenes send balls and all manner of vicious weapons at viewers. Director Robert Rodriguez does excellent work with the CGI-dominated battles, bringing the film’s anime and cyberpunk aesthetics to life, and taking advantage of the impossible feats cyborgs can perform.
Cybernetics isn’t just for killers and athletes in Alita’s world: it’s remarkable to see the variety of technology, and how well the filmmakers integrate it into the bustling multicultural city, in ways as simple as a street musician playing a double guitar with three arms. There’s a quiet beauty to the animation of Alita’s exposed heart, simultaneously pumping blood to her brain and an unspecified blue fluid to her cyborg parts. The hints about Alita’s identity, the intrigue in Zalem, and the events that led to the fall of the other cities are tantalising and frustratingly scarce compared to Alita’s time with Hugo. It’s hard to care about his generic advice about staying true to your dreams, or about Alita’s introduction to chocolate. The film has an unsatisfying conclusion, which is meant as setup for a sequel by revealing the big-name actor playing the main villain. Alita: Battle Angel is, however likely to find its franchise footing, but it’s a shame that the film doesn’t stand on its own, with a story as creative and engaging as its setting.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis
Director: Barry Jenkins
Barry Jenkins returns with another ambitious venture in the form of If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from James Baldwin's 1974 novel. Much like his previous films as a director, this is a richly layered and beautifully atmospheric work of cinematic poetry. Set primarily in 1970s-era Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk revolves around Clementine "Tish" Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James). While Tish and Fonny grew up together as children, it's not until they become older that they realise just how deeply connected and romantically attracted they are to one another. Upon recognising their feelings, the two begin dating and, before long, are a proper couple sharing their own home. Fonny settles into his career as a self-made artist and Tish works in a department store. Their lives are changed forever when Fonny is charged with raping a woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), after she identifies him in a line-up and a cop named Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) claims to have seen Fonny fleeing the scene of the crime. Despite having a strong alibi, Fonny is imprisoned and it falls to Kiki to clear his name, with the help of her mother Sharon (Regina King), sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), and father Joseph (Colman Domingo). Tish is also pregnant and desperately wants to clear Fonny's name before their child is born, despite it becoming increasingly clear just how difficult that task is going to be.
If Beale Street Could Talk carries over prose from Baldwin's source material in the form of KiKi's narration and even opens with a text passage from the original novel, yet these elements never feel extraneous nor out of place in the film adaptation. This allows the film to smoothly translate Baldwin's elegant writing into equally lyrical cinema, without losing its emotional potency or layers of meaning in the process. As a result, Beale Street serves to illustrate Jenkins' continuing evolution as a filmmaker by providing a similar, yet noticeably different viewing experience than Moonlight, between its literary elements and non-linear narrative cues (the latter of which really benefit the film's simple overarching story). The cast is as essential to the film's success as its craftsmanship, with newcomer Layne leading the way in a breakout performance as the sweet and tender (yet strong-willed and savvy) Tish. James builds on his previous work with his performance as the gentle, sensitive, and otherwise thoughtful soul that is Fonny, making his love story with Tish all the more compelling and touching as a result.
The film clearly demonstrates Jenkins' newfound experience behind the camera and lets him explore themes and ideas from his previous work in engaging new ways in the sense that it's a rare film which really examines black male trauma and how racism in America truly affects individual black people on an emotional level. Further, the film is largely told from the perspective of Tish and the women around her (even during its sex scenes) and paints an empathetic portrait of their lives.