I’ll get this out of the way right now — Alita: Battle Angel is not necessarily bad, per se. However, it is something of a disappointment and/or wasted opportunity given that the combined talents of Robert Rodriguez (The El Mariachi Trilogy, Sin City, From Dusk Til Dawn) and James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic, Avatar) ought to yield something phenomenal. I’m a huge fan of both, believing Rodriguez to be a master in the domain of stylish genre action, and Cameron to be a master of groundbreaking science-fiction. Thus, when the most I can say about it is that it’s “not bad” it should give you a good idea of how let down I was by a movie that had so much potential.
This was a movie that Cameron had been teasing since the year 2000, before his work in Pandora kept him away from the project. He had been hard at work polishing up his script when he brought on Rodriguez to execute it while he took on moving forward with the Avatar franchise. The goal was to utilize the most state-of-the-art visual technology to bring the world of Yukito Kishiro’s seminal manga Gunnm to life. The result 19 years later, however — a mixed bag that turns the futuristic setting of Iron City into a cinematic “sin city” of franchise-baiting genre tropes and clichéd cinematic sins — all of which we, as an audience, have been privy to in modern-day sci-fi cinema since the days of The Matrix sequels.
Taking place in the 26th century, where a great war, called “The Fall” divided the impoverished grounded citizens of Iron City from a heavenly domain in the sky, Zalem, Alita starts off with Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido finding the title character in a scrapyard almost entirely cognitively intact. Realizing what kind of cybernetic warrior she was, and reeling from the loss of his own family, Ido, a cybernetic surgeon decides to resurrect this cyborg, giving her a name, home, and a peaceful identity — “Alita” after his daughter — inheriting the role of Gepetto-esque father figure to the amnesiac girl-bot. Alita then proceeds to spend the movie attempting to find out more about who she was and is, going on bounty hunts for crazed cyborg criminals, falling in puppy love with the first teenage boy she meets, motorballing, and staying a step ahead from the insane criminal kingpins out to destroy her, both from Zalem and Iron City.
I will admit the movie has its share of good things going for it. Rodriguez and Cameron, as well as co-screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, could have easily made this a wham-bam action spectacle on par with any Michael Bay Transformers movie. Instead, they really do attempt to focus on character development and growth, as well as relationship building throughout the movie. To some degree they manage to pull it off part of the way. Alita as a character, combined with a wonderfully charming, likable performance for Rosa Salazar, is fun, flighty, insanely tough (badass even), and sympathetic. She is truly a hero you can see yourself following for several movies. And her relationship with Waltz’s Ido is hands down the best, most human element in the movie, treating us to quiet moments that yield a surprising amount of heart. A close second in terms of the movie’s merits on character would be Jennifer Connelly’s Dr. Chiren, ex-wife of Ido, who is, frankly, mostly under-utilized until the final act of the movie.
The action scenes and visual effects (especially with settings and characters) we are treated to are also actually worth the budget spent making them, and the time spent viewing them. They are insanely gorgeous and well-staged. Two action scenes in particular stand out: The Kansas bar fight, and the long-anticipated Motorball sequence. It’s in these scenes that the movie goes from being 100% self-serious to having a blast showcasing its spare-no-expense, visually-arresting action, and demonstrating to us the real potential the character of Alita has at going full Battle Angel. The rest of the movie should have followed suit.
However, where things start to crack and the movie starts to become far, far less successful is in the horrible romance between Alita and Keean Johnson’s Hugo, which sadly actually encompasses around 65%-75% of this movie. And when I say “horrible” I mean unfortunate Twilight-level clunky dialogue to compliment the non-existent chemistry between the two leads. Johnson is particularly bland, delivering lines and lines of lackluster, cheesy dialogue in every scene he shares with Salazar. Their interactions are insanely cringe-worthy, and worst off, dull, giving us absolutely nothing to root for at the end of the day. The last thing I expected walking into this one was a YA-level romance within a movie where your badass killer cyborg protagonist drops an “F”-bomb to a bad guy before ramming her fist into his eye, yet lo and behold, it winds up taking up majority of the film. Furthermore, as a movie meant to be representative of female empowerment, it’s disappointing to witness a relationship that reinforces the horrible trope of having a male love interest be the sole motivation for a would-be badass independent-thinking female hero to base every single one of her decisions around, literally taking out her heart and offering it up to him at one point.
In addition to the forced, unwelcome romance aspect, the film is insanely bogged down with excessive exposition. You’d think under the hands of a veteran screenwriter/storyteller like Cameron that a movie with this much world-building would have the rules of the universe they’re establishing be shown to the audience rather than told. Instead this movie decides to completely do the opposite, offering scene after scene of long-winded over-explained exposition regarding what this world is and who Alita is at least four or five times during the span of the entire movie, constantly teasing us with fragments of the truth scattered at the most awkward moments during the film from every character: Ido, Hugo, Vector (Mahershalla Ali in a completely wasted performance where he plays Edward Norton’s puppet), and Alita’s own random memory flashes. At a certain point the intrigue to the mystery of Alita’s character dissipates, and you’re left with confusion and apathy. By the end of it, the film has gotten so obsessed with explaining the history of this universe and setting up future films, that you’re left with zero answers, and only a slight interest in seeing some semblance of a coherent sequel.
And honestly, for me, that is true. Should Alita Battle Angel defy box office expectations, I would be open, if not lukewarm, to seeing a sequel. I liked Salazar, I liked Waltz, I loved the visual style and action, and I loved Alita as a character. And in the grand scheme of anime/manga live-action American adaptations, this probably ranks the highest (especially when your choices are Dragonball Evolution and Ghost in the Shell). But overall, for me, it just wasn’t enough. With the talent on display both on and behind the camera, this film should have soared as high as the grand city of Zalem. Instead it stays down in the “Iron City” of recent over-explained sci-fi would-be franchise starters, like John Carter, Valerian, and Mortal Engines. For the sake of seeing something better in this semi-interesting world, with this dynamic and interesting protagonist, I do hope audiences respond to Alita: Battle Angel way better than the previously aforementioned movies. Because ultimately it would be a waste to leave something as promising Alita in the scrapyard.
Alita: Battle Angel hits theaters February 14, 2019.