By: Matt Brunson
Produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel (two stars out of four) is a visually ugly and unseemly movie — and that’s meant as the highest compliment possible.
Adapted from Gunnm (aka Battle Angel Alita), a manga series created by Yukito Kishiro back in 1990, this expensive endeavor takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in which the masses toil in squalor, the one percent live in the cloud city of Zalem, and the most popular sport is a death-and-destruction game called Motorball (basically Rollerball, minus James Caan).
Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is one of those scraping together a living on Earth, and he’s excited when he discovers the remains of a female cyborg in a junk heap. Possessing a functional human brain, this cyborg is rebuilt and brought back to life by Ido, who calls her Alita (Rosa Salazar). That was actually the name of Ido’s murdered daughter, and this new christening annoys his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who’s presently working alongside a corrupt businessman known as Vector (Mahershala Ali). It turns out almost everyone — Chiren, Vector, the mysterious Nova (an uncredited cameo by a three-time Oscar nominee), the murderous cyborgs Zapan (Ed Skrein) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) — wants a piece of Alita, and it’s all the poor girl can do to stay alive and intact. Luckily for her, it’s soon revealed that she’s not some docile teenager but rather a fierce, ages-old warrior with uncanny fighting abilities.
As far as the world-building is concerned, Alita: Battle Angel isn’t as eye-popping as 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, another anime property that was transformed into a live-action offering. It also isn’t any more impressive than what was conjured for last December’s box office bomb Mortal Engines. Where the movie excels is in the design of its metallic characters. There’s something both unsettling and exciting in seeing human faces grafted onto otherwise all-hardware bodies, and it’s the only instance in which the film feels like it’s breaking any new ground.
Otherwise, there isn’t much in Alita: Battle Angel that warrants attention or excitement. Alita herself is an interesting creation, but Salazar is limited in her ability to breathe life into this CGI construction — since it’s a motion-capture performance, perhaps Andy Serkis should have been tapped to play the part (just kidding … kind of). Ido is also a potentially fascinating character — a scientist who doubles as a hunter-killer (aka a bounty hunter, not a Gerard Butler flop about a submarine) — but Waltz plays the part as too much Geppetto and not enough Dr. Frankenstein. Waltz has no problem piling on the twitchiness (Inglourious Basterds, Big Eyes), but here’s he’s too sweet-natured to be believable as a man who bludgeons fugitives in his spare time.
Narratively, Alita: Battle Angel is so focused on the sequels that (may or may not) lie ahead that it cobbles together too many story strands and then rushes through them anyway. This results in some lapses in logic (Alita doesn’t recognize anybody in that rigged Motorball game?) as well as a serious deficit in defining key characters. Connelly’s Chiren does a moral about-face that would scarcely be believable in an old episode of Highway to Heaven, let alone here. On top of all this clutter, there’s a romance between Alita and a pretty-boy street kid (bland Keean Johnson) that turns out to be particularly insipid.
The romance also skims over what should have been one of the defining themes of the film had it been directed at adults instead of young children: Alita’s sexual identity. Here’s a 300-year-old half-human, half-cyborg who’s modeled after a man’s dead daughter, who’s given breasts on her metallic child-like body, and who’s engaged in a relationship with a teenage boy. I daresay Freud, Kinsey and Dr. Ruth would all have had their hands full trying to sort this one out.
When it comes to a movie dealing with a multiverse or a parallel universe or an alternate universe or whatever the kids are calling it these days, Happy Death Day 2U (two out of four stars) unfortunately skewers closer to the lameness of The Cloverfield Paradox than the giddiness of Spider-Man: Into the Multi-Verse. It should also be noted that it frequently bolts away from the original Happy Death Day. In other words, this is one time when (with apologies to Herman’s Hermits and that jolly Henry VIII) the second verse — multi or otherwise — is not the same as the first.
Released in 2017, Happy Death Day added a Groundhog Day wrinkle to the traditional slasher flick and took that notion about as far as it could go. The result was a fairly clever and fairly entertaining murder-mystery — and a standalone film that absolutely did not require a sequel. But when your movie costs $5 million and grosses $55 million stateside and another $70 million worldwide … well, I think even the U.S. Constitution states that a follow-up must be made.
Happy Death Day 2U is only partly a repeat of the first film. The rest of the time, it feels more of a piece with Back to the Future Part II (actually referenced in this new movie), Real Genius, Weird Science, My Science Project, and other teen-centric sci-fi flicks from the hallowed 1980s. But the results are more grasping than ingenious, never disguising the fact that this new slant muddles rather than enhances the appeal of the initial premise.
Jessica Rothe returns as Tree, this time learning that her never-ending loop of a day — one in which she died over and over again, only breaking the cycle once she identified the killer — was the result of a science project conceived by Ryan (Phi Vu), the roommate of her boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard). More mishaps result in an attempt to get the science project under control; instead, the inadvertent result is that Tree has to again relive that same nightmarish day over and over again — only this time in an alternate universe, and with a different murderer wielding the knife.
It plays out as desperately as it sounds, and it strips the original film of the raw power of its premise (Tree even states as much in this new movie). Worse, the murder-mystery angle is now completely obliterated in favor of the rote sci-fi shenanigans as well as a barren side drama involving Tree’s mother (Missy Yager). Whereas the original offered up a number of suspects, this entry basically has one — and, yeah, that’s who it turns out to be.
On the plus side, Rothe is again terrific as Tree, and here’s hoping she starts landing more prominent movie roles (so far, she’s mainly been guesting on TV series and popping up in obscure indies). On the negative side, Happy Death Day 2U ends with a setup for yet another installment, one that will doubtless head off in an even more nonsensical direction. If Happy Death Day turned to the ‘90s (Groundhog Day) and Happy Death Day 2U borrowed from the ‘80s (Back to the Future Part II), then will Happy Death Day 3Peat lift from the ‘70s? And will Travis Bickle or Sheriff Buford T. Justice be making an appearance?