Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

alita1If there’s an uncanny valley in Alita: Battle Angel, it is surprisingly not the CGI heroine (although individual viewer’s mileage may differ on that) but rather in the hokey script which stumbles through plot contrivances and in particular a stodgy not-quite-the-end finale, mostly from its need to set up further adventures/movies. Its become a necessary evil in modern blockbusters, unfortunately, that studios and filmmakers are not investing in single movies anymore- it’s all about franchises. I must say my appreciation of this film would have been improved no end if it had just had those old fashioned things; a beginning, a middle, and an end. But this is not to say that Alita: Battle Angel is unique in this, it is something that all blockbusters seem to suffer from, whether it be a DC movie, a Marvel movie, a Star Wars movie, just about any kind of blockbuster/tentpole release- they are all strangled by it. Maybe some people walk out of these movies excited at the possibilities of all the teases for what’s next, but I just find it incredibly frustrating and I think it handicaps the movies.

But I will say this; I really rather enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel. Much more than I expected. But it could really have been so much better, too, which really bugs me, and I suspect repeat viewings may not be too kind when some of those plot contrivances start to wear thin.

alita2.jpgSo the good, then? Well the visual effects are pretty extraordinary, frankly. Alita herself, a stunningly rendered CGI character based on motion-capture by actress Rosa Salazar is a surprisingly engaging and emotive antagonist  whoops, protagonist (if she was an antagonist it might have been a more interesting movie but hey ho, that’s just my typo). Clearly the whole film depends upon it, and she works- she really works. Many people were querying her large eyes (faithful to the anime, I expect, which I am not familiar with) but the funny thing is, it’s those eyes that work the magic and helps convince. The whole film is a triumph, visually, the world-building quite extraordinary in places. It certainly convinced me far more than the similarly CGI-dominated Ready Player One did (indeed it’s a better film entirely). Its definitely brilliant eye-candy and if this film on 4K disc doesn’t sell UHD televisions nothing will- I am sure many genre fans currently sticking with Blu-ray (or, heaven forbid, DVD) may finally take the plunge to upgrade for this film (if the film takes their fancy).

The problem, though, is that script, which is really a pretty clunky series of coincidences piled upon coincidences with a few twists via swings of character that aren’t really earned. Considering that this film has been in development hell for decades (a long-gestating James Cameron project that he was likely delaying for the technology to catch up with his vision, only for it to be sidelined for his Avatar films) I’m disappointed by the script- it certainly had the time to fix its fundamental problems and like so many sci-fi epics before it, isn’t really worthy of all the effort given it by the technical wizards.

I also think it suffers from the same problem as Disney’s John Carter did back in 2012: it’s all too familiar now. In the same way that John Carter suffered from comparisons with Star Wars and Avatar and many other films that actually were ‘inspired’ by that films own original source material of decades before, so does Alita: Battle Angel suffer from comparison with, say, Elysium or Altered Carbon (utopian city floating over trashcan city) or the live-action Ghost in the Shell (cyborg augmentation and huge CGI metropolis) and all sorts of others, whether it be the slo-mo CGI action stunts of the Matrix films or some of the real boy/robotic tensions of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Certainly there have been so many cyberpunk-styled films now that they threaten to descend into parody, which is a shame and probably a necessary evil at this point (its like bemoaning a Star Wars film for featuring am elaborate space battle, or a Western having guys riding horses). Its almost inevitable that the future city looks very Blade Runner at times.

For all that, though, yes I did enjoy this film. There’s a curious heart to the main character’s over-familiar concerns of identity, of what is machine, what is human and all the Pinocchio subtext that Spielberg rather did to death in the aforementioned A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and if this film feeling like the first half of a larger story does grate somewhat when the end credits roll, well, I guess that’s just where we are now with these films. I rather hope we get to see another one to tell the rest of that tale, but again, these days you never can tell what’s destined to be a hit, and a flop, we just have to wait and see those box office figures.

A Good Year?

We’re rushing into that time of year when we all start to realise that the year is fast becoming a whole new last year, and inevitably begin to take stock. For my part, it’s begun to dawn on me that it hasn’t been a bad year at all for movies.

We have, after all, seen the release of Blade Runner 2049, and it was everything any Blade Runner fan could have hoped for.  Its struggles at the American Box Office, as if in direct opposition to wondrous reviews, just add more to it somehow, an added pathos. If nothing else, it likely means we won’t have to worry ourselves silly over a third entry anytime soon. Maybe. Alcon did spend a lot of money for the rights, and it is still a well-known IP, so I’d rule nothing out- maybe we’ll see a smaller, less-blockbuster-budget outing next, or even a series on some cable channel.

Beyond the long shadow of BR2049, which has frankly ruined me for any other cinema outings this year (I saw it THREE times!)  and leaves me rather burned-out in the face of another Star Wars entry (still not excited, and it’s only weeks away now), there have been some pretty nice surprises this year. Genre films like Logan, Kong: Skull Island and War for  the Planet of the Apes have all impressed me greatly. Even the live-action Ghost in the Shell was rather fun with a lot to offer once you get your head around a live-action GITS existing in the first place.

On the tv front, things may have been even more impressive- Westworld was fantastic, as was The Leftovers, but another long-remembered favourite (with just as huge expectations/fears as the big-screen’s BR2049), the new Twin Peaks, proved to be utterly sublime. 18 hours of prime David Lynch, a labour of love as scary and bemusing and funny and baffling as anything he ever did. David Lynch at his very best, on tv for goodness sake- who needs cinemas? I just got the blu-ray box this week, can’t wait to plunge into it all over again (just want to rewatch Fire Walk With Me first this time).

The latest Game of Thrones season suffered from its headlong rush to the finish line of season eight. It was just three episodes too short and risked jumping the shark with a few of its questionable plot-turns. Here’s hoping the last season delivers when we finally see it. Back on the movies front, Ridley risked losing the plot along with his nerve, when his Prometheus 2 became Prometheus 1.5 with 0.5 of an unnecessary Alien prequel thrown in. Maybe he was right about Giger’s alien being all done- if Ridley can’t make the Alien scary again, who can? Meanwhile while Marvel soared (particularly with the triumphant Spiderman: Homecoming) DC floundered yet again with the frankly risible Justice League. Maybe an Ultimate Cut will fix that… who knows?

So yeah, an interesting year and one that 2018 will struggle to live up to, I suspect. Afterall, new Blade Runner films and Twin Peaks series don’t come along every decade, do they, nevermind every year. Hell, if those two projects were the only worthy efforts of the year, it would still have been a Good Year.

And I haven’t mentioned the new two-disc Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack on its way across the pond, possibly in time for Christmas….

The 2017 Selection Pt.6

2017 selection 6Just a few additions to mention – and looking at the release schedules, it may be a little while (certainly September/October) before I start adding to the list again- barring any sales. Probably just as well with the backlog of stuff to watch and tv seasons in progress.

So anyway, what do we have? First, Kong: Skull Island, which I reviewed in an earlier post. I really enjoyed this and I’ve since watched the disc again, and yep, the film still works like a charm. Great stuff.

Next we have season two of The Expanse, which like the first season last year, I have had to import on blu-ray from the States thanks to the vagaries of broadcasting these days. The first season originally wasn’t picked up by anybody here in the UK, but with the second season in the can Netflix added both seasons to its roster (which doesn’t help me as I’m an Amazon Prime boy for my sins and I refuse to subscribe to every channel/outlet under the sun). Anyhow, I really enjoyed the first season -sort of a successor to Babylon 5 and the BSG reboot by way of Game of Thrones–  and am really looking forward to watching this. The discs this time around even have some decent extras, including commentaries. I have, however, decided to rewatch season one first as I’ll be damned if I can remember all the fine details of the plot from over a year ago. So a review may be a little while off yet.

Next along comes Arrow’s excellent blu-ray edition of Future Shock; a brilliant documentary about the creation and history of the galaxy’s greatest comic (at least, it was back in the day when I read it), accompanied here by hours of extras (extended interviews and the like) that more than makes it a mandatory purchase even in this era of trying to curtail my disc buying. I reviewed the doc last year when it aired on Film Four and am glad I never bought the DVD version, because I hate double-dipping and this edition is the definitive one. I’ve watched some of the addl featurettes/sections and extended interviews and it’s absolutely zarjaz.

Lastly, Ghost in the Shell, which I saw at the cinema back in April and was intrigued enough to buy on disc. It holds up very well on second viewing- probably improves in fact, if only because distractions of the original anime  are less of an issue when you know what is/isn’t going on with the plot and can consequently relax and enjoy it for what it is. It’s certainly spectacular to look at and well worth a rental.

 

Returning to Ghost in the Shell

g2.jpgBack in April I saw the live-action Ghost in the Shell at the cinema. While I found it a little frustrating in places, I enjoyed the film enough to buy the blu-ray, which I watched yesterday.

Visually the film is perhaps even more impressive on disc than it was at the cinema (maybe that says something about my Cineworld): the effects and art direction are very, very impressive. Indeed, some of the visual effects of the city augmented with live action (say, with Scarlett Johansson walking down a street or sitting on a rooftop with the streets below her) are pretty astonishing, how photorealistic some of this stuff is getting. As an effects showcase or visual spectacle, this is a major achievement, really bringing the original anime to life. I think I’ll be able to rewatch sequences over and over, just soaking up all that detail, in just the same way I did with the original Blade Runner decades ago- it’s that good.  I also like how we see odd-looking characters and background stuff going on that are not explained. Its there to either be ignored or pondered over (I prefer the latter), adding little to the plot but it’s all part of that layers of detail stuff.

There is one scene, based on one from the anime, in which the Major and Batou are standing on a boat just offshore with the futuristic night-time city blazing neon behind them, which is just jaw-dropping, really, how seamlessly everything is integrated- the camera moves, the lighting of the characters, the city behind them softly out of focus. Its that stuff that impresses me more than the whizz-bang effects stuff really. It’s slow and quiet but so disarmingly perfect.

g1Deficiencies in the plot are less of a hindrance second time around, and my misgivings over a lack of empathy with Johansson’s Major are no longer the issue I felt at the cinema. It seems a deliberate choice to neuter the character emotionally- a result of having no memories and being as much an object created for a purpose  as her being an individual person. She is told she has a ‘ghost’ or soul in her fabricated body but she doesn’t feel it. She isn’t convinced she is a ‘real person’ until she has unearthed the truth about the girl she used to be. It’s rather similar to Robocop, in which even though Murphy has the memories of his past life, he is no longer that same person; his Robocop personna being subtly different, whatever his name/memories may say. It’s hardly Blade Runner-level layers of subtext but it’s interesting, even if it possibly damaged the movie regards audiences empathising with her emotionally-challenged personna/performance. As I say, less of an issue for me this time around, but even I noticed it at the cinema, feeling oddly disengaged from the proceedings. Mind you, part of that may have been from familiarity with the anime. I guess I may well feel the same watching Blade Runner 2049– how the hell do I just enjoy the film experience of that film and not get caught up in the cold objectivity of the fact of it being a sequel to the original and being utterly distracted by it?

So anyway, not a bad movie anyway, and a good first entry regards setting up the background of the Major and her future cyberpunk world. Would have been nice to see it progress to a second and even third film, expanding the story as the anime did in its own sequel and tv offshoots.

A quick trip to Box Office Mojo reveals the painful statistics though- Ghost in the Shell cost around $110 million to make (not bad, considering) so likely needed around $250 million to see a profit- the film completely tanked in America, only managing just over $40 million. The foreign total was more impressive; $129 million, but not enough to limit the damage of that woeful American take. So, no more Ghost in the Shell movies then. Likely no live-action Akira either. Good or bad thing?

One observation. Between HBO’s recent Westworld examining in such adult fashion the ‘what is it to be human?’ question and the nature of artificial memory and freewill/slavery as well as it did, and this Ghost in the Shell nailing that whole future-cyberpunk visual vibe, what’s left for Blade Runner 2049? In some ways, I have to wonder if the Blade Runner sequel is too late- a new generation of films/television has picked up the baton of the 1982 movie and moved it forward with some success.  Here’s hoping that it still has something new to say.

 

Scarlett goes Cyberpunk

shell22017.19: Ghost In The Shell (2017) – Cinema

I must confess to having experienced a horrible feeling of detachment while watching this live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell.  It was strange, frustrating; I prefer films to have some emotional connection, here I always felt like an outside witness of proceedings rather than a participant. Visually, it was everything I could have hoped. Its quite astonishing how photo-realistic some of this imagery is nowadays;  something like Mega City One from Judge Dredd with the obvious inevitable nods to Blade Runner‘s LA 2019, only turbocharged to some other level…

As someone who grew up on the bluescreen effects of early ILM, this stuff never ceases to amaze me. I’ll never grow out of slack-jawed wonder at what can be done. I dare say the current generation of filmgoers just take it all for granted, it’s all over the place now, even on tv to some degree, but I still remember locked-down camera moves, mattes painted on glass, miniatures given away by depth of field problems… Some of the imagery in this Ghost In The Shell is quite utterly breathtaking.

And yet, never did I ever really care about what was happening, never did I feel enthused by what I was seeing. There is clearly something wrong. The effects, the art direction, the cast, everything works so well, and yet it’s all undermined, perhaps by the script or the direction, both of which are perhaps a little too faithful/respectful of the original anime. I know some people criticized Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film because it followed the graphic novel original too closely. To be fair, this Ghost In The Shell does, refreshingly, veer from the original in its story although it follows the visual beats of it sometimes too closely, some sequences/images struck almost verbatim from the anime.  Is this last point part of the problem, seeing some visuals that just, jarringly, keep pulling me out of it, reminding me of the original, enforcing that detached viewpoint?

shell2Maybe its just that, as the original anime dripped its influences into so much other stuff afterwards (in just the same way as Blade Runner did a decade or so earlier), we’ve just seen too much of this stuff before- the neon dystopian landscapes, for instance. Its like this film is a victim of how great the original was, and how it spawned so much stuff after. I wonder if Blade Runner 2049 might suffer the same fate? Its a little like how John Carter seemed to mimic stuff from all those films –Star Wars, Avatar etc- that themselves had been inspired by the original John Carter books.

There have been many mixed, and some hostile, reviews of this new incarnation of Ghost In The Shell. Lets be clear here- this is not a bad movie. It could, in all truth, be much, much worse. While it may not be wholly faithful to the original, neither does it butcher it out of all recognition. No character acts totally out of character (it’s certainly no Judge Dredd with its main character not wearing his helmet for a whole bloody movie) and it isn’t some cheap disrespectful cash-in that looks awful. Fans of the original anime have little reason to yell foul at anything this film does. The nonsense surrounding Johansson’s casting as the Major is irritating, really. If nothing else, the film correctly demonstrates the globalisation of the world, the breaking down of territorial barriers and the homogenisation of society that its technologies reinforce and encourage. The Major is a shell, a construct, designed to reflect that, and I never felt the Major to be particularly asian in the anime anyway. She isn’t even human, really; rather something in between, and whether that is more or less than human is up to the viewer to decide, and maybe the point of the whole enterprise. Johansson is fine in the role, she looks like the Major and if she lacks the confidence and command of the character in the anime, that’s a reflection of the film’s semi-origin plot. She isn’t yet the Major of the anime.This one has a little more baggage. But the film is fine. It isn’t some stupid actionfest with plot-holes by the truckload. It could have been. It could have been awful.

Of course, it also could have been great, and it clearly isn’t. Otherwise I would have felt some kind of emotional attachment, some sense of involvement in it. An obvious subtext within the film is what it means to be human, about dehumanisation in an increasingly technological world, so maybe its fitting that it feels so cold.  The biggest problem is an inability to really empathise with Scarlett Johansson’s Major because, well, she’s fairly cold and one-dimensional, a ghost in a mechanical shell, just beginning to discover her true humanity as she uncovers the mystery of her past. She’s a construct, a Pinocchio becoming a girl, but this is a film Pinocchio without the emotion of, say, Spielberg’s A.I., which is a good thing here, surely. It must be remembered too that the original anime was hardly a feelgood film either.

shell3

The film seems to be struggling at the box-office. Having seen it, it is clear that this isn’t too surprising. Its a cold, dark film that is dense on visuals and plot and maybe too close to the niche anime original to reach a mainstream popular audience. I’m sure it will have considerable success over time (the Ghost In The Shell franchise has long legs) and is sure to be a success on video. Its one of those films that can no doubt be poured over for all the visual details, and perhaps its cool detachment will thaw over time. After all, was part of my problem simply from watching a film based on another film that I’m all too familiar with? I like both Ghost In The Shell films, and the tv series spin-off, and its a likely a lot of baggage to take into the cinema with me (God knows how I’ll fare with the Blade Runner sequel).

I enjoyed this film and would like to see a sequel that could perhaps be improved by moving away from its almost superhero-origin plot. Alas, it suffers as many of these films do by being a little distracted with setting-up a possible franchise rather than concentrate on making just one singular film. The most irritating thing about this film for me was simply the ending- its another one of those teases, having set things up, establishing the characters and their world, for other adventures, other crimes to solve, bad guys to bring to justice, cyber terrorists to thwart. When films end like trailers for some other movie, well, thats trouble in my book.

A Fireside Chat: Ghost’s A-Z Part Four

Ghost-In-The-Shell-2.0-BoxG is for… GHOST IN THE SHELL 2.0. The natural question that springs to mind is, did we really need the 2.0? I’m referring to the fact that when released on Blu-ray a few years back, it was trumpeted as a remix version- remastered with added 3D-CGI, colour-balancing re-done, new cast recording in 6.1…  the list of enhancements (and I choose that word carefully, considering the subject of the film itself)  is long. Its another example of film-makers returning to their work, drawn in by the seductive allure of new technologies available to polish the original.

Its something all too common these days, probably due to it being easier to do as things go increasingly digital. George Lucas was one of the pioneers of this with his Special Editions of the original STAR WARS trilogy and THX:1138. Well, I won’t go on about any of that, except to say that Lucas evidently could see what was coming. I remember a time when films were finished and done, and never tinkered with afterwards. No-one would have ever dreamed of re-shooting the fx of the original KING KONG or FORBIDDEN PLANET, or converting 2D films into 3D. Technology has now made it too easy.

Regarding that 2D to 3D thing, James Cameron, perhaps the biggest exponent of 3D, has often decried sub-standard 3D films and championed films designed to be filmed and projected in 3D, and yet he converted his own 2D movie TITANIC into 3D. I don’t get it, surely TITANIC was never designed or shot with 3D in mind? And if it’s 2D photography, staging and set design works so well in 3D, what does that say of 3D movies having to be specifically designed and shot for 3D to be a success? Or maybe, gosh, its about the money. Yeah, well, that’s what I think 3D was all about. Art my ass.

Remastered/remixed/enhanced/3D conversions. Its a bit of a minefield out there. As if all the remakes and reboots were not bad enough, even the original films themselves are messed about with. My own old fave, BLADE RUNNER is not immune, although, considering how broken/unfinished the 1982 version was (really, the messed-up condition of PROMETHEUS is nothing compared to all the f–k ups and plot-holes in the original BR) then I guess the Final Cut was really a blessing. Maybe it can be argued that BR needed it. But not all films do. GITS was a perfectly fine Japanese anime, prescient and increasingly relevant. The new version means it looks shinier, but it isn’t necessarily a better film. And who’s to say this version is really definitive, and that there’s not a version 3.0 or 4.0 somewhere in the future? That’s the real crux of the argument; when does it end? Lucasfilm commenced converting the STAR WARS films to 3D ( a project quite possibly canned since), but who is to say that later versions of the films won’t have further changes to fx shots, dialogue etc?

THE-HOBBIT-AN-UNEXPECTED-JOURNEY-PosterH is for… THE HOBBIT. Well, while I’m on the subject of tinkering, since THE HOBBIT trilogy (Trilogy! Did PJ ever consider just shooting the book as it was, minus all that Appendices stuff?) is being shot in 3D, and there is an inevitable six-film box-set on the cards for Blu-ray or download in the future, is it likely the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy will be converted from 2D to 3D like TITANIC was, in order to match the HOBBIT movies? What’s that going to be for the hardcore fans, what with 2D/Theatrical/Extended/3D versions…  double/triple/quadruple-dip? And what’s the odds of a full, six-film 3D set coming after the original 2D LOTR is issued with the three HOBBIT films first, you know, just to milk it that extra bit? Crikey. Someone could plan their entire career path marketing these films over and over again over the course of the years and the changing formats.  I guess its true, films never die, they just keep on coming back in different editions on different formats.

Damn it. You knew where you stood with the original KING KONG and FORBIDDEN PLANET.