‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Review: Great action sequences make a messy script look better than it is
Those who anticipated Alita: Battle Angel have been waiting for quite a long time for their favourite character to appear on the big screen. Fortunately for them, this wait came to end in February of this year. Considering that the project has been infamously stuck in production hell for almost two decades, witnessing it now almost feels like a miracle. Sadly, the finished film is far from being as extraordinary as the story of its making. Alita and her disturbingly gigantic eyes just barely break the curse of the Hollywood manga adaptation by making something that is watchable and mostly entertaining, but certainly not what one would expect to see after a nineteen years wait.
Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of an amnesiac cyborg (Rosa Salazar) found by Dyson Ido, scientist by day and bounty hunter by night (Christoph Waltz), in a junkyard of a post-apocalyptic multicultural metropolis named Iron City. After naming the cyborg after his dead daughter for no valid reason, the film follows the father-daughter relationship developing between the two, as well as the blossoming romance between Alita and a young teenager named Hugo she conveniently meets by bumping into during the first fifteen minutes of the runtime. The rest of the film is a subtle mix of cyborg-human love, fights, backstories, searches for memories, and somehow, a deathly version of rollerblading named Motorball. In this world, you truly either skate or die. If this seems like quite a messy summary, watching the film unfortunately won’t make it any less confusing.
The film’s failure lies in its intentions. Despite Robert Rodriguez occupying the director chair, it is abundantly clear from the get-go that Alita is still very much Cameron’s project. His own love and enthusiasm for the concept unfortunately obscured his judgement more than once. This was not a story built for the current Hollywood blockbuster format, yet the producer did not envision it in any other way. Alita: Battle Angel is entirely written with the prospect of a sequel in mind, and it is its biggest weakness. Too busy thinking about the future, it never stops to make anything out of what is currently on screen. It rushes over everything despite having over two hours of runtime that could have easily been used for character development rather than clichéd romances out of a subpar Young Adult novel. The most important characters conveniently walk into each other over and over again, any dialogue that isn’t purely exposition is hard to find. The unfortunate result is that the film feels like a first act that never ends. In the end, Alita becomes a tragic watch for all the wrong reasons: there are few things more disheartening than watching people desperately try to set up a sequel that will most likely never happen.
Cameron is a huge fan of the original manga — one that I am familiar with only by hearing its name many times throughout the course of my rather embarrassing yet probably necessary anime phase as a teenager — which certainly helps the film from becoming the complete mess that most western adaptations turn out to be. Most of the time, watching Alita feels exactly like having a very enthusiastic fan explain their favorite movie to you — essential world-building facts are brushed over so they can get to their favourite parts, they get hung up on the tiniest plot point for hours, their own opinions of the characters are ridiculously obvious. Similarly, we have many unnecessary scenes of characters walking around talking about Iron City’s history, while the explanation of what Hunter-Warriors are is expedited in a few throwaway lines, even though it is one of the most essential informations in understanding the action of the following hour or so.
Alita: Battle Angel’s weaknesses are even more heartbreaking when we see what could have been. It is easy to make fun of Alita’s eyes, and I would be lying if I said that they’re easy to forget at any point over the course of the film. However, Rosa Salazar gives a breakout performance that is good enough to make us see Alita as a character rather than a strange CGI creature. Over the past few years, the young actress has been consistently brilliant in less than brilliant films, particularly in adaptations of Young Adult sagas such as The Maze Runner and Divergent. She has become a master of a craft that too many good actors have to master: making something out of a script that doesn’t isn’t much of anything. I am wholeheartedly hoping she gets a role she deserves soon, and even though I was never truly hyped by Alita in the first place, it is still sad to see that she most likely still won’t find success through this one. The film has some other big names, such as Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali, and they all give rather solid performances, but it is truly Salazar that is the heart of the film.
Cameron’s influence is also very clear in other more technical aspects. The CGI is incredibly beautiful and one of the few areas where the overly long wait seems justified. The characters often talk about dreams of climbing up to Zalem, a wealthy city in the sky that we can only see from a distance in this instalment — however the poor city they seem desperate to escape from is just as beautiful to look at. Another very strong characteristic of the film are its action sequences, gorgeously choreographed and filmed in a very dynamic way, which always makes for exciting moments. This is also the point where I should warn that the film contains a surprising amount of body parts flying around — the PG-13 rating remains because most of the characters are half cyborg, leaving the amount of actual blood shed at a minimal level. But do not be mistaken: if you are looking for torsos, legs, and way more distance between the two of them that there should ever be, you’ve come to the right place. It is when the film embraces its craziness and fully launches into its action that it is most successful. Unfortunately, these moments are too few and far between, and are not enough to save the film.
Despite all of its faults, or perhaps because of them, Alita: Battle Angel is probably worth taking a look at. It was a strange project from the moment of its inception, and the finished product somehow manages to be both deeply conventional and a bizarre thing to witness. Seeing Hollywood blockbusters slightly step out of their comfort zones is something that makes me very hopeful for the future. Alita does not succeed as a film, but hopefully it can become a stepping stone for more high-budget productions to take more conceptual risks in the future.