Imagine if a writing prompt were given to a Hollywood screenwriting class that went something like this: Write a film about an alien trying to find her way through an unknown universe…an alien with crazy powers of strength and flight, the source of which was unknown to her because…she has amnesia! And imagine that the best one would have their movie produced….err…two. Congratulations to “Alita” screenwriters, James Cameron & Laeta Kalogridis, and “Captain Marvel” scribes, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet! You win!
Aaaand that’s pretty much where the similarities end. No, these are two very different films…different in tone, energy and emotional punch…
“Alita: Battle Angel”
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
And to me, the greater purveyor of those three attributes is, far and away, “Alita”, a surprising film, considering its gargantuan budget, its marketing push to the young adult demographic, and its reliance on motion capture and visual effects. At its core, “Alita” is a teen coming-of-age film. In fact, the more I think on it, the more the film reminded me of “Eighth Grade”…only with lots of action, aliens and killing. But Alita’s confusion, frustration, attempts at differentiation (and abject failure at the latter), are the same as Elsie Fisher’s. Of course, she’s not trapped in the hell of a judgemental junior high school. Alita’s trap is her memory and her skin (or lack thereof). And her decisions have ramifications for an entire planet. Nonetheless, when she has moments of discovery, or angst, or success, we feel them with her. That feat alone makes it a rare action film.
However, there is a secondary plot line running throughout, which director Rodriguez adds flawlessly, and with great subtlety. Echoing some of the best Sergio Leone films, its this bit that keeps us invested in all the characters, not just Alita. We want to know how their story ends. I’m guessing that’s where Cameron made his biggest contribution. He’s always been extremely successful at weaving story lines in and around the hero. But it takes a master director like Rodriguez to pull it all together.
Luckily, the action is pretty great, too, as is the film’s setting. Both are presented in exhilarating detail. Bill Pope’s extremely crisp photography and Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner’s design are sumptuous and packed with hypnotic imagery (kudos to art director, Fausto De Martini). The colors are heavily saturated, providing all kinds of detail, especially in the darker scenes (in fact, it will almost certainly be a film to show off that new 4k system of yours). But it’s not just what it looks like. The sound of the film is pretty spectacular, which comes down to both its sound editing and mixing (led by Tim Rakoczy) and the score. When I heard the score was written by Junkie XL, I was pretty sure we would get hyped up, 120 BPM bits of aural insanity. Well, I needn’t have worried, because this is very much a Tom Holkenberg joint (Junkie’s real name). The score is lush, appropriate, and musical, with wonderful solo trumpet lines and terrific usage of minor chords, climbing one on top of the other. It’s terrific.
But I’m not sure any of it would work without surrounding Rosa Salazar (who plays – or rather, MoCaps, Alita with confidence and emotional range), with brilliant actors, among them Christopher Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahersha Ali. Waltz, especially, captures both the empathy of a caring father with the sadness and anger associated with that secondary story line I mentioned earlier. He is, as always, brilliant. Jennifer Connelly, while not as successful (or well-written) as Waltz, is, nonetheless, more than adequate. I can’t tell you much more than that for fear of giving away plot points. Same goes for Mahershala Ali. It’s a typical Ali performance…reserved and in control while letting his eyes show you everything.
Is this a great film? No, not especially. But it’s a damned good one. Ironically, I think it’s a film that speaks more to adults than kids. And when you’re looking for something to watch on an unexpected night at home, I think you’ll be quite happy with “Alita: Battle Angel”. Just go in to it with an open mind and ready to be surprised by its humanity, even if it isn’t about one.
Directed by Anna Biden and Ryan Fleck
On the other end of the spectrum is the better-than-mediocre-but-not-by-much, “Captain Marvel”. I was REALLY rooting for this film. I so wanted it to be Marvel’s “Wonder Woman”, and although it finally kicks in to gear in the second act, it’s a LONG way down the road to get there. By then, you might have given up. And try as I might, it never really got it back, even if it does have some terrific beats and performances. And, yes, I’m aware it’s a very different story than “Wonder Woman”, but where that film felt revolutionary by making a female hero that could only be played by a woman, “Captain Marvel” feels very much like a shoe-horned character, an androgynous one, almost. Perhaps that’s what they were going for. But if you’re going to cast an actor with Brie Larson’s incredible abilities, why not give her the freedom to show us otherwise? For me it’s the biggest failing of the film.
Luckily the script itself is quite good, showing off some well-known Marvel side characters decades earlier, and thus lacking the knowledge of just how dangerous the Marvel universe would become decades later. But the real success of the script lies within the thing Marvel is really good at…humor. Situational punchlines abound, in spite of our being privy to yet another end-of-the-world scenario (yawn). You’d think by now the folks at Disney/Marvel would have noticed how much we loved the “aww, shucks” innocence at the heart of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”. In it, Peter Parker is simply trying to get that prom date and persevere over a regular old bad guy. That one thing keeps us so much more connected to the person inside the superhero. Alas, in this film, it’s not to be. I’m sure the writers were partially hamstrung by the need to see what Captain Marvel is capable of so as to better understand her place in “The Avengers: Endgame”. Not the best way to write a film. I wish there could’ve been a way to balance it more. Ah well.
The film looks and sounds pretty much like every other Marvel film you’ve ever seen. Which is a shame, because, as the film takes place in the 1990’s, there was a real opportunity to do something special. There is no point in mentioning the specialists behind the film since it doesn’t really offer anything new or captivating. Yes, the effects are good, and the fight choreography moves well. But…meh. I mean, having seen it a few weeks ago now, I had to look up whether it took place in the eighties or nineties. The soundtrack is a nice mish-mash of classic hits of the era, but those songs seemed to merely act as an occasional touchstone. They don’t remotely have as memorable an effect as the songs from “Guardians of the Galaxy”, or “Baby Driver”, or any one of a number of recent films that want to evoke a specific time and place. And while I’m elated that female composers are finally getting some plum jobs, Pinar Toprak’s score suffers from being big and bold, and not much else (though I do like her main theme very much).
The best bits of the film come down to the interplay between Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn and Jude Law. Any suspense and/or human connection comes from these moments, which just don’t happen often enough. That said, Jackson is terrific. He’s always present, in the moment and reacts in a human way…acting as mirror for the audience’s reactions to the goings-on. Mendelsohn has a really difficult job in the film (although I cannot tell you why), but he is mostly successful. And Jude Law is kinda, sorta perfect in the film. Brilliantly cast, he has maintained that rare place of being ridiculously good-looking and remaining a complete superstar, while always giving his performances the respect and work they’re due. Finally, Lashana Lynch is completely underutilized, but does a fine job.
When I walked out of the theater, I remember I kinda liked it. But, unlike “Alita”, which has grown and grown in my estimation since I saw it, “Captain Marvel” has done just the opposite. All in all, I’d say Marvel really missed an opportunity to do something culturally significant, and, to make matters worse, gave us a very bland film.
“Captain Marvel” trailer: