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Alita: Battle Angel is a lot like its eponymous character. It consists of many parts and only some of them work. James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of the graphic novel series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro creates a tactile future world of cyborgs, bounty hunters, organised crime and a floating city. The film looks great, especially in the rendering of its central character, as Rosa Salazar is converted into the epitome of uncanny valley but in a context that makes sense, so her slightly odd appearance fits rather than being distracting. Unfortunately, the impressive visuals are largely wasted on a mess of plot lines and subtexts. Owing much to Blade Runner, Terminator, A. I., Rollerball, Avatar and Ghost in the Shell but lacking the coherence of any, Alita fails to explore ideas about identity, memory and embodiment and leaves the viewer waiting for inevitable clichés both verbal and physical. In the case of the former, the dialogue and character motivations are unlikely to provide surprises and beg the question why the film didn’t get there sooner. On the physical side, the film does deliver as Rodriguez stages some visceral action sequences that showcase the capabilities of the various cybernetic characters, most spectacularly Alita herself. Combining Rodriguez’s immersive and hyperbolic action with Cameron’s intricate world building, Alita should have been electrifying. Instead, it ends up being less than the sum of its parts, leaving too much to be built on in the potential sequel.
The question of what is human is a continuous one in science fiction. This philosophical topic has been explored and discussed in such films as Blade Runner (1982), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Never Let Me Go (2010) as well as many others, including the stunning directorial debut of Alex Garland, Ex_Machina. A young coder in a major software company, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he learns that Nathan wishes him to test an artificial intelligence that Nathan has built: a female-gendered machine named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb and Ava’s conversations along with Nathan’s observations cause Caleb and indeed the audience to question their own expectations about what constitutes consciousness, personhood and humanity.Most of the film consists of this three-hander, which could run the risk of making the film overly dependent on dialogue. Garland, however, makes this potentially staid scenario beautifully cinematic, the uncanniness of the situation encapsulated in Mark Digby’s production design that gives the film locations that feel both inhabited and alienating, as multiple reflections and surfaces that are partially transparent force the viewer to look harder at what may be more than it appears. Rob Hardy’s cinematography also conveys an eerie sense that what Caleb encounters is slightly off, as the play of light on “people” and their surroundings obscures as much as it reveals. This is also true of the characters, who steadily reveal more of themselves in a series of genuinely surprising and disturbing interchanges. Much of Ex_Machina is quiet but it is rarely silent, the ambient hum of technology, especially the inner workings of Ava, permeating the fabric of the film much as it penetrates the very beings of Caleb and Nathan. All three performers are mesmerising, as is a mute performance by Sonoya Mizuno as Koyoko, Nathan’s servant. Vikander especially conveys Ava’s curious interest in humanity, herself and the relations between them with a spellbinding appeal, making Caleb’s actions understandable. But just when you think you have the film figured out, it turns in an expected direction than can leave you re-evaluating what may have just happened and, indeed, what you expect to happen. In doing so, Ex_Machina performs philosophy, as the best science fiction does, illuminating our own expectations and encouraging us to question them.