During the 1990s, a young man by the name of Robert Rodriguez was one of the most exciting and inventive directors around. He burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992 and kept cranking out the hits, with gems like Desperado (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Sin City (2005) released to much acclaim. Post Sin City, however, it seemed that Rodriguez missed a trick or two. And though his output still had some appeal (2007’s Planet Terror remains an underrated flick) there were some significantly disappointing efforts like Machete Kills (2013) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Well, friends, it pleases us greatly to inform you that Robert Rodriguez is back and all it took was a little robot girl and a bit of James Cameron magic.
Alita: Battle Angel is based on the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, a multi-volume cyberpunk series released in the ’90s. In fact, producer James Cameron has been trying to get the adaptation made since the late ’90s/early 2000s, which gives you an idea of the torturous route this project has taken.
The story takes place in 2563 and revolves around the (very) wide-eyed cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who is saved from the literal scrapheap by cyborg Scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). The two bond, and Ido attempts to teach Alita about society; the underclass who live in grungy Iron City and the upper class who live in a sky city called Zalem.
Alita: Battle Angel is many things – exciting, propulsive, full of spectacle – but it’s certainly not subtle or in any way “hard” science fiction. The movie plays out more like a technology-infused fairy tale, with Alita uncovering her history, unexpected strengths and even a burgeoning relationship with affable human spunk, Hugo (Keean Johnson). It also feels as if the plot contains about three trade paperbacks worth of story and even at 122 minutes zips along at an occasionally dizzying pace. That means that the narrative, involving menacing cyborgs, dark conspiracies and unexpected betrayals doesn’t always have time to give every moment space to breathe. Unfortunately that means a few subplots, including one involving Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, feel under-cooked when set against the rest of the film.
That aside, however, Alita: Battle Angel is an absolute hoot. The world of Iron City feels rusted and lived in, the characters all have clear agendas and the action is superbly executed, with genuinely exciting set pieces that build to a glorious climax. It’s not a perfect film, at times the dialogue can be wince-inducing and the pace inconsistent, but there’s a joy and excitement here that mirrors Alita’s gleeful appreciation of life itself. Rosa Salazar gives a spectacular performance (albeit one augmented with hefty amounts of CGI) and makes Alita an extremely appealing heroine. If you had fears about taking a trip to the uncanny valley from the trailers, just know that in the final product it all works spectacularly well.
Alita: Battle Angel is gorgeous and at times an unwieldy and profoundly strange beast, that doesn’t always work as well as it could. It’s also consistently enjoyable from start to finish and exciting and wide-eyed in a way that should liven even the most jaded and black-hearted audience member. If you can get in line with its gleeful, cyberpunky charms you’re in for a grand old time at the cinema. Welcome back, Robert Rodriguez, we’ve all missed you.
With all reports pointing to a box office disappointment, it looks like James Cameron [pictured with Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau] may have dodged a bullet when he passed Alita: Battle Angel for Robert Rodriguez to direct. But the Tex-Mex filmmaker wouldn’t have it any other way.
How do you categorise a film that mixes low-brow comedy, social commentary, anarchism and sci-fi? That is the strange universe of Sorry to Bother You from writer-director/Oakland rapper Boots Riley; who also performs and writes the film’s score with his hip-hop group The Coup.
In an alternate present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out, Short Term 12) is struggling through his 20s, living in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews). Whilst he doesn’t live on much, and can’t get a job, he is loved by his artistic and political girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, Portlandia, Dear White People), who also doesn’t have a job, and makes provocative sculptures and exhibits.
Detroit is part of a radical group called “The Left Eye”, whose primary adversary is a controlling corporation called Worry-Free, a company who offer an existence free of rent and bills – in exchange for a lifetime work contract.
Worry-Free, worth billions and gaining ever more popularity, is headed by maniacal millennial CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer playing any Silicon Valley head).
Feeling worthless and wanting to avoid working for the nefarious Worry-Free, Cash gets a job at the only place he can – as a telemarketer at firm, Regalview. Initially struggling with his job’s ethics, he soon rises to the top of the chain – impressing bosses by selling out consumers, friends and co-workers alike.
Cash is assisted by a youthful Danny Glover, taught to use his “White Voice” – and sound reassured, calm, privileged. (Actually, the voice of Arrested Development’s David Cross).
Trying the trick, Cash is suddenly rolling in money, out of his uncle’s house and promoted ‘upstairs’ as a “power caller” – advanced to an exclusive, gold suite where a select few make thousands a day.
But finding its groove as a pointed, if not exactly subtle satire of aspirational and corporate America (as Cash also finds his groove), Sorry to Bother You suddenly and abruptly abandons this tack.
Having more money than ever, Cash’s co-workers, including his friends and girlfriend – protesting their poor conditions – are all fired. Finding success for the first time, Cash stays and deserts all of them – including Detroit.
Enjoying the trappings of success, Cash is taken to a party where he meets eccentric Worry-Free CEO Lift, who offers him the opportunity of his life. And then he finds that the billionaire is turning employees into half-horse half-humans…
Yes. It goes there. And it only gets zanier from there.
While all of this is unfolding, and the aptly named Cash tastes success, the film tackles racism, slavery, class, consumerism, political interference, the American Dream, among myriad topics. Riley himself is an activist whose lyrics have been called revolutionary.
It is hard to describe the nature of the musician’s work, which mixes many elements, themes and concerns.
Is Sorry to Bother You an absurdist fable? An exercise in animal jokes? A parable for slavery? A trivial takedown of consumerist culture as silly as what it satirises? At times it is many of these, other times it seems it has less to say. Meshing and jam-packing multiple genres, the $3.2M budgeted film which premiered at Sundance is hard to classify.
What begins as a comedy degenerates into a bizarre, sci-fi dystopia – a doomsday scenario with apocalyptic humour. At times, it almost hits a John Carpenter tone.
Riots are everywhere, Oakland becomes a scene of mass-protests, violence; a warzone – and a vehicle for everything from the current US political state, police brutality, to the greed of the 1%.
Blood is shed. Horse-people beat police. America goes up in flames.
The humour in Riley’s work isn’t always subtle, or fresh. Some gags are overused and run long. Cash in real-time enters a 50-number password to get into his new suite, multiple times. Inevitable horse jokes are made.
While aiming for sheer lunacy and achieving it, the film may not offer much of substance, but will provide laughs along the way.
Mixing many concerns into a potent mix but offering more laughs than thought starters, Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge capitalist critique filled with hijinks, which asks: who are ultimately the slaves, and who are the masters?