10:37am PT by Simon Abrams, Steven Boone
Do Audiences Want an 'Alita: Battle Angel' Sequel?
The following is a spoiler-filled conversation about Alita: Battle Angel — a live-action, big-budget adaptation of the Japanese manga directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron — conducted by The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. Both writers love manga, Rodriguez and Cameron — but neither cared for Alita: Battle Angel. Abrams and Boone discussed the movie's shortcomings in light of its recently announced box office slump.
Simon Abrams (AKA: Piranha II Scholar): I wanted to love Alita: Battle Angel despite all reason and hope. I also thought I had managed my expectations by ignoring several articles whose authors tried to dunk on Cameron because, uh, he doesn't like Aquaman? Even if that were true — and it's not: "I think its great fun" [sic] — so what? I also found myself nodding along with Matt Lynch's review even before I'd seen Alita: "Cameron's tin-eared writing plus Rodriguez's juvenilia is as dire as you'd expect, but Cameron's design and FX perfectionism plus Rodriguez's simple (and finally well-employed) economy is as tantalizing as it sounds." That sounds about right.
I even dared to believe Vulture's Emily Yoshida's appropriately guarded review: "One fight scene ends with a brutally damaged Alita springing off of her one remaining arm to defeat her opponent, and even though I knew I was watching an array of deftly manipulated ones and zeroes, I felt the urge to clap." Now that is a movie that I want to watch!
Alas, I did not care for Alita: Battle Angel, mostly because I don't think that Cameron and Rodriguez worked well together as a creative team. Cameron seemingly fed Rodriguez's characteristic techno-fetishes without cleaning up any of the Machete helmer's bleeding-heart messiness. I should have seen that coming, but I wasn't really thinking, beyond gawping: "Rodriguez and Cameron, together, doing manga? Wowee wow wow!"
But I did not expect to be so bored and so worn down by Alita. This movie's creators spent so much time developing their sad-sack themes and dystopian world that I didn't care when Rodriguez did what he always does best: direct the crud out of two to three meticulously realized action scenes that all feature just the right amount of ultra-violence, like when Alita cuts off the face of evil cyborg assassin Zapan (a perfectly typecast Ed Skrein).
Also, generally speaking: I didn't buy any of the movie's big emotional beats, especially scenes where babe-in-the-woods Alita crushes on Hugo, Keean Johnson's robo-organ-harvesting street kid with a heart of gold. They're natural enemies, but they love each other! That's the kind of syrupy, unbelievable bond that Cameron can normally pull off, against all odds. But Rodriguez didn't, and it really shows when Hugo plummets to his death. Eh. I mean, his death should be a big deal. So why isn't it?
I think you, like me, entered the arena, I mean the theater with reasonably managed high hopes. But what did you think? Did James Cameron bring out the best in a filmmaker whose name isn't "James Cameron?" And did Alita seem Rodriguez-y to you (in a good way)?
Steven Boone (AKA: El Mariachi Stan): The bland, gargantuan Avatar proved James Cameron can't even bring out the best in himself anymore, let alone a laid-back entertainer like Robert Rodriguez, who seems to have become the theme-park version of his former, effortlessly entertaining self. Damn. Alita is just lifeless exposition, idiotic motion-capture action, and the same junkyard dystopian world design that we've already seen in thousands of movies/manga/anime/shows since Jean Giraud first took up a colored pencil. The closest that Alita comes to visual splendor is a couple of shots of Christoph Waltz stalking the night in a dark trenchcoat and fedora as robo-warrior vigilante Dr. Dyson Ido. In these moments, Alita transports us to a noir fantasia that could hang with both Rodriquez's and Cameron's better efforts.
But: while Alita, as a character, is meant to disarm us with her innocence and pluck, she actually looks and sounds like a bored gamer girl. Her huge, fake eyes can't disguise the fact that she always seems seconds away from a yawning fit. Hugo, who is supposed to be some kind of scrappy street kid, reminded me of a suburban Applebee's waiter hoping for big tips. This movie is as flat as the Papyrus font on Avatar. It is flatter than even these corny wisecracks.
I don't know what's going on, man. In recent history, Ridley Scott and George Lucas returned to the franchises that made their names only to deliver muddled and cluttered first drafts with the faintest visceral or emotional impact. It's becoming law. Even Roland Emmerich, no great visionary but once a reliable popcorn shoveler, revisited Independence Day just to take away whatever cowboy spark the original exuded. It's as if age and complacency persuade these veteran showmen to give the reins over to the software templates.
When I come out of this fog of disgust, I'm sure I'll remember some mitigating Rodriguez Touches (there's always a few in even his worst films). But is there anything in this mess that dulled the pain? The pain of this movie being so dull?
Abrams: Well, let's do as you say and dig into some specific Alita moments that didn't quite land. Or take off. Whichever. Because there are a lot of duds in this thing and I think they demonstrate why a Rodriguez/Cameron pairing only makes sense if you're dreamcasting a live-action Alita movie...in the back pages of a 1992 issue of Wizard magazine.
For starters: Most of the Iron City scenes clang (sorry). Waltz is credible as a Gepetto-like father figure, but Dr. Ido has the pitiless job of pushing a very unwieldy plot along, like when he saves Alita from being run over in an early scene. It's almost as if Alita's life has to be threatened in order to freshen an otherwise by-the-numbers info dump even an eensy bit dynamic...
So Waltz is kinda boring to watch (something I'd never thought I'd say). I was also bored anytime Johnson or Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (as the barely developed, but ostensibly street-smart Tanji) give us an informal tour of Iron City. There's nothing believable (which is not the same thing as "nothing realistic") in scenes like the one where they first play Motorball, or get fatally ambushed by Zapan outside the Motorball stadium. And I was mostly into the Motorball try-out set piece, even if it looks like a ripoff of Rollerball (the 1975 original), Tron and the Wachowskis' (lately oft-imitated) Speed Racer (cough, Aquaman, cough). I could feel Rodriguez come alive in that scene, mostly because he's treating it like a puzzle to solve. That's where he and Cameron (and Lucas, as you mentioned; Scott, to me, is a little different) reveal themselves — as left-brain technical wizards who have no deep interest in how people talk, think, or feel.
That's also a good part of why I was attracted to any scene involving Vector, Mahershala Ali's shades-clad baddy. Mind you: Vector's not a well-developed character. In fact, I'd argue that his death scene is even more underwhelming than Hugo's (the filmmakers seem to agree with Alita when she says that Vector's just a "puppet," which is, uh, pretty disturbing!). But I sensed Rodriguez (and maybe Cameron, too) perking up behind the camera when Vector tells Hugo that he would sooner "rule in Hell than serve in Heaven." Ali almost makes that hacky line work. He's also filmed in a dynamic, but weirdly laid-back (good call) kind of way: lots of depth of field instead of the same ol' extreme close-ups. With that said, you know viewers are in for a rough time when so much depends on so few stylistic grace notes.
Gimme your fave scenes. Or worst scenes. Just don't tell me you liked Jeff Fahey's scenes — that would break my heart (I generally love his work, but, I sadly couldn't get into his Alita scenes).
Boone: I did appreciate Mahershala Ali's compilation-worthy appearances in his sleek Morpheus attire (lit at an iconic slant by Matrix trilogy veteran Bill Pope, the man who shot Morpheus himself). Vector could be a wayward cousin of Laurence Fishburne's sage hero: the shades, the cloak, the nose in the air. My favorite of Vector's style turn is when he — wearing a crisp, red button-down jacket that screams "influencer brand" — meets with Hugo over drinks.
The powered-rollerblade, neo-Rollerball sequences did remind me of the supercharged races in the Wachowski's Speed Racer, but the latter actually packs a wallop because those film's scenes are clean, dynamic and propulsive. Alita's junky demolition derbies pile on the collisions and mid-air somersault-brawls with exactly the sense of peril (and physics) as a 5-year-old smashing toys together (which is who this movie is for, of course).
The same goes for a brawl between Alita and a bar full of cyberpunk nasties. It might be the filmmakers' homage to petite-girl-kicks-everybody's-ass fights in Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill or Chocolate (or their Hong Kong forebears). But, again, the lack of dramatic necessity and any sense of real physical peril makes the scene's Girl Power flourishes (she makes war paint by dipping a finger into her own blood) ring mighty hollow.
I will admit that the way Zapan shreds Alita to pieces right at the end of this sequence was a jarring surprise. And I did sense the old Rodriguez coming to life when Alita, now basically a one-armed torso, kept fighting to the end like the "flesh wound" knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
And I get it: Alita — like Rey and Neo and Luke Skywalker and all the other mopey kids in pop mythology — is at first ignorant of her powers and her past so that, by awakening to them, she can inspire the mopey, insecure kids in the audience to claim their own. Good on both Cameron and Rodriguez for repeating that lesson. But when Alita's powers are so easily summoned and so limitless — a few screen minutes after Alita is torn to pieces, Dr. Ido rebuilds her with a more powerful frame — there is no journey. For a film developed over many years by Cameron, a master of structure, this pic is a gridlock of chatty exposition, unconvincing fight/chase, chatty exposition, villain monologue, etc.
Abrams: I agree with much of what you just said. Alita: Battle Angel doesn't work, either as an introduction to the title character or as a boulder-sized stepping stone to Alita 2. Then again, I'm a total sucker and will still line up for a sequel because I, like you, am a fan. I also think that Rodriguez, Cameron and the rest of the gang spent two hours clearing their throats and setting the table before making the movie that they really wanted to make, much like M. Night Shyamalan did when he made Split before unleashing Glass (and, as you know, I am so much more into Glass than I am into Split).
Still, because we are both Rodriguez-heads and Cameron-ites, I wonder: Were our expectations too high? We knew, without really knowing, that these guys were probably too busy futzing with technological grace notes to care much about Iron City or its inhabitants on a human level. And, while I don't share your dislike of Avatar, I do agree that neither Cameron nor Rodriguez has made a film recently that set my heart aflame (I don't remember enough of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For to judge it).
And yet, part of Cameron's shared charms is that they are pitiless grinders who have outlasted nearly all of their critics simply because they do not understand the meaning of words like "No," "Stop" or "Overdrawn." Rodriguez and Cameron both do what they want to do very well and they almost always turn their credits into assets. Like, the post-converted 3D process that Cameron used on his semi-recent Titanic rerelease — that was pretty impressive. And I bet that it's an essentially similar 3D process as the one Cameron used for (trumpet fanfare) Alita, which looks decent enough in 3D (even if it wasn't originally shot with 3D cameras). So if Rodriguez takes anything from his collaboration with Cameron, I hope it's the Terminator's ability to make spectacular cinematic lemonade out of so many Alita lemons.
*shoves mic in your face* Agree or disagree*? *intense feedback follows*
Boone: A consistent (and probably annoying) theme from me — when it comes to my commentary on these contemporary behemoth releases by sci-fi/fantasy/action auteurs — is: "The best thing that could happen to [formerly acclaimed but presently on autopilot yet still lucrative director X] is that they go broke."
Both Cameron and Rodriguez were at their best when they were up against financial and/or time constraints. That's when they made classics that still endure. The only guarantee that I would see Alita 2 would be a confirmed production budget of $7,000. Bring Rodriguez back, but force him to shoot, edit and score the thing himself, at his home studio. Possibly with Legos. (This is the guy who gave us Ricardo Montalban in a flying wheelchair! He can do anything.) Or let Cameron take the helm at whatever budget, but no CGI, motion capture or virtual sets.
As it stands, I'm sore about paying to watch these filmmakers clear their throats and tune their pianos for their next big money suck. The great fantasy directors have been getting lost down these blind storytelling trails for a while now, trying to reinvent cinema tech when just telling a great story with some competence would do just fine. Don't come at me with a new and improved 40-string guitar if you forgot how to play even a simple punk ditty.