For Tom’s birthday on December 5, we saw three movies: “Alita: Battle Angel”, “Ad Astra”, and “Shazam”. I had all three movies on my list of recent films we hadn’t seen yet and showed Tom the trailers. A good—but not great—movie night was had by all.
Alita: Battle Angel”: This is based on an early-1990s Japanese manga series written by Yukito Kishiro and adapted by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis for the screen, produced (but not directed) also by Cameron. So this viewer shouldn’t have been surprised about what followed.
In 2563, 300 years after Earth was devastated by a catastrophic war known as “The Fall”, scientist Dr. Dyson Ido discovers in the massive junkyard of Iron City a partially dismembered female cyborg with an intact female teenager’s brain. Ido attaches a new cyborg body to the brain and names her “Alita” after his deceased daughter. The junkyard consists of discards from a mysterious sky city, Zolem, that hovers overhead. No one in Iron City is permitted aboard but plenty of inhabitants on the ground long to go there.
Hundreds of animators worked on getting the detailed SFnal look of Iron City, which consists of humans, actual animals, robotic animals, half-human half cyborgs, cyborgs, machines, and robots. The opening introduces the premise and the main characters, and starts with a sweet teen-girl story, as Alita meets and is attracted to Hugo, a human young man. She can’t remember who and what she really is when her partial remains were expelled from Zolem.
From there, the story descends into unrelenting violence. Too many images of half-human half cyborgs dismembered for this viewer’s taste. The stream of grotesque images becomes horrific.
After a while, the film starts to feel derivative, too. The game the street teens play reminded this viewer of Harry Potter; the professional game, Motorball, is nearly identical to the earlier film “Rollerball.”
Alita’s struggle to remember her identity (as a soldier), receiving visions/dreams of her previous life, is a direct borrowing from the recent “Captain Marvel” (a wonderful film starring a woman as Captain Marvel and written by an award-winning woman screenwriter). I suppose you could say the trope of an amnesiac protagonist slowly discovering he/she really is an assassin/mercenary/soldier is borrowed from “The Bourne Identity” (the book by Robert Ludlum, not the inexplicable mess of the movie).
As for the forbidden city-ship cruising above, didn’t “Aeon Flux” (produced by Cameron’s ex-wife, Gayle Ann Hurd) feature the same trope? Yes, it did.
There is even an unfunny “Wizard of Oz” joke. The bar where the bounty hunters hang out is named KANSAS and Alita gets a real little dog—but not for long.
In sum: points for Girl Power and SFnal inventiveness. But only for fans of unrelenting SFnal horrific violence and grotesque images.
Onto “Ad Astra”, a much more somber, thoughtful film. Astronaut Roy McBride, well played by Brad Pitt, journeys across the solar system to avert a catastrophe that threatens the universe. (Plot spoiler not mentioned.)
With the hero’s special qualifications, the moody, introspective voiceovers and monologues, the episodic plot, the top-secret, long, dangerous journey to neutralize a leader—a highly-decorated, well-respected leader who has probably gone mad—the film reminded these viewers of “Apocalypse Now” meets “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In fact, that would have been a good pitch for the screenwriter to sell the project to producers.
The episode of Roy and another astronaut leaving the Mars-bound rocket to answer a May-Day call from a medical experiment rocket reminded this viewer of the episode in “Apocalypse Now” when the crew goes ashore and the cook goes into the jungle to find mangoes. Instead, he’s nearly attacked by a tiger and the voiceover continues. “Don’t get off the boat. Never get off the boat.” The voiceover in “Ad Astra”, after the medical experiment rocket, could have said (but didn’t). “Don’t get off the spaceship. Never get off the spaceship.”
In sum: the pace is at times glacial. The movie means well, but never becomes all that compelling. We were left lukewarm. Mostly for fans of “serious” SF and of Brad Pitt.
Shazam!”: The film’s beginning is a little confusing (or maybe this viewer was getting tired), presenting a backstory of one character, a dark-haired boy, and catching us up with another character, also a dark-haired boy.
In 1974, young Thaddeus Sivana is riding in a car with his father and brother when he is suddenly transported to a magical temple in another dimension. There, the ancient wizard Shazam has spent centuries searching for someone pure of heart on whom to bestow his power and name as champion, after the previous champion released the Seven Deadly Sins which killed the rest of the Council of Wizards. Thaddeus is tempted by the Eye of Sin, through which he hears the voices of the Sins, trapped in stone statues, promising him power if he will free them. The wizard deems Thaddeus unworthy and magically returns him to the car, where he makes a scene that leads to a car accident, crippling his father. The Sins send Thaddeus a message telling him to find them.
In present-day Philadelphia, 14-year-old foster child Billy Batson continually runs away from foster homes to search for his mother, from whom he became separated while at a carnival ten years prior. He is placed in a group home run by Victor and Rosa Vasquez, with five other foster children. This viewer liked the foster family, but it was a little stereotypical—the Asian kid is good with computers, the Hispanic kid is obese. Included is Freddy, a disabled boy who is a superhero enthusiast.
Meanwhile, the embittered Sivana succeeds in his lifelong quest to find a way back to the magical temple. He steals the Eye of Sin, becoming the Sins’ vessel, bests the wizard, and uses his newfound power to kill his father, brother, and the Sivana Industries’ board of directors.
At school, Billy defends Freddy from bullies and is chased into a subway, where he is transported to the magical temple. The wizard chooses Billy to be his new champion: By saying the name “Shazam”, Billy is transformed into an adult superhero. The wizard turns to dust, leaving his magical staff behind. At home, Billy takes Freddy into his confidence and helps him explore his newfound powers. By saying “Shazam” again, Billy can transform back into his teenage body.
Zachary Levi is funny as Shazam the wizard’s champion and Billy’s superhero alter-ego, a teen-boy in a superman’s body.
For this viewer, the film kind of ran out of plot at the end. It kept recycling plot points and chase scenes. There was too much of the Sins dematerializing into black vapor and remanifesting as horrific CGI monsters (that weren’t all that horrifying).
In sum: These viewers liked “Shazam!” but didn’t love it. For fans of teenage boys’ fantasy.
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