Live action anime and manga movies RARELY come out well. Fans of this unique genre of animation are still trying to forget epic fails like “Dragonball Evolution”, “Death Note” and “Ghost in the Shell”. But when it comes to the latest anime adaptation, “Alita: Battle Angel” based on the “Gunnm” manga, there looked like there would be some hope. After all it was written and produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the co-director of “Sin City”. However it’s easy to forget that Cameron has not written or produced a fiction film since “Avatar” in 2009 and Rodriguez’s others claims to fame are the “Spy Kids” franchise and a few decent action flicks like “Machete”. The picture has had a rocky road, originally conceptualized in the 2000s before officially being announced in 2005 and scheduled for release in 2018 which was pushed to this weekend in 2019. With a production history like that I knew I had to give it a shot and see for myself what this feature actually brings to the table. So is “Alita” the train wreck many expected or does it prove to be something more? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Alita: Battle Angel”.
“Alita: Battle Angel” takes place in 2563 after a war has left Earth a devastated wasteland. Most of the action takes place in Iron City, a junkyard-like region filled with humans and cyborgs with the last remaining wealthy sky city of Zalem overhead. A cyborg scientist named Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a female cyborg with a functional human brain. He rebuilds the robot and names her Alita. As Alita (Rosa Salazar), who retains the maturity of a teenager, tries to uncover who she really is, she also adapts to the world around her eventually discovering her unique ability as a fighter and a competitor in the popular sport of Motorball, a sport that sends its champions to Zalem. Along with her friend Hugo (Keean Johnson) Alita begins to unravel the mystery of her past while her unique attributes make her a target to the mysterious Nova and his henchmen Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his massive cyborg assistant Grewishka (Jackie Earl Haley). As her memories are unlocked, Alita learns that she’s more important than anyone could have ever predicted to the fate of a broken world.
Let’s kick things off with the cast and there is a nice mix of proven and new talent involved in this picture starting with the leading lady, Rosa Salazar, as Alita. Here’s my problem with Salazar: her portrayal of Alita is far more, shall I say over the top than any other character in this film and it’s not necessarily her fault. Salazar is a capable actress and she’s clearly into it giving us a young cyborg who screams of typical adolescence. Salazar does a neat job of capturing the immaturity and eventual growth of Alita to the point where it’s almost pleasantly annoying because of how believably young and in awe she tends to be at her rebirth and the world around her. The problem is Salazar feels like the only one having that kind of fun. Sure there are a few neat standout characters like Jackie Earl Haley as cocky cyborg Grewishka and Ed Skrein as vain cyborg and secondary antagonist Zapan, but there’s a severe disparity in depth and/or commitment when it comes to the rest of the characters.
As odd as it is, either due to poor writing or a lack of commitment it’s actually the bulk of the more experienced performers that are less memorable. Big names like Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connolly and Christoph Waltz feel wasted in big roles because they’re either not given enough to do, their development is forsaken in favor of Alita’s story, or the script hands them lame and cliché dialogue that prevents them from doing anything substantial with the material. This is why Salazar feels like she’s overdoing it as Alita in my opinion. While she’s clearly fully on board, the fact that no one else seems as inspired or engaged makes Salazar look like she’s trying too hard especially next to performers who normally are very good in whatever they decide to do. There’s so much focus on Alita and her narrative that everyone else, even characters important to her journey, feels like a footnote and it doesn’t help that more focus was clearly put on the special effects and sci-fi action than telling a layered and cohesive story with fleshed out and memorable characters.
But to the film’s credit it IS a very fun experience. The visuals, while in no way the most convincing effects you’ll ever see, are stunning and inspired and when the action does kick in “Alita” becomes a pulse-pounding good time. This film was definitely made to show off the visuals and to provide some shameless science fiction mayhem and it works. Seeing Alita battle it out with robots sometimes twice her size and with weapons that would seemingly be impossible for her to defeat is epic especially when experiencing how she gets the upper hand. This was by far the best aspect of this film for me and kept me glued to the screen and anxiously awaiting the next confrontation and set piece. Alita also uses an in-film fighting style called Panzer Kunst which makes her movements incredibly fluid and provides some kick-ass hand-to-hand combat that would make Jackie Chan jealous. “Alita” is first and foremost a science fiction visual spectacle and it earns the right to be respected as such through creative and vibrant backdrops, neat cinematography that mixes slow motion into fluid battle sequences, and a creative world that feels so massive and yet so confined at the same time. Even the “anime eyes” on Alita don’t feel too distracting as they feel more like part of her design than an attempt at pandering to the source material. A few of Alita’s fellow cyborgs could have sported simpler, less clunky looking designs, especially Grewishka, but all-in-all “Alita” is exactly what it wants to be. The problem is it’s not everything it NEEDS to be.
Despite succeeding in turning in an epic science fiction action experience, “Alita” suffers from a bland script and screenplay and serves as a blatant attempt as setting up sequels rather than taking the time to fully realize its own story’s full potential. One of “Alita’s” biggest flaws is that it spends way too much time trying to establish different plot lines and character motivations to the point where every subplot feels too rushed, hollow and watered down. It’s even hard to understand what the whole point of the film really is at times. The story explores Motorball, bounty hunters, the class system, a teenage cyborgs search for an identity, other character backstories, and introduces a mysterious puppet master type of villain all in the span of just over two hours which is barely enough time to handle even half of these plot lines effectively. “Alita” throws as much as it can at the audience hoping it will all stick but instead it results in a muddled collection of smaller stories that fail to blend properly. An added consequence is it does make it very hard to understand what the point of this film really is beyond an origin story and sequel setup for a followup that may not even happen. So when it comes to the overall quality of “Alita”, come for the action and the visuals, but don’t hold your breath if you’re looking for a compliantly written story.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is an intriguing case. On one hand its an exhilarating effects-heavy science fiction film filled with great battle sequences and plenty of action to spare. On the other hand it tries to go all in on its story by packing in as many subplots as possible and, as a result, failing to find satisfying closure or significance for most of these plot lines by the final act. While its star feels like she’s trying way to hard compared to her more experienced co-stars when in reality she’s really the only one who seems to even care to add any life to her character. In the end I had fun watching “Alita”, but it wasn’t a great film. It offers more than enough to satisfy if all you’re looking for are cool effects, fun fights and a memorably protagonist you can root for. Otherwise though it’s pretty bland with generic and unfocused writing and a lack of cohesion among its different smaller story lines that makes everything feels rushed or underdeveloped to the point of frustration. How much you enjoy this film will depend on what you want to get out of it, but for me as fun as it was “Alita” is nothing more than an average viewing experience that fails to fully meet its potential or the epic heights it’s trying to reach.