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Alita: Battle Angel (2019) slices, dices and occasionally surprises.

Knowing nothing of the original Manga on which it’s based (the closest I can claim is that I quite enjoy the 2009 animated movie “Astro Boy”, which shares a surprising amount of story with this film), “Alita: Battle Angel” still held a strong appeal thanks to the names behind and in front of the camera. That faith was well rewarded, with a kinetic, if lightweight, cyberpunk action popcorn flick.

In 2563, a catastrophic war known as “The Fall” has left the planet devastated and only Zalem remains of the great floating cities of the Earth. While scouting the junkyard metropolis of Iron City which nestles below the lofty environs of Zalem, cyberneticist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Walz) discovers a disembodied female cyborg with a fully intact human brain. Ido revives the cyborg and provides her with a new body, naming her Alita (Rosa Salazar) after his deceased daughter, when she has no memory of who or what she is. Soon, Alita makes friends with Hugo (Keean Johnson), a young man who dreams of moving to the wealthy sky city and discovers the competitive sport of Motorball which offers a route to a life of luxury. But Alita has a secret and sinister forces will stop at nothing to possess it.

As well as “Astro Boy”, “Alita: Battle Angel” also has quite a lot in common with the recently released “Mortal Engines”. Both provide tantalising details of a wider back story that never gets fully explored (although Alita’s odds of getting to explore that are looking decidedly better than Mortal Engines’), both tell the first part of a frustratingly incomplete story and both take place in a pseudo-realistic but not quite authentic environment, often hewing closer to “Ready Player One” territory than perhaps it should.

It flirts with the uncanny valley, in part thanks to the never explained anime eyes of Alita which aren’t shared by any other cyborgs or characters within the movie. It also has a curious tone where – the ultra-violence apart (it rides the sharp edge of its 12A rating with dismemberments aplenty) – life in the ‘under city’ never seems to be that horrible.

As you’d expect, the special effects work is terrific, especially the motion capture work used to supplement the real performers. Alita’s big eyes quickly cease to be a big distraction, in large part due to the winning performance of Rosa Salazar. The wider cast is as you’d expect, with Christoph Walz, Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali on good form and clearly having fun.

Action-wise, it has all the spectacle and excitement you could want, with the motorball sequences a particular standout.

It has to be said, though, it never ever feels like a Robert Rodriguez film – Danny Trejo’s not in it for a start – and it’s clear that producer James Cameron kept the director on a fairly tight leash, which is unsurprising given this has been a passion project  for him for over a decade.

It’s not groundbreaking or particularly original – especially if you’be seen Astro Boy – but it is exciting,  undemanding sci-fi fun. It really does feel unfortunately unfinished, though: stopping at the halfway point of the story and while the sequel-teasing coda and smirking cameo from Edward Norton promises a continuation we may have to buy an awful lot of tickets to the Avatar sequels to give Cameron the money to fund it himself.

8/10 

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Bumblebee (2018) Review

It may seem something of an oxymoron, but “Bumblebee” is a genuinely good “Transformers” film. Now, I’m happy to admit I’m heavily biased, having grown up loving and watching and reading the Gen 1 toys, cartoon and Marvel comic series but my tinted glasses just make the rosy nostalgia of “Bumblebee” even rosier.

With the war on Cybertron all but lost, Optimus Prime dispatches B-127 to Earth to set up a base for the Autobots to regroup and plan their fight back. Pursued by Blitzwing, Bumblebee manages to defeat the Decepticon but not before his voice box is destroyed and, succumbing to his injuries, he transforms into a 1967 Volkswagen beetle before entering stasis. Years later, when Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is given the junked beetle as a birthday present, she awakens B-127 and nicknames him Bumblebee. But with his reactivation comes renewed attention, from Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick and also from Sector 7 Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) who has been hunting Bumblebee since being caught up in the Autobot’s arrival and battle with Blitzwing.

The character design of the Transformers in “Bumblebee” is a stern rebuke to Michael Bay’s barely credible claim that the Transformers as envisioned couldn’t be made to look real on screen, justifying his tin-foil-and-wine-glass-in-a-blender aesthetic. Here, though, all your favourites are rendered in cartoon-accurate ‘live action’ glory, although Megatron is conspicuous by his absence. Optimus, Ratchet, Cliffjumper, Arcee, Soundwave, Ravage and even Shockwave are instantly, iconically recognisable and the whole opening Cyberton sequence feels like it’s a glorious upscaling of the classic 1986 “Transformers: The Movie”. Even the way the Autobots and Decepticons transform looks and feels, if not exactly toy accurate, then toy respectful and director Travis Knight uses this space between the mechanics to offer us an assortment of innovative and interesting viewpoints.

The less spindly and more distinctive and colourful designs mean that when we get to the rock ‘em sock ‘em robot smackdowns, you can see what’s going on and, crucially, who’s doing what to whom.

As well as setting itself in the Eighties and peppering in nods to the franchise’s storied history, there’s a distinctly Eighties movie feel to the movie’s structure and storytelling, evoking memories of “Batteries Not Included”, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Short Circuit” alongside its more obvious thematic debt to “The Iron Giant”

Depending on the audience reaction, the film will work as a prequel or, fingers crossed, a reboot which will allow the Transformers franchise to build on from here rather than dovetail at some point into Michael Bay’s misogynist mechanalia. The most striking break with the franchise so far is in “Bumblebee” actualising its leading lady instead of sexualising her. Steinfeld is superb as the wounded loner, nursing the hurt of her father’s death and resentment of her family having moved on. The family arc is well served by the script, as is a very modern take on the coming of age romance with Charlie neighbour and co-worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) but a side plot about a group of mean girls who pick on Charlie doesn’t really go anywhere. John Cena continues to impress and is clearly now just waiting for a breakout leading role to really ‘make’ him He’s a franchise star in waiting and poised to follow in the footsteps of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

“Bumblebee” is a family-focused, fan-friendly knockabout action adventure which recharges the batteries and polishes the chrome of a run-down and tarnished franchise. For Travis Knight, it’s a triumphant live-action directorial debut and it’s clear we can expect fantastic things from him in the future.

8/10