Review - 'Alita: Battle Angel'
I think many of us were reasonably skeptical about the critical and financial prospects of Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, I mean, it features a motion-capture performance in the lead role, is based off of a manga that is only well-known in niche circles and it cost a whopping $170 million to produce. The odds were against this one from the start. Well, I’m here to report that despite everything working against it, Alita is better than expected.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place just under 600 years in the future. Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds a defective female cyborg with a preserved brain and decides to revive it. When she awakes she has no recollection of who she is, but slowly discovers that she has great power, and a mission that she must continue from her previous life.
Look, Alita: Battle Angel is not a great movie, but it is a movie that takes risks and one that kept my interest all the way to the end. The world-building in this film is fascinating and director Robert Rodriguez knows how to keep his audience hooked by introducing new elements and plot revelations at every turn. It’s just too bad that the film never takes a moment to breathe and has a tendency to jump to conclusions before we even know that there are problems that need solving.
There are at least three big story lines being told in this film, each of which would have enough content for their own full-length feature. Firstly, we have Alita trying to figure out her true identity and her place in the world. Secondly we have Alita’s complicated relationship with a human named Hugo, and finally we have a plot revolving around Alita and Hugo’s goal to reach Zalem; a haven city in the sky where she plans to exact revenge on an elite adversary named Nova. It’s just a little two much for one film, and on top of this the movie teases future installments that we may not even get due to the fact that this release likely won’t be that profitable at the box office. It’s frustrating to watch a film that teases an epic conclusion in future installments when the actual chance of said sequels coming to fruition is a long shot. Still, Alita: Battle Angel hits most of the right beats and has a suitably rousing finale, even if it ends on a massive cliff-hanger.
I also must stress that for me this film’s style felt much more Robert Rodriguez than James Cameron (who produced it) to me. There are times where I got more adult-themed Spy Kids vibes, and I mean that in a mostly positive way. The imaginative effects and gadgets, the focus on young adults and their relationships and finally the motor ball set piece that is something straight out of Spy Kids 3D: Game Over all felt very Rodriguez. I’m not saying Cameron’s footprint can’t be found here, but it’s not nearly as front-facing as I thought it would be.
Rodriguez and Cameron were also very smart to cast Rosa Salazar as Alita because she truly is the beating heart of this film, and without her this would be an empty husk of an experience that I feel would have fallen completely flat. Christoph Waltz is also excellent as Dr. Dyson Ido, the man who pieces Alita back together after he finds her in a heap of scrap. The father/daughter relationship between the two of them is what gives the film a meaningful emotional heft, it’s just unfortunate that it doesn’t completely pay off in the end. Ed Skrein is here as well, and he’s kind of doing the same thing he did in Deadpool. I guess he is good at playing the smug, cocky villain that needs to be put in his place. The only actor who is not up to snuff is Keean Johnson who plays Hugo, the love interest to Alita. It could be that he was saddled with some of the worst lines of dialogue, but his delivery also lacks earnestness and every word out of his mouth lands with a thud. He also makes at least two abrupt, out-of-left-field decisions that seem completely illogical and only serve the purpose of getting his character arc from “A” to “Z” in the shortest amount of time possible. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly also have small parts in the film, unfortunately they don’t get much to chew on, but I wouldn’t say they hinder the film in any way.
One of the main selling points of this film are its stunning technical achievements. This is probably the first time a performance-captured, more-or-less human-looking character has looked convincingly alive. There were very few times where I doubted that Alita was a living, breathing entity. The work Rodriguez, Cameron and all of the people at WETA have done here is astounding, and not just on Alita, but her world and all of its inhabitants. Everything is stunning to look at.
Alita: Battle Angel is a film with some pretty deep flaws. The movie takes on more than it can handle and as a result, all three of the stories it interweaves suffer to a degree. The film is also the first course of a three-course meal where its patrons may never be served their entree or dessert. That being said; the movie is consistently introducing new and interesting ideas at every turn, features top-shelf effects and has a winning performance from Rosa Salazar. For me, Alita: Battle Angel worked more than it didn’t, but your mileage may vary.