According to Algis Budrys, in an article written many moons ago, all stories can be surmised to one of three basic plots: The man who learned better, the brave little tailor and Boy meets girl.
Is that true? cue the debate class for that one, but in the case of James Cameron, the famed storyteller behind some of contemporary cinema’s biggest hits (most of them either set in the future or some high-tech space landscape), his stories do seem to embody those effective but overtly familiar beats. Whether it’s the outsider that rebels against the system, the [usually tragic] boy-girl romance, or the human changed by a significant event, you can spot the tracing a mile off.
Will those traditional, familiar but effective beats that embody most of Cameron’s films – be it “Terminator”, “Aliens”, “Titanic” or “Avatar” – be what divides the lovers from the loathers when it comes to his latest film?
Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis‘s screenplay for “Alita : Battle Angel” is based on classic manga – so the title character, much of that world, and the arcs of the main characters were already written long before the Oscar winning filmmaker snapped up the rights to the source material all those years ago. But because of Cameron’s pre-existing association with androids, dystopian futuristic societies, Greek-tragedy romances, and kick-butt female characters, those reading the shooting script likely assumed Cameron’s cribbed from his earlier projects. Guess it doesn’t help, of course, that the way Cameron has condensed and structured the graphic novels’ extensive story is what one might imagine a crossover between ‘’Terminator’’, ‘’Aliens’’, ‘’Titanic’’ and ‘’Avatar’’ might look and play like too. Point is, there was no getting away from what’s come before for Cameron here, and on paper, I guess “Alita” may have read a rather predictable and eerily familiar film yarn.
Yet, this isn’t a screenplay – this is a movie! A big, bold, beautiful and undeniably entertaining genre offering that, even with its familiar plotting and overused devices, remains consistently captivating and astonishing. And that too is as much a Cameron-staple as his somewhat unsurprising scripting.
Set in the 26th century, 300 years after a major war caused a societal collapse (with the elite living in a floating city above the dumps below), a deactivated female cyborg (Alita) is revived, but cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is. With the help of the doctor who gave her back her life, Ido (Christoph Walz) and street-smart new friend Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita begins to piece together the puzzle of her past, while evading the deadly and corrupt forces that want her dead.
We go to the movies to be blown away visually, be swept up into an all-engrossing story and be dazzled by technology’s’ latest tricks – and Cameron knows that. He wants us to get our 20 bucks worth. What he, serving as both screenwriter and producer on a Robert Rodriguez directed picture, does with “Alita” is remind us why movie theaters need to exist longer after you and I are gone.
Quite simply, this is the kind of escapist box-office fare they just don’t make anymore – and there’s only a few filmmakers today who still know how to bring such a film to fruition.
In this case, Cameron was surrounded by equally-ambitious pioneers of the Nikon.
The “Avatar” helmer gets a mound of the credit, sure, after all he’s been molding this one into shape since the ‘90s. But Robert Rodriguez, another great visual storyteller and a filmmaker, and someone who, like Cameron, has been taking awesomely audacious risks on his projects since early on, also deserves a hard clap. By concentrating on the characters, and their rich relationships, as much as he does the impressive effects (WETA’s photo realistic effects work just keep getting better) and production design around them, the “Desperado” helmer is able to offer up a film that plays as impressive as it looks. They’re a top team, these two.
And as those who played witness to the likes of “Jupiter Ascending” and “Mortal Engines”, can attest, an oddball sci-fi piece without relatable, likeable characters and a strong story is mere punishment for filmgoers – no amount of impressive production design can hold off boredom. But thanks to a strong substance and style ratio, Cameron and Rodriguez’s film never outstays it’s welcome, let alone bores and knows it has to earn interest in its character and world before seducing us with its tricks.
“Alita”, with its wonderful title character (played marvelously by Rosa Salazar) and her compelling arc, strong base of supporting characters (Christoph Waltz proving his divine versatility with one of his most kindly characters to date), fun and feverishly frenetic action, adventure scenes, and real-world themes, is like a crosspatch of everything we love about the modern-day blockbuster. From the wild effects to the larger-than-life characters and all-feeling thrills you just can’t get from most modern-day studio output, “Alita” will make you feel like an engrossed 12-year-old again, enthusiastically dashing down the stairs after a screening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.
Blu-ray : Okay, so you’re not getting to see this in IMAX nor the open matte presentation offered at select theaters, which was wonderful, but I don’t think I need to assure you what a marvelous looking (2.39:1) and sounding disc (English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1) this still is – James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez would wish upon us no less, right? You’re not losing much quality at all checking this film out at home. There’s a lot of great extras on the disc, most fitting snugly into the ‘featurette’ category, with the longest offering being a near 30-minute Q&A with the cast and crew that was shot at a London screening.