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VIEWS ON FILM BY CEJ -     
The GRINDHOUSE: Reviews    










_____________________________




Review and more 

REVIVING ALITA:
"ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL" -
WHEN "YOU FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!" GOES FROM AN
INSULT TO A THREAT

by CEJ
 
(posted 2/17/18)

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)
20th Century Fox / Lightstorm /
Troublemaker / TSG) 
GullCottage rating 
(***** on a scale of 1 - 5)


Dir. by - Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by - James Cameron,
Laeta Kalogridis, Robert Rodriguez
Based on GUNNM (aka
"BATTLE ANGEL ALITA) by Yukito Kishiro
Prod. by - James Cameron, Jon Landau

Exec. Prods. - David Valdes,
David Womack
Dir. Of Photography - Bill Pope
Edited by - Stephen E. Rifkin,
Ian Silverstein
Production Design by - Caylah Eddlebute,
Steve Joyner
Costume Design by - 
Nina Proctor

Music - Tom Holkenborg
Running Time: 122 mins.



CAST:

Rosa Salazar (Alita), Christoph Waltz (Dr. Dyson Ido), Jennifer Connelly (Chiren), Mahershala Ali (Vector), Ed Skrein (Zapan), Jackie Earle Haley (Grewishka), Keean Johnson (Hugo), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Tanji), Lana Condor (Koyomi), Idara Victor (Nurse Gerhad), Jeff Fahey (McTeague), Eiza González (Nyssiana), Derek Mears (Romo), Leonard Wu (Kinuba), Racer Maximiliano Rodriguez-Avellan (Claymore), Marko Zaror (Ajakutty), Rick Yune (Master Clive Lee), Hugo Perez (Jacked Cyborg), Casper Van Dien (Amok), Billy Blair (Zapan's Cronie), Jamie Landau (Zapan Cronie #2), Dimitrius Pulido (Cyborg Jacking Victim), Patrick Gathron (Antioch), Elle LaMont (Screwhead), Alex Livinalli (Blue Wingman), Anthony Bandmann (Mace), Edward Norton (uncredited - Nova)




      Remember how once upon a time the phrase “You fight like a girl!” was considered an insult? Well, not anymore. Angelina Jolie’s TOMB RAIDER was kinda supposed to make that change happen, … but it really didn’t. Then neither did Milla Jovavich’s Alice in six RESIDENT EVIL movies, or Charlize Theron as ÆON FLUX, Imperator Furiosa or “Atomic Blonde” Lorraine Broughton. And maybe while it’s still a little too soon to see what kind of lasting influence Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN has on the depiction and acceptance of the female action hero, if the legendary super Amazonian moved the ball considerably downfield, then certainly the more-human-than-cyborg teen heroine of Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL carries it into the end zone, … then goes for a stunning two point conversion to boot!


     “More human than cyborg” - while not uttered anytime during the 122 minute running time of this dizzyingly spectacular new sci fi actioner; and while, yeah, it does kind of sound like a Madison Ave. robotics pitch, that phrase is the perfect description for both ALITA as a film and (perhaps more importantly) as the kind of film it is. Kinda / sorta "LITTLE WOMEN by way of ROBOCOP" or "THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS as read by William Gibson",  it's the film most of those others mentioned above purported themselves to be but weren’t.  

     For the sci fi film die-hards out there, remember in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT where Riker reminds warp drive inventor Zephram Cochrane of a quote he hasn't said yet, but will and make famous in the future - "Don't try to be a great man, just be a man and let history decide the rest"? Well, similarly, as we've never been big on movies trying to create "empowering" role models (there's just something artificial and artistically narcissistic about that), we've always felt "Hell, just create a great three-dimensional character the average person can relate to, and if you do that, and the character hacks their way through a jungle of troubles and comes out on top at the end, then the whole 'empowering' thing will take care of itself". But don't preach or (worse) give us corporate product in the guise of an AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL.



   
      WONDER WOMAN as a film remembered this, and because it did of all the action heroine films cited above it was the only one which ended up “more human than cyborg” in giving us a fully fleshed out and identifiable / relatable lead character. Unlike the others it eschewed the erroneous but generally accepted "this is trending" notion that female empowerment means having female characters do the exact same things as male characters, and do it in the exact same way and for the exact same reasons. While on the surface that assumption seems to hold water, it falls apart under the more human truth that, contrary to popular and generally accepted (though psychologically invalid) sentiments, there are differences between men and women, … between boys and girls. Duh, right? And not just physically, but emotionally, psychologically and otherwise.




    Acknowledging those differences isn't sexist. Sexism comes into play when one believes those differences makes one stronger and better or weaker and "less than". But realizing that each gender (and each individual within those genders) has strengths which when combined creates that which is greater than the sum of all the parts is not something from which the forward thinking person / artist should be running.





     Rodriguez and Cameron’s new film doesn’t run and hide from that notion as it seems many films do today - fearful of incorrectly being called “non progressive”.  ALITA runs towards it. And in so doing the central character becomes more than “An action hero … who just happens to be a teenage girl”. She’s an action hero because she’s a teenage girl. There's a huge difference. And it's a refreshing change of filmic pace.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL ("Battle Ready" Trailer)








Rosa Salazar as Alita  

CORE

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)
score - "The Warrior Within" (T. Holkenborg)



     Based upon Yukito Kishiro’s popular 1990s Japanese manga series GUNNM (aka “BATTLE ANGEL ALITA” in the U.S.), ALITA opens in the year 2563, long after a devastating global conflict known as “The Fall” has left most of the planet a scorched earth divided into two socio-economic groups. There are the privileged elite who live comfortably and well-to-do in a floating city high above called Zalem, and there is the majority who live a hard scrabble, earthbound “society built upon a scrapyard” existence in sprawling metropolises below such as Iron City.

     Many who live in places like Iron City survive via cybernetic body enhancements. And as such the inner city “medical” office of a man like Dr. Dyson Ido (an endearing Christoph Waltz) functions as a non-profit community clinic which in some respects reminds one of a storefront doctor’s office in an old western mining town where the local sawbones sets legs, stitches foreheads, and is paid via barter system rather than with money. 

     While searching for parts one fateful morning Ido discovers the “core” - the fully functioning human brain and part human / part machine torso - of a nameless female cyborg.  Like a high tech Geppetto (and the PINNOCHIO references throughout the film are heart-tuggingly poignant) he uses prototype technology once developed for his wheelchair bound daughter - now long deceased - to rebuild the salvaged young woman whom, when it’s discovered she has no memory of her former life, he names “Alita” after his late child. Alita for the remainder of the film is portrayed via a stunningly life-like motion capture CGI performance by Rosa Salazar - perhaps best known to audiences as the ghost of murdered nursing student Maria in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: MURDER HOUSE, and as Brenda, one of the “Immunes” in THE MAZE RUNNER films THE SCORCH TRIALS and THE DEATH CURE.





Ido finds "Alita": (top) original manga GUNNM (pub. 1990) / (bottom) ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)


     Incredibly protective of the naïve young “Alita” - who not only has no memory of her former life, but in many regards is learning everything over again as if a newborn - Ido establishes strict guidelines including mandatory curfews and a promise from her to avoid certain neighborhoods and individuals. She lovingly agrees, but begins to feel a need to expand her emotional wings after meeting and falling for Hugo (NASHVILLE’s Keean Johnson) - member of a group of young scrap collectors, and motobike-riding bad boy who introduces Alita to the sport of Motorball. Her worldview is further expanded, and subsequent desire to "grow up in a hurry" stoked even more, when she discovers that her surrogate father Ido keeps his medical practice afloat by moonlighting as a “Hunter Warrior” - a freelance bounty hunter paid to round up dangerous local criminals. Wow! Dad is considerably more than the intellectual fuddy-duddy she (and the audience) initially assumed.



  Christoph Waltz as Dr. Ido

     After tailing Ido one night, and finding him in danger from a trio of cybornetic criminals, Alita instinctively leaps in to help, and in so doing simultaneously discovers that she is an expert in the ancient martial art of “Panzer Kunst”, and she also resurrects a few slivers of former life memories. Believing that following this course further will unearth more memories, she begs Ido to let her join him as his Hunter Warrior partner. But fearful for her safety he forbids it.

     Alita stubbornly decides to register as a Warrior on her own. And upon doing so she sets off a series of events wherein not only is her past as an “ultimate weapon” uncovered, but she becomes the technological "pot of gold" sought by local organized crime lord Vector (MOONLIGHT Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), and the object of a city wide assassination contract put out by “Nova” (an uncredited Edward Norton) - the mysterious head of Zalem, who has the ability to possess the psyche of others at will, and who fears that Alita may come to lead a revolutionary movement which will shift the balance of socio-economic power. 

     We absolutely loved ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL upon first screening. But it wasn’t until a lengthy email exchange with a close female friend that we were able to articulate exactly why. The friend - who’d yet to see the film, and who admits was unfamiliar with the original manga on which it was based, and was merely going on first impressions from the trailers - felt that in some respects the central character seemed somewhat “too female” - as in (at least by our interpretation of what she meant) a male fantasy rendition of a female action figure. She suggested that maybe it would have been better to downplay that angle and just make Alita an action-figure / ass-kicker who (a phrase we mentioned earlier, and which we hear a lot these days) “just happened to be female“.



   While superficially that may at first seem like the “sensible” and “fair” thing to do in building a gender-equal character, … in actually it’s the much less interesting thing to do, and certainly the much more inaccurate thing. We responded to the friend that what set Rodriguez and Cameron’s film apart from ÆON FLUX and ATOMIC BLONDE and TOMB RAIDER and the others, and what made the Alita character truly fascinating (so fascinating in fact that five minutes into the film you genuinely forget she’s a motion capture CGI creation) isn’t that if she chooses to do so she can “… fight like a man, drink like a man, fart like a man, and f**k like a man, … and give birth while doing so, so there!”.  No, what made her truly intriguing was that she was a teenage girl with all of the psychological and emotional and familial baggage (the good and the bad) which comes in that package. And by the responses of some in the audience during the screening, it was pretty obvious who had raised (or was presently raising) teenage girls, and how on-the-money the depiction of Alita was in that regard.



     We get to know Alita as alternately naïve and stubborn. She’s also caught in that emotional “38th Parallel” of wanting, … of needing … a parental figure, but also wanting and needing to rebel against such a figure in order to assert her own burgeoning identity and independence. And she has a huge soul and heart, both of which she may be a little too quick and willing to give over / sacrifice (both figuratively and literally) for and to others who may not be entirely worthy of it.



Mahershala Ali as Vector   

     Every emotion for her is a huge one.
Forget the Chicago Fire or San Francisco Earthquake of long ago. Every new discovery is for her more earth shaking and world changing than those trifles could ever be, be it the flavor of a chocolate bar or the experience of first love - which (as everyone plainly knows) is the reason opera was created, right? And while it's supposedly a scientific improbability, she understands how the first time your hand accidentally grazes another‘s "in that way", or the first time your lips touch, how such a delicate action can shift the orbital rotation of the universe. At least in one's mind it does.

     In other words she’s a teenager, and specifically a teenage girl. And to make this person who is hacking through that emotional jungle of self-doubt, raging hormones, and a search for self identity and self-worth the one who will ultimately change the world (if the series goes for three films as hoped) is fascinating as all hell. It's also unique in the science fiction / action genre.

     But to take it a step further, and as we realize she will change the world because she's successfully navigated all of this - all of this which the average teenager encounters every time they step out the front door - and how that navigation has made her a more complete and compassionate and wise and mature person (as well as a kick-ass fighter) ... . Well, it's not only fascinating to watch, but it makes her a thousand times more interesting than the trash talking "Bruce Willis in pumps" we often get as a female hero these days.

     Let’s talk about “empowerment” for a minute, huh? We see that word a lot today. One of the most powerful books to come out of the 1990s (and is still considered a touchstone of modern psychology) is REVIVING OPHELIA: SAVING THE SELVES OF ADOLESCENT GIRLS (Putnum 1994). Written by clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Pipher, upon release in 1994 it rocked the foundations of not only the publishing industry (staying on the New York Times Best Seller List for 154 weeks) and the field of psychology, but it became a pop culture sensation (some referring to it as a  “call to arms“) serving both as an eye-opener to parents and educators, and as a mouthpiece for an entire generation of adolescent girls who, in spite of advances for adult women due to the feminist movement, found themselves the ever increasing victims of depression, eating disorders, self mutilation, suicide attempts, toxic and abusive relationships and more.





Alita "saving the adolescent self" (top) in film and (bottom) in Kishiro's original manga


     Via a series of case study / first person interviews with young girls - and with the topics ranging from family, divorce and depression, to drugs and alcohol, sex, sexual abuse and more - a pattern was revealed which showed how an entire segment of the population was falling “between the cracks”, and to a large degree having their daily trauma (during arguably the most emotionally / psychologically volatile period of their lives) forgotten / marginalized / ignored as they didn’t fall into the category of “kids” - to whom a great deal of psychological and emotional attention is given, or adults - who are generally better at demanding that attention. 



Father and loving but (at times) temperamental daughter in (top)
the 1993 two episode / direct to video anime BATTLE ANGEL, and (bottom) in film


     In 2005 “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis” added that the self-esteem problem of adolescent boys was arguably even greater than that of girls of similar age. But media history gives us many more examples of how boys have always at the very least had a wider pop culture “safety net” in which to fall back into in the way of numerous TV series such as THE WONDER YEARS, THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR, BOY MEETS WORLD, etc., and films like STAND BY ME, LUCAS, THE OUTSIDERS and others, while those similar kinds of "media depiction emotional safety nets" for girls of the same age have mostly been rarities until relatively recently. Even most of the John Hughes films like SIXTEEN CANDLES, SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL and PRETTY IN PINK were more often than not told from the young male’s point of view. And if they did feature a central teen girl protagonist, the film usually almost always ended with the young female “winning” a guy’s love - the ultimate solution to every life problem it seemed - by the final credit roll.

     In other words filmic pop culture has long allowed boys to be screwed up in adolescence, then to figure their sh*t out as they mature. But this same leeway to be "screwed up, then grow up" has seldom been granted to adolescent girls. For them the "safety net" choice has almost always been depicted as "Be ATOMIC BLONDE or the Disney Princess, there is no in-between".

     That is until now.











REVIVING OPHELIA by Mary Pipher, PhD (Putnum / 1994)  



ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (201) score - "Broken Doll" (T. Holkenborg)




"YOU KEEP USING THAT WORD, I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS"
- Inigo Montoya



     While the most important thing for entertainment to be is entertaining, as far as the bonus of being empowering to young women, it’s much more so to see a character going through the same mental and emotional obstacle course you yourself experience, and to see them work through it and save the day, then it is to see a cartoon depiction which is fun, yes, but which means little else once the lights come up, the end credits roll, the popcorn salt fades from the back of your mouth, and you’re back in school Monday morning continuing that near-endless search for self and respect and direction which Æon Flux and Lara Croft never seemed to have to deal.

"Sisters of OPHELIA" (L to R) Mulan, Violet Parr, and Alita


     On one end you have the trash-talkin’ “Bruce Willis in pumps” depiction of female empowerment, then on the other extreme end you have … . And no disrespect intended, but as magical and enjoyable as they are, you have the “Disney Princess” films which really weren’t much more empowering even though they long claimed to be. The simple fact is that the young male characters in Disney films from ALADDIN, TOY STORY and A BUG’S LIFE to MONSTERS, INC., COCO and beyond always had more elbow room and leeway to be temperamental, moody, selfishly confused, and even outright jerks who come to learn a lesson and be better people, than their female counterparts were ever permitted to be. The only ones in the bunch of Disney heroines who ever had the liberty to be truly imperfect and confused as hell were, no, not Ariel, Jasmine, Rapunzel, Merida, Tiana or Elsa, but Mulan back in ‘98 and Violet Parr - the teenage daughter from THE INCREDIBLES films voiced by Sarah Vowell.  And oh, …



  Eiza González as Nyssiana

     Before some women reading this go on a tear about how these extreme depictions of women in film are all the fault of men … . Well, keep in mind that, no, not entirely as it‘s pretty commonplace nowadays in that every time a “Bruce Willis in pumps” film opens the word “empowerment” is automatically attached to it in almost knee-jerk-like fashion whether it's a good film or not. 

     Pointing to a substandard film, or at least a cheap knock-off of one, as "empowering" just because it got made can ultimately in the long run do one's cause more harm than good as it provides a reason (even if but a superficial one) for detractors to claim that "Lead women characters in action / genre films can't really carry the day unless they're piggy-backing on the shoulders of something already in some way pre-established by men".

     Look at the differences for example between the superficially similarly themed OCEANS 8 and WIDOWS - both released within months of each other in 2018. "Superficially" because while on the surface both are about women who stage a complex heist, one is essentially "Clooney and the boys in drag" (and it is admittedly colorful and entertaining to see Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and the rest lighten things up a bit), while the other focuses on the very distinct social and socio-economic plights of women in contemporary America, and how it drives a particular group of them to do something they'd normally never conceive of doing.


     Perhaps it's ultimately not a completely fair comparison as one is a light comedy while the other is a suspense drama. But the fact remains that the "knock-off"-like OCEAN'S 8 (piggy-backing on the success of the earlier Clooney / Soderbergh films) was a hit to the tune of nearly $300 million worldwide - a substantial portion of that pie coming from female audiences, while WIDOWS (with a budget of $42 million) fell just shy of breaking even with a worldwide gross of $76 mill. Keep in mind that a film has to make back at least twice it's budget to break even.



OCEAN'S 8 (top) WIDOWS (bottom) - both 2018   
    
     In regards to the films there are many theories as to why each emerged as they did at the box office. But for us what speaks perhaps most loudly is that while WIDOWS was (and remains) the much more critically acclaimed film of the two, OCEAN'S had a slightly higher audience rating via polling metrics such as CinemaScore. Could it be because audiences - including the increasingly important female demographic - just aren't as willing to see other women in less flattering (less "positive" if more realistic) depictions?

     It's not uncommon in today's trend-centric social media realm (which often sets the tone for traditional media) how often when a film opens wherein a woman is depicted as “confused, but she ultimately gets her sh*t together” for it to be slammed (once again often by many women) as being a “negative depiction”. As a case in point consider Daniele Selby’s July, 2016 GlobalCitizen.Org listing of “The Best & Worst Movies For Celebrating Women” where she lists GREASE, THE PRINCESS DIARIES and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA as being among the worst.

     Now, those films may not necessarily have traditionally “good” and / or stereotypically “uplifting” depictions of women characters. In fact Anne Hathaway’s Andy in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA becomes a sellout, eventually bartering her soul for success. But in the final act she realizes what she has allowed to happen to herself, and she changes her life. Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox does the exact same thing in WALL STREET and we accept it because we recognize and can identify with the truth of how both the dark and the light co-exists within each person’s soul, including our own. Are women not people with souls too? So, why not examine the light and the dark and the confusion within them as well as celebrate the strength and the bad-ass-ed-ness? - which brings us back to ALITA.






     James Cameron has acknowledged Pipher’s REVIVING OPHELIA as a major touchstone / reference point for him while scripting TITANIC in the same way Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES was for George Lucas while penning STAR WARS. And, while we’ve heard nothing officially, it seems obvious (to us at least) that Pipher’s OPHELIA was a huge reference in the creation of Alita’s screen persona as well. More “fleshed out” than her manga source character, the film version of Alita seems almost a composite of two or three of the case study / interviewed young women in Dr. Pipher’s book much more so than was TITANIC’s Rose portrayed by Kate Winslet. In fact we never really caught the REVIVING OPHELIA references in TITANIC, although Dr. Pipher and others did. But we sure as hell picked up on them in ALITA.



     We’re not saying all female characters need to be “relatable” and "realistic" anymore than all male characters, or all black characters, or all Asian or Latino or Gay characters always need to be realistically relatable. But to refuse to do so every now and then, even (and maybe especially) within the confines of a genre film, is not only the (dirty word, we know) irresponsible thing to do, but it’s - maybe even creatively worse - the lazy thing to do. Beyond lazy it comes to set a prejudicial precedent in not just film, but elsewhere. And carried and passed on by many young women the phrase “teenage girl” becomes a negative one.



Jennifer Connelly as Chiren  


     "Teenage girl” becomes a phrase which many run from when designing a character who will save the day, ... as opposed to saving say just themselves or a loved one. Y’know, how it’s okay to delve into / explore the growing pains and pangs and angst, and the combo of love / hate for parents, and the combination of fear and excitement at being swept off of your feet by the “bad boy”, and developing a sense of self and identity and all of that. It’s well and good to do the “young girl at times uncomfortably transitioning into womanhood” thing in films like SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS, LITTLE WOMEN or THE HATE YOU GIVE. But as soon as a teen girl is placed into the midst of a genre film (be it sci fi or horror, action, etc.) all of those normal aspects inherent within that emotional gauntlet we call “maturing into adulthood” get tossed out the window as “weaknesses” which are not allowed to be depicted as they would what, … be considered non-empowering?

     Not to go further down this rabbit hole, but we’ve always thought in this regard it would be a good idea for both male and female filmmakers-in-the-making (and maybe a few already “made” ones) to take a Psych minor while in school, or at the very least continually educate themselves once out of school, as to what truly makes the human subconscious tick, rather than keeping greater tabs on which kind of film character seemed to be trending this time last year as most popular.

     Film (yes, even “popcorn” genre flicks) loudly reflect what quietly simmers on the back burner of society's sub-conscious. And to continue to deny any negatives in the depiction of our female heroines - especially the young ones, - is not only lazy and foolish, but inherently dangerous in (that phrase everyone is so keen on nowadays) “sending the wrong message”.







     Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN features a character who is much more than “Superman in a skirt”. She is also one who possesses (and is even weighed down by) a great many human-like frailties - some of the same ones as Alita in fact - including a degree of naiveté, stubbornness, fear and self-doubt to go along with her more positive attributes of bravery, selflessness, being a kick-ass fighter, and having an incredible compassion for others. While films such as SALT, ÆON FLUX , ATOMIC BLONDE and PROUD MARY feature characters portrayed in a more positive light, and who fulfill the second part of that bill, to have any of them burdened with the first part often seems to be considered anathema to the concept of “heroic” or “empowering” almost in the same way - and to the same degree - as compassion and understanding is often incorrectly considered to be anathema to the concept of masculinity.



"Sisters of OPHELIA" (top L to R) Katniss Everdeen, Jyn Erso and Rey, and (below) those they've inspired





     We've not fans of the concept of "role models" - never have been. We've always felt there was something mildly disturbing about the idea to begin with, ... and something downright dangerous when actively seeking and expecting one from a corporate entity, then being upset when one doesn't receive it from them.  If there's something even more disturbing and dangerous it's when a corporate entity attempts to create a role model according to publicly dictated "specs" (as it were). That's kind of just asking for trouble, isn't it?

     Now, just creating a great three dimensional character with both warts and "slap 'em on the back" admirable attributes whom others fall in love with because they recognize in that character part of who they themselves are as well as parts of the kind of person they'd like to be? Well, hell yeah! Bring that on!



     And along those lines it’s always struck us as wonderfully ironic how not only are the “imperfect” and “struggling with their humanity and womanhood” characters - such as WONDER WOMAN's Diana Prince, THE HUNGER GAMES Katniss Everdeen; Padme, Jyn and Rey from theSTAR WARS films, and now (already) Alita - have emerged as more memorable and beloved than the ÆON FLUXes, PROUD MARYs and others, but you also see a heck of a lot more young girls (and, yeah, older women too) cosplaying them than those others. Could it possibly be because more young girls of OPHELIA age tend to more readily identify with the unique “female-ness” (and even imperfections) of these characters than they do with the others who, as enjoyable as they are to watch "Takin’ names, kickin’ ass and blowin’ sh*t up!", are in actuality little more than Martin Riggs in a sports bra or an estrogen-enhanced John McClane? 











REACHING ZALEM


... with (L to R) James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Laeta Kalogridis, Jon Landau


     James Cameron - known for populating his films ALIENS, TERMINATOR 2, THE ABYSS, STRANGE DAYS, AVATAR and tv’s DARK ANGEL with strong three dimensional female heroines - first became enamored with Kishiro’s GUNNM (aka “BATTLE ANGEL ALITA”) when it was brought to his attention in the early 2000s by fellow director and comic book aficionado Guillermo del Toro - he of CRONOS, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, BLADE 2, HELLBOY and the Oscar winning PAN’S LABYRINTH and THE SHAPE OF WATER.

  GUNNM / ALITA creator Yukito Kishiro at the ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL L.A. premiere



     After securing the web domain “battleangelalita.com” in 2003 (it’s since been changed to foxmovies.com/movies/alita-battle-angel), over the next 12 years the project was continually put on the back burner as Cameron developed and directed (and was instrumental in helping create new technologies which would allow him to film) AVATAR and a number of IMAX and other documentaries including the subsea exploratory features EXPEDITION: BISMARK ( 2002), TITANIC: GHOST OF THE ABYSS (2003) and TONY ROBINSON’S TITANIC ADVENTURE (2005). During the same decade his Lightstorm Entertainment company also produced Steven Soderbergh’s version of Stanislaw Lem’s SOLARIS starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone.



  Jackie Earle Haley as Grewishka

     Promising that ALITA was not dead in “development hell”, over the years Cameron banged out a near 190 page script - with later drafts attributed to ALEXANDER, SHUTTER ISLAND and ALTERED CARBON’s Laeta Kalogridis, then turned it and hundreds of pages of story and other notes over to writer / director Robert Rodriguez.        

     Best known for scripting, directing, and often editing, shooting and co-scoring his own smaller budget independent films such as DESPERADO, SPY KIDS, SIN CITY and the PLANET TERROR installment of GRINDHOUSE at his own Troublemaker Studio facility in Austin, Texas, Rodriguez was a long time fan of both Cameron and GUNNM, and eager to see how Cameron would bring the popular manga to the big screen, when he was approached by the Lightstorm founder with an offer to slim down his and Kalogridis’ script drafts and voluminous notes into a shootable script. Extremely pleased with what Rodriguez had done with the material, Cameron offered him the opportunity to direct ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL.

     A few have made note of the fact that 20th Century Fox’s promotional campaign seems to be playing down Rodriguez’s involvement and up-playing that of Cameron and his Lightstorm producing partner Jon Landau. And while this does seem to be so, the actual film itself is a perfect balance between the sensibilities of the two filmmakers. In the same way in which A.I. genuinely looks and feels like both a Kubrick and Spielberg film, and in the exact same way in which CLOCKERS looks and feels like the cinematic love child of both Spike Lee and Martin Scorcese, so to while watching ALITA can you not help but see the 50 / 50 tonal and visual influence that is both James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.
 







     While the attention to minute detail and real world veracity within a sprawlingly epic created universe is quintessential Cameron - as is the emotional core at the heart of the film, the films kinetic pacing, relentless action sequence timing, sense of humor and a delightfully “over the top” depiction of colorful supporting characters is all Rodriguez. Nowhere is this more true than in any scene concerning the “Hunter Warriors” - a wild collection of cutthroat, money grubbing bounty hunter pirates who would give Jabba the Hutt a case of the nervous runs.
Ed Skrein as Zapan  


     When Alita walks into “Kansas Bar” and first meets the murderer’s row / crem dela crem of the “Hunter Warrior” world (none more visually amusing than Jeff Fahey as “McTeague” - who travels with a pack of robotic tracking dogs) it’s the hilariously bad-assed SPACE 1999 / BATTLESTAR GALACTICA version of the “Titty Twister” bar from Rodriguez and Tarantino’s FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. And things end pretty much at “Kansas” the same way they did when all vampire hell broke lose at the “Twister”.

     Nothwithstanding all of that, however, whereas Rodriguez and Tarantino have very similar tonal sensibilities, and their films feel almost like layers stacked up layers upon layers, because Rodriguez and Cameron are (in certain ways) such different kinds of film makers, they tend to more - in “side by side” fashion - balance each other out. They actually have the effect of pulling the other back and keeping each other in check, and avoiding the over-indulgences for which each filmmaker has been (at times notoriously) well known.

     The “Rodriguez / Cameron balancing act” is best realized, however, in the creation and depiction of Alita herself as a truly memorable character with whom the audience falls head over heels in love with every bit as much as we did with the callow Luke Skywalker as he set out on his mission to save the universe … and grow up too.

     While Robert Rodriguez’s films - most notably DESPERADO, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and even SIN CITY - have all had a childlike sense of fun, irreverence and a delirious delight in near Warner Bros. cartoon-like destruction, the films SPY KIDS, the “Misbehavers” episode of FOUR ROOMS, and even the critically derided THE ADVENTURES OF SHARK BOY AND LAVA GIRL have always displayed his lovingly perceptive ear, and his uncanny ability to tune in on and capture the pulse of contemporary teens and pre-teens like few modern day filmmakers working in the genre realm have proven capable. This while James Cameron has always held an admiration for, and an uncanny ability to depict three-dimensional women characters within the confines of the same or similar genres.  







     While there’s been a slowly growing trend of treating women and female teens with more realistic three-dimensional character respect in films such as THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, JUNO, SAVED!, EIGHTH GRADE and more, there has been little progress in allowing the angst of those teen girl transformative years to influence mainstream genre material. And as such most depictions of women in said genre films have been (let’s be honest) typical and boring if, yes, at times action movie enjoyable. 




     ALITA is more than a quantum leap in the realization of a truly believable motion capture CGI character. It is that, no doubt. And, oh, see this one on as huge an IMAX 3D screen as possible, and sit pretty close too so that much of the 3D action will sail over, under and around your periphery. But in the grand scheme of things that's really no surprise, is it? We’ve come to expect that sort of techno-experience with films with Cameron’s stamp on them. Nah, more so ALITA is a quantum leap forward in the depiction of a truly empowering young female heroine over the faux pretenders audiences have been fed - be they prefab Disney princesses or the “Bruce Willis’s in a wig” types - over most of the last 20 years.

     With ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL the phrase “You fight like a girl” has been flipped upside down, on its ear, spun about and gone from being an insult tossed at someone to become a promise and a threat hurled back. The phrase has gone from bad to bad-assed within the short timespan of 122 minutes.

     And it is one helluva 122 minutes!

     Long live # 99!





                                                                                                                                                    CEJ





Based in Philadelphia, PA, screenwriter / director Craig Ellis Jamison is webmaster of the GULLCOTTAGE / SANDLOT online 
film magazine / library as well as creator / producer of its "CreaTiV.TV" network, YouTube "TUNEPLAY FILM MUSIC" channel, and THE MOVIE SNEAK PODCAST. He's dir. / writer / co-producer of the documentary feature STEVE VERTLIEB: THE MAN WHO "SAVED" THE MOVIES. And (to unwind) he recently began penning the 
VAULTED TREASURES FILM BLOG. 

A professed film music and jazz junkie, he's accused of being a workaholic, but more accurately feels he'll take a vacation when he's "earned" one. These days he's usually found chained to the desk in the wee hours - with a lovable pain-in-the-ass Lab / Shepered / Pitt mutt named Ripley at his side. - banging out web articles, scripts and a soon-to-be-published tome on the socio-political history of the science fiction, horror and fantasy film entitled 
"THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE". 

Drop a line and shoot the sh*t with him on Facebook, or connect via info@gullcottageonline.com





Bonus:
MTV NEWS - THE MAKING OF "ALITA"
(featuring - Robert Rodriguez, Jon Landau, Rosa Salazar, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein)



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