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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.
In the 1990s, I became a big fan of action cinema in general and Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular. Some derided this because ‘action movies are stupid/boring’ and ‘Arnie can’t act’. These criticisms were important because I did not accept them, liking what I wanted and developing my argumentative skills in explaining why other perspectives and indeed other standards of quality are available. While Kindergarten Cop, Commando and The Running Man prompted such derision, one film that did not is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, because apparently this one is OK to like. T2 was also the beginning of my love affair with James Cameron’s cinema, and while his work is divisive, T2 is seemingly one of the good ones.
One of the reasons I adore Cameron is his skill at delivering sustained action set pieces, and T2 was my first exposure to this, especially in the film’s final act that begins with our heroes approaching the Cyberdyne building and DOESN’T STOP UNTIL THE END CREDITS! Despite multiple viewings and indeed analyses, like the earlier films mentioned in this list, T2 stands up to repeat viewings, its pioneering CGI as fresh and startling as it was the first time. A 3D re-release in 2017 wasn’t exactly necessary, but it did give me the chance to see this masterpiece on the big screen which was a delight. Terminator 2 remains a blistering action movie and a wonderful investigation into what counts as human and as a person, exploring the fluidity of identity, gender, roles, embodiment, voice and vision, technophobia and technophilia. It’s the finest type of film to me – a blockbuster with brains to match its bombast.
Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…
For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.
Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.
From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post…
Some franchises get better as they continue, and some demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. Terminator Genisys falls firmly into the latter category, as it attempts to rewrite a significant part of the franchise’s history and, in doing so, makes various clunking failures that highlight the film’s own redundancy.
Genisys repeatedly raids the Terminator production line, using footage from the 1984 original The Terminator, complete with young Arnold Schwarzenegger before his grizzled contemporary turns up. Nostalgia can be an effective dramatic approach, as in the rebooted Star Trek, but here the replaying of familiar material highlights Genisys‘ own lack of ideas. Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script recycles various plot points from the first two films (ignoring continuity from Rise of the Machines and Salvation), and attempts to create new versions of established characters. The results, however, are anaemic and insipid. Schwarzenegger has been parodying himself for years and this is no exception, except that he is old and regularly reminds us of this (yes, Arnold, you’re old, not obsolete, we get it!). Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton’s guerrilla warrior, while Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese lacks the feral desperation of Michael Biehn’s original incarnation (and Courtney’s massively buff physique – clearly there are still gyms post-Judgment Day – undercuts Schwarzenegger’s previously exceptional body). Jason Clarke is a bland John Connor, despite the potential for a great inversion of his character, a plot twist infuriatingly exposed by the film’s trailer.
All of these faults would be forgiveable if the film managed to engage with some interesting ideas. The best sci-fi is always concerned with ideas (see this year’s Ex Machina for a recent example), and the original Terminators did exactly this, principally the relationship humanity has with technology. The Terminator showed the omnipresence of technology and Terminator 2: Judgment Day blurred the distinction between human and machine. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did the same thing badly but the unfairly maligned Terminator Salvation managed to go in a different direction by reversing the awareness of what is what. Terminator Salvation managed to refresh the franchise, but Genisys simply and blatantly replays what we have seen before: more time travel, more old Arnie, more unstoppable (although not really) terminator upgrades, more delays to Judgment Day, more ways to change the past and fight the future, and all for the purpose of stretching out a franchise that was completed perfectly well in 1991. The concepts that make the Terminator mythos interesting are simply referenced without engagement or due attention, resulting in a lazy and lifeless experience. Furthermore, director Alan Taylor demonstrates the same shortcomings he did with Thor: The Dark World, failing to create action set pieces that draw the viewer in or offer anything beyond stuff blowing up and flying around, with an unnecessarily clanking soundtrack that emphasises time and time again that THESE ARE MACHINES! Thanks, Alan, I might have forgotten otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest insult to the original films is the abandonment of their interesting gender politics. Far more than being a “strong female character,” Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a woman of vision, voice and agency, who evolved from helpless victim to guerrilla commando, almost to the loss of her humanity. Clarke’s Sarah, however, mostly complains about her lack of choice over her future before accepting the dictates of the father and husband figures around her. Worse still, her voiceover is replaced with that of Kyle, making it his story rather than her’s and sidelining one of the most iconic women of action cinema. Depressing.
James Cameron gave his blessing to Genisys and described it as the true next installment. Much as I love Cameron, I have to disagree with him here, as Terminator Genisys is a wretched, retrograde regurgitation that fails to even have enough nostalgic value to maintain its running time. At least someone’s smiling.
The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.