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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: February 19th, 2019

February 19, 2019

Blockbuster cinema titan James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic, Avatar) has been planning an adaptation of the Japanese manga known in English as Battle Angel Alita for more than a decade.

When cinema technology finally caught up to his vision for the project, Cameron found himself busy prepping an increasing number of Avatar sequels, so he handed the directorial reigns over to Robert Rodriguez, the bold genre auteur behind Desperado, the Spy Kids franchise and Sin City.

Now, both men share screenplay credit with Laeta Kalogridis for the resulting film, titled Alita: Battle Angel.

The movie was scheduled to be released summer 2018 before it was pushed back to December; it finally came out over Presidents Day weekend, topping the box office with a gross of $41.7 million.

The number is higher than early estimates, which is always encouraging; but for a project of this scale, it doesn't bode well for major profitability.

Ahead of its premiere — and in light of multiple release date changes and an early trailer that became the subject of much online scorn — many were viewing this film as a potential debacle along the lines of Mortal Engines and Jupiter Ascending; bold blockbusters that entirely failed to connect with audiences.

But the $41.7 million opening weekend shows that this film has found an audience, just not one quite large enough to justify calling it a hit.

The reviews haven’t been nearly as harsh as some might’ve expected either: While a 60% Rotten Tomatoes score is nothing to crow about, it demonstrates that some in the media are welcoming the film’s outsized ambition.

And early derision for the giant-eyed manga appearance of the title character, performed via motion capture by Rosa Salazar, has mostly given way to praise for the Weta technology used to render the effect.

Alita also managed to sidestep the representation controversy that marred the release of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, in addition to doing reasonably well in the overseas box office and it has yet to open in Japan and China, two key manga-friendly markets.

So maybe there is room in the blockbuster market for new intellectual property, as long as it has James Cameron’s name on it. There can be no overstating the power of his filmmaking brand. Even though Cameron didn’t direct Alita, the scale and futurism very much recall his filmography, and it’s tempting to ascribe the majority of the weekend turnout to his involvement.

One recurring critical complaint about the film is that the denouement leans a little too heavily on a presumed sequel, so there’s perhaps a lesson there in narrative overconfidence.

There were two other major releases over the weekend, including the romantic comedy-skewing Rebel Wilson comedy Isn't It Romantic, which earned $22.7 million for third place. The film seems to be benefitting from the Netflix-assisted upswing in affection for the classic rom-coms of old.

And despite pretty kind reviews, horror sequel Happy Death Day 2U couldn’t replicate the surprise success of its 2017 predecessor, which opened with $26 million. The sequel earned just $15 million to give it fifth spot on the charts. Maybe it’s a sign that the thus far reliable Blumhouse model of getting horror sequels into theaters sooner rather than later (the original opened just 18 months ago) is no longer the way to go.

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