The mixture of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez definitely has a great angle to it. “Alita: Battle Angel” was a title heard years ago and moved around as myth actually for a time. Harrison Ford was attached per se at one point. This story of stories that Cameron had developed for years actually was something Rodriguez told Inside Reel in a Fest Track interview at SxSW in March 2018. Reading the first 3 volumes before talking with producer Jon Landau as well as leads Rosa Salazar & Keaan Johnson in Austin (see their Fest Track interview here), gave a good perception of the structure but what is one to say between an anime/graphic novel that was written many years ago versus the ideals of the actual script (which having been co-written by James Cameron definitely should retain his story sense). What “Alita: Battle Angel” does very well is keep itself focused. The one true balance that stays pretty crisp and clear throughout the film is Rosa Salazar as Alita. Many may think that it is simply a computer performance but that could not put the sense of innocence, anger and breathe in what is seen here. Granted it is not Andy Serkis but who can compete on that level. What Rosa brings is a soul to this girl who was originally built as a killing machine. Salazar has been missing in part from many of the media rounds per se (in large part) but that might be better so the character simply exists on her own. Rodriguez’s touch is here for sure but it is sometimes lost in the bigger sequences. Oddly enough, this reviewer kept seeing “Speed Racer” in the race sequences per se. They are good but at a certain point are more video game oriented.
The character build even though it takes a while in the beginning does the film correctly but there is no “a-ha” moment. The scene though where Alita first tries her new body with fighting moves shows a path to identity and the sequence inside a bar (a very visceral scene in the graphic novel) definitely comes to life. The reason why is that all the characters in there are so unique. It makes one think of “From Dusk Till Dawn”. What seems to be missing is some of Robert’s camera tricks and stylistic touches although to be fair Rodriguez did mention in that same interview that this was not him doing a Robert Rodriguez film but instead doing a Jim Cameron film. So in that respect it does work, the script is tight, the visuals are fluid and it does its job. It is fun to watch but it is not spectacular. There is never quite a moment where Alita becomes the chosen one or that her love against her own life will ring out. One scene inside the apartment of Hugo (played by Johnson) comes close and really makes the CG of Rosa as a cyborg really key into the story. The climax, like most, has to serve a story point and that is understandable. Christoph Waltz does an admirable job as the Doc and Jennifer Connelly & Mahershala Ali do their part within the structure but Ed Skrein as a competitor is the only one who brings an edge to the proceedings. Here is hoping “Alita” connects to the audience because unlike many recent popcorn films, it understands the concept of a beginning, middle and end within a true story arc. But it is in the silent moments, when you can hear the acting, that make the most impact. One simple act of Alita laying her head on her father’s shoulder has almost more power than a large action sequence. But that said, one does not exist in the large scale, big budget film without the other.
The search of identity or the strength within it plays to the crux of most YA novels, especially those set in an almost apocalyptic world. “The Darkest Minds” in its marketing seemed to play to more of an “X-Men” vibe but it is quite the opposite. It is more a romance mixed with a coming-of-age drama. That is not to say it isn’t sure of itself. It owes more to elements of “Hunger Games” and “Maze Runner” than to “X-Men”. The storyline and, by extent, the acting, considering it is all young actors, comes from more of a place of maturity than one would expect. This obviously comes from the grounding of Alexandra Bracken’s novel. Having spoke to her for this interview earlier in the week, the idea of “The Darkest Minds”, she explained, came after 9/11 when she was in high school, that idea of what is the right path to take, what action is possible. Amandla Stenberg plays Ruby, the reluctant hero of “Minds” and, like Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, finds her power through sacrifice. Stenberg achieves in a way what “A Wrinkle In Time” could not. “The Darkest Minds” is about the power of youth but not, by pretending, they are the true leads. Certain actors like Mandy Moore here as a doctor with a fringe outfit called “The League” has just enough presence to make it work as does Gwendolyn Christie as a bounty hunter. They provide moral and psychological choices for the protagonist which allow her to grow as a character.
What the film itself owes to more than anything, without spoiling anything, is to “Superman”, specifically “II” simply in Clark Kent/Superman understanding the need for a greater good within elements of pain. Two scenes, including one in foreshadowing, give Ruby’s journey a weight that many of the other YA adaptations have lacked. Now granted, this can go awry as the series (should this one be successful) goes on. The smart idea, like the first “Maze Runner”, is that this movie was made for a price which allows it to breathe a bit while not sacrificing its pacing. It is not a perfect movie by any means. The villain quotient pays more than an interesting parallel in certain ways to “The Hunger Games”. However the elegant, if that word can be used, aspect of this kind of storytelling is that it takes into case bigger themes and archetypes at play. While mind control plays a part, there are no cell phones anywhere in this movie which is an interesting observation overall as well. The only red herring of the film is inherent in its set up which is the “why” aspect in terms of what causes the children to change. This suspension of disbelief is necessary and inherent to make the movie work but its structure and basis is nonetheless elusive creating a slight hole is what is otherwise a solidly made film.
The essence of “The Maze Runner” folds into the idea of isolationism against all odds. What the trilogy and this part in particular points to is that only through sacrifice and loss can the true battles be won. Thomas may be the savior that possibly has the cure but it is those who ultimately push their lives to the breaking point that really shine. Thomas Brodie Sangster brings a soulfulness to Newt that even in dark moments seems to shine through. While melodrama does have possibility here, it is sometimes in lingering too long on a scene instead of simply letting it be. Rosa Salazar, former indie film darling, who takes on the mantle of “Alita: Battle Angel” next summer, plays in the background here but it is her unrequited love and allegiance for Thomas that shines through. Dylan O’Brien, like many Batman types before him, has to keep the plot flowing which is inextrictably linked to Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). While the path to absolution is not an easy one, the inclusion of certain break and run sequences while interesting in terms of action interplay adds little. The opening train rescue though keys in the best of Old Western with the new Fast & Furious mentality. Ultimately an ending for the saga, the epilogue speaks well to the reasoning of the trajectory though ultimately the balance of what it means to escape from The Glade is lost. Thomas is supposedly the Chosen One but is it just by fate or sheer will.