|Courtesy, 20th Century Fox|
While the Reel Reviews TV show is on a temporary hiatus, I'm lacking an outlet to discuss films. Movies make you react in different ways, and Alita prompted me to write this...
First, a Diversion
I’m going write about Alita, but first I want to vent about what I am going to call the “Bourne Effect” – the trend of movie heroes whose action sequences achieve a level of perfection that has crossed far over the line of plausibility. Think Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible), or any recent Liam Neeson film. As much as I appreciate the excitement of those incredible set-pieces, it has become an arms-race of stunts in these films that simply leave reality behind. This is particularly true for sequels, which feel compelled to outdo earlier releases. (Footnote #1)
What turns me off the most about these films is the gunplay, when hundreds of bullets are zipping around and our hero completely dodges all of them. Give me a Jackie Chan fight anytime, but don’t ask me to buy into this:
I reflected on this at Christmas when we watched Die Hard (as a family and yes, it’s a Christmas movie) and I really appreciated that its thrilling action scenes worked within the laws of physics that we know. (Chike and I discussed that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8SrKmAXLKk .) Another recent example for me was watching The French Connection, and appreciating the realism of its chase scenes where the heroes behave like... humans. (Chike and I discussed that one, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S36yfZgr5Vk). “The realism of its chase scenes” is a not a phrase I would utter about any current action movie.
I'm to the point where I'm proactively giving up on any movie where the preview shows men chasing each other with guns (like this upcoming one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2d6Cf2rWxQ) - at least until someone comes along and reinvents the style in a new and more relatable way.
I'm getting to my point... slowly
The same problem afflicts super-hero movies, but I give them more latitude because we accept that these are not grounded in the reality of our daily world. With these movies, it's easier to accept the over-the-top cinematic ballet of violence because we know our heroes are safe - allowing the audience to simply enjoy the spectacle. For example, Domino's scenes in Deadpool 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9A1j-UCzV8. (Footnote #2)
Another genre that gets a pass from me is Science Fiction. In fact, I will absorb any degree of implausibility; all I ask is that the movie offers internal consistency in its world (e.g. the Matrix, where Neo’s powers in the Matrix differ completely in the real world) - because Sci-Fi movies just get ridiculous when it doesn’t (e.g. Matrix Revolutions).
Which brings us to Alita
We meet Alita at the beginning of the film when she is a discarded head and spinal column from a cyborg – but physically alive. She is found by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) who lives in Iron City and scavenges in the discarded trash of the floating city of Zalem. It's the 26th century on Earth. There’s been a war and stuff, but the details aren’t important. It’s almost impossible to go up to Zalem, and the whole movie actually takes place in Iron City.
Dr. Ido attaches Alita to a body, and from the moment Alita wakes up, it is her story that we experience. Alita is a cyborg, with a living brain, a very powerful mechanical heart, and an open-ended ability to inhabit robotic bodies (apparently).
It’s exciting as we witness her awakening, when she knows as little about herself as Dr. Ido, who found her in a scrap pile. At this point, Alita is a blank slate - trying to find out who she is, but also just experiencing the world as if for the first time.
Through moments of recollection, Alita learns that she is a warrior, and this growing sense of herself increasingly guides her actions as the movie progresses. Some of that warrior nature comes out in her interactions with others (she’s prone to fight), her career as a bounty hunter, and her ability to play the popular sport of Motorball. (A version of Rollerball with ramps, where it’s everyone for themselves, and at its professional level it’s apparently cyborgs trying to kill each other.)
What raises Alita up a notch above the silly subplots (read that last paragraph again about the bounty hunter/Motorball star) is our level of engagement with her character. Alita, as played by Rosa Salazar, is a wide-eyed innocent (extra wide-eyed, in a nod to her Manga origins) who is the quintessential rube in the City.
But as a hero, Alita is impossible not to root for. She's a cannily crafted character who hits every underdog note. Starting from zero (literally, she was shut down and has no idea who she is) she progresses through a series of challenging situations, saving innocents (a cute little dog!) and doing right as she grows into her full powers and realizes to what end she should use them. Imagine the Matrix where Neo is NOT a whiny complainer and is instead a spunky young woman with complete self-confidence.
The Final Tally
But as with too many modern movies, plot is simply window dressing so we can sit slack-jawed at the action pieces. It's the Bourne Effect, but with completely computer-generated fight scenes so that Alita pushes the action level to 15, on a ten-point scale.
As Chike likes to ask me about movies... "Do you recommend it?" So my final answer on Alita is that if you don't mind a thin plot on which to hang some amazing action set pieces, then Alita delivers. Ultimately what matters here is that the fight scenes in Alita are beautifully rendered - so if that’s your thing, then you will enjoy Alita because yes, those scenes are incredible. (And if you like that sort of stuff, then definitely see the 3D IMAX version, because this a movie that makes the most of the large-screen format.)
But if action and Sci-Fi isn't your thing, or you're looking for more thoughtful fare, then Alita is not recommended. In that case, may I recommend The Favourite if you overlooked it? Or my favorite film of 2018: Eighth Grade.
1) While doing a little online research for this post (I had to verify that the "Bourne Effect" wasn't actually one of the films!), I found another person who feels that the Bourne trilogy ruined films for a much more concrete reason – the shaky-cam/quick shot style. I think he makes an excellent case, with video evidence, too! https://www.businessinsider.com/jason-bourne-ruined-action-movies-hollywood-film-cinema-2018-4
2) Super-hero flicks suffer from another implication of the action inflation – their opponents need to be staggeringly powerful even to make it interesting. Forget about Michael Keaton’s Batman knocking some criminal heads, now Justice League’s Batman is taking on Steppenwolf, who is both immortal and superhuman. Good luck with that, Bruce Wayne. This is a shame, because Batman's one of my favorite characters just because of his humanity and vulnerability (in all senses of the word) and that's lost when he's put into these megafights. By thew way, if you're also a BatFan - and appreciate the human aspects of the character - then check out Chike's recommendation: "Mask of the Phantasm" - we discussed it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJSd9YnWfzw