Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel Review

We're only a month and a half into 2019, but already it's been a bit of an interesting year. In terms of the box office, the year has come up completely empty. There seems to be duds left and right, which have been led by "Glass" and "The LEGO Movie 2" vastly underperforming when compared to expectations. And those are the two movies that seemed to be surefire hits in the first two months of the year. All of this means that this most recent Presidents Day weekend was the worst Presidents Day weekend in the last 15 years. And quality also seems to be all over the place. You can go take a look at my yearly preview that I posted at the beginning of the year and already you can probably laugh at some of the choices I made on that. Leading the pack there is this current movie we are about to dive into, the curious case of "Alita: Battle Angel." I was confident that this movie was going to be a disaster. Not only did it look super generic and unoriginal, but it didn't seem Fox had any confidence in it as they kept postponing the movie until eventually settling for a February release. They seemed ready to cut their losses and get this disaster over with. So if that was the case, why should I be excited for a movie that the studio distributing it seemed to have no hope for?

The answer to that question is that, despite Fox's seemingly lack of interest, audiences are gravitating towards the film. The audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is at a shockingly high 93 percent with the movie also earning an A- Cinemascore. This has led to another strong wave of "don't trust the critics on this one," which has given me a big headache. Sure, the movie's 60 percent score with the critics is a lot lower than the 93 percent from audiences. But a 60 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes doesn't mean that the critics hated it. In fact, that literally means that 60 percent of critics gave the movie a passing grade. That's the majority of critics claiming they liked the movie. I hate this black and white world we live in where every critic has to praise a movie to the high heavens or else it means they all hated it. I mean, to heck with a middle ground or a gray area, right? A movie can't have mixed reviews. It's only good reviews or bad reviews. And how about the hypocrisy of hating on the critics when you happen to be on the opposite side of their consensus, then praising them to the high heavens when you do agree? "The critics suck," people say... but only when they disagree with you. If you liked a movie they all liked, then the critics suddenly become your first line of defense.

Anyways, with that tangent out of the way, how about we talk about this movie? The movie that audiences seem to be loving, while critics are MIXED on. Because of all this, I wasn't sure what to think going in, which refreshingly left me with a blank slate. I was open to being pleased, but I also had my initial worries in the back of my mind, so things kinda cancelled themselves. What I will say is that I purposely waited until $5 Tuesday for this one because that's when IMAX is only $5 instead of $15-20. Even with various reactions, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the special effects on this are great, so why not go see an IMAX showing for just $5? And right off the bat, I can tell you that that was a great choice on my part. Sure, I could've had my review out four or five days earlier, but I would've missed out on a rather special treat. I want to talk about the budget of this movie here in a bit, but for now I'll just say it was large and the crew of this movie took full advantage of that massive budget to craft quite the visual spectacle. I was rather impressed at how much care was put into making this movie look as good as they could get it. I'm trying to think of the best comparisons here and honestly I think that this movie might be the most visually stunning film I've seen since "Blade Runner 2049" and that was an October 2017 release.

This is something that I don't want to just brush over because it's the type of theatrical experience that can make for a good escapism movie. Sometimes movies are very much social events, but they can also be very good at helping you escape the real world by diving into a completely new universe. "Alita" absolutely succeeds at that. For reasons that I'll completely avoid, I felt a strong desire to disappear from the world for a few hours and "Alita" provided me that opportunity. The year is somewhere in the 26th century. That was easy to remember because the Fox logo at the beginning switched to 26th Century Fox right before the movie started, which was clever. Apparently we're 300 years after "The Fall." Whatever that is. But it puts us into a very futuristic society and the world had a very sleek design that again reminded me of "Blade Runner 2049." Also like "2049," there's a lot of half-human, half-cyborg things running around, while our main character, much like "Ghost in the Shell," is mostly cyborg female without a strong knowledge of who she is. But with this setup, there's a lot of fancy cyborg designs that I found to be awesome. And give that Alita is secretly a super soldier, there's a lot of action sequences between all of them.

These action sequences were easily the best part of these films. I wasn't always sure why they were happening, but every time one of these fights broke out, I was completely immersed. First of all, Alita was a very charming, charismatic character brilliantly played by Rosa Salazar, so I became emotionally invested in her journey. When such an innocent looking girl all of sudden started kicking the trash out of these giant, scary, evil cyborgs that were brilliantly designed, I was richly rewarded. And the IMAX experience made it even better. It was a world with stunning visual effects, great character designs and beautiful fight choreography that was elevated with a brilliant score that fit IMAX so well that I could feel the movie at certain points. And I mean that literally because there were times that the theater shook. It reminded me of one of those Hans Zimmer scores that fits the action sequences so perfectly that the theater rumbles. And every time we got some blade on blade action, the sound design felt so sharp that I almost felt like the action was happening around me, like I needed to go hide around the corner while Alita takes care of these random baddies. In this case, the IMAX experience also came with 3D, which didn't add anything. But the IMAX was well used.

So yeah, I have to give this movie some legitimate top-notch praise for what they were able to pull off. It was one of those experiences that stunned me with how entertained and immersed I was. However, you may have picked up on my vague descriptions on whatever the heck was going on with the plot, because yeah, I don't know. There's a lot of exposition and a lot of context thrown at you and I had a hard time keeping track of it all. Bad things happened 300 years ago. Scary people are running around. We have a big baddie hiding in the shadows somewhere, using people on the ground as his puppets. Alita was trying to figure out who she was and I was just about as lost as she was. The movie is based on the Japanese manga titled "Gunnm" that began in 1990 and I think I was at a disadvantage at knowing absolutely nothing about that. I think James Cameron got a little ahead of himself while writing the screenplay as I think he assumed that everyone watching would be familiar with the manga and thus not need any explanation. Given the fact fact that this isn't just one story, but a manga series, I think that maybe James Cameron shoved a bit too much of the series into one movie. There's a lot of movie here with a lot of plot shoved into two hours.

Maybe this next point might sound a bit contradictory, but I also think James Cameron got a little ahead of himself by assuming this movie would be such a huge hit that he didn't need to explain everything that he shoved into this movie because he could include that in the three or four sequels that I'm sure he wanted to get done. It seemed like a huge portion of this plot was setting up this world and setting up the sequel, with not enough focus on making one individually great movie. Given that James Cameron is the director of the world's two highest grossing movies, "Avatar" and "Titanic," I think he was somehow able to con Fox into giving him a ginormous budget for this. The initial price tag for the production budget stands at $170 million. Add in all of the marketing costs that have been going on for the last two years and whatever other troubles or costs they've had, and Fox is reporting that the break-even point for this movie is a global total of $350-400 million. Other reports online are claiming that it could be even higher with a break-even point that is as high as $500-550 million. Yeah, sure, you make $2.7 billion like "Avatar" and that's nothing. But that ain't happen. Early reports say that Fox might take a $200 million loss on this film.

That's where things get frustrating. I think everyone is looking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and are rushing into making their own cinematic universes or major franchises. What they forget is that the MCU is so successful because of the fact that they made several individually solid movies with character we cared about. We all cared about Iron Man, Thor and Captain America as characters before they all got together in "The Avengers." That's why "The Avengers" was such a special event. The universe built itself naturally. When you try to rush into starting a franchise, there's a legit chance of failing if you don't slow down and try to simply make a good first movie. Dumping all of that money into a first film is also a dumb idea because there's no guarantee for success. "Alita" actually over-performed based on expectations, earning $28.5 million on the three-day weekend when it was thought it would only get $15-17 million. In its first five days, it's gotten all the way to $42.2 million domestically as it enjoyed a Valentine's Day release on Thursday as well as the additional Presidents Day boost on Monday. But with "Captain Marvel" about to obliterate it come early March, it might be lucky to even cross $100 million domestically, which is unfortunate.

Knowing all of that going in, it was frustrating for me to watch the movie try so hard to set up a sequel when I knew that a sequel probably wasn't going to happen. Then things get worse when the movie leaves you on a cliffhanger, making me go crazy that I now have to live the rest of my life with this unresolved story in my head that wasn't completed because James Cameron got a serious case of overconfidence. It's like diving into a TV show after knowing that it already got canceled. That makes the finale really frustrating. Sure, in this case I have the option of going and checking out the original manga, but I don't know if I really care enough to do so. I haven't read a lot of Japanese mangas in my life and if I ever decide to change that, I'm not sure this is the one I'd start with. I'm hoping that this is a situation where James Cameron can learn from. But I'm afraid it may be too late as he's spent the last decade doing nothing but "Avatar" sequels. FOUR of them to be exact. They all have dates right now. "Avatar 2" is December 2020. "Avatar 3" is December 2021. "Avatar 4" is December 2024. "Avatar 5" is December 2025. Yet there's no guarantee that "Avatar 2" will even make any money because I don't think enough people even care about that franchise.

Now I've been giving a lot of credit to James Cameron for "Alita: Battle Angel" as if he's the one who directed the movie. He didn't. Robert Rodriguez is the director here. But this is James Cameron's movie. He's been wanting to make this since 2002, but never got around to it because he's been doing nothing but "Avatar" for the last 20 years as it took him forever to get the first "Avatar" out as well. So eventually he gave "Avatar" over to Robert Rodriguez, but Cameron still wrote the script and stayed on as producer. Robert Rodriguez has had an interesting career as he's directed everything from "Spy Kids" to "Sin City." It seems like this was a project where he dedicated himself to fulfilling James Cameron's vision. And on that level he did a great job. But that fact almost emphasizes the fact that this is still James Cameron's movie and so I'm giving the blame on this one to James Cameron for getting too overly confident. If this movie wasn't so focused on setting up the next movie, I think this movie could've legitimately been great. But that's where it falls short. And that same over-confidence led to a way-too-huge production budget that will result in now "Alita" sequels. But this is still a visual masterpiece and based on those merits, I'm going to give "Alita" a 7/10.

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