REVIEW: Alita: Battle Angel

Can you meet me halfway? Right on the borderline between Ghost in the Shell and Whip It.

In the 26th century, during a technological dark age, the mysterious Dr. Ido stumbles upon the discarded remains of Alita – a star-gazing though lethal cyborg with no memory of her past – as he chooses to rebuild and raise her in a world she seemingly does not belong to.

The passion project of James Cameron (you know, other than all those supposed Avatar sequels), Alita: Battle Angel is the newest Westerner adaptation of a celebrated Japanese manga with Cameron taking a backseat in the producer’s chair whilst Robert Rodriguez of From Dusk Till Dawn, Planet Terror, Sin City and Spy Kids takes the opportunity to helm the project with ease. Although not by any means a great film, Alita: Battle Angel proved to be one of the better large-budget Hollywood adaptations of a Japanese manga… which is not saying much, but is at least saying enough.

With a history of terrible anime translations to the big screen, Hollywood has managed to sour audiences with garbage like Dragonball: Evolution and Death Note. With a name almost notorious enough to challenge the unformidable video game-to-movie series of failed adaptations, its difficult believing that Hollywood have plans to one day even bring Akira to live-action format as well. Although, alongside 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, Rodriguez and Cameron’s Alita: Battle Angel at least offers a sense of hope in this uncrackable area of Hollywood cinema. With some incredible visuals and obvious care actually being placed into it to adapt its source material, Alita: Battle Angel somewhat has begun to lead a charge in more faithful and careful anime/ manga live-action adaptations – and that at least is a bonus.

Now, calling back to Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell from 2017, I honestly do believe Alita is a better film than such, but its obvious that the two still share a lot in common. Despite knowing way more about the Ghost in the Shell universe rather than that of the world of Alita, I would still be comfortable in saying that both Hollywood films at least managed to master the visual capturing of either’s anime/ manga worlds rather well through stunning, reimagined, nostalgic imagery. Both films felt more realised in their commitment to adapting their universes and giving audiences material they’d be both be comfortable and intrigued with. Although where I felt Alita bested Ghost in the Shell would have to have been within the pure factor that everything 2017’s Ghost in the Shell did, 2019’s Alita did better.

Having been a project Cameron had been developing for years now (until he fell in love with blue aliens), Alita felt like a film which had been left to marinate for years, soaking up some of its filmmaker’s best ideas (and worst ideas, but we’ll get to that later). It’s obvious how much this film was a passion project for both Cameron and Rodriguez as general effort seemed placed into every frame and detail of the onscreen effects. Having been known as a revolutionist in the field of film VFX, with his works on the Terminator franchise, Titanic and, of course, Avatar, Cameron’s best visual work had seemingly been placed into Alita. Everything in this film appeared almost seamless in appearance, with designs of the cyborgs in particularly standing out. So intricate and heavily detailed, Cameron’s visual style was only complimented by the excellent eye of Rodriguez, who’s best known VFX highpoint came from the stunning Sin City, as all forms of talent shun through in the film’s frames. Yet, to celebrate the film’s greatest visual effect would have to be centring on the motion-capture and further designs of the titular Alita and her outstanding look.

Alita would have to be the best adaptation of an anime character to live-action ever. On a visual sense, I was worried the character would feature too much of the freakishly unavoidable uncanny valley but for the most half Alita felt like, quote the “most human” character on screen. The big eyes, the short black hair, the robotic body – everything about her shouted an anime nerd’s dream. And on top of that, Rosa Salazar’s performance was pretty incredible. Capturing the naïve, cute, but strong and formidable essence of a true battle angel, Salazar really appeared to give the role her all – right down to general movements and quirks. If I had to suggest a highpoint for Alita: Battle Angel it would without any doubt be Salazar and the visual effect team’s depiction of Alita.

Shame though that Alita was probably the only character in this movie I gave a sh*t about.

Rosa-Salazar-in-Alita-Battle-Angel-1
(Twentieth Century Fox, 2019)

My biggest problem with Alita: Battle Angel was just how uninteresting and boring every other character was in this movie. Sad to say for Rodriguez, Cameron, Salazar and the effects crew, it was the actors who just couldn’t manage to sell the rest of the movie for me. And sure, when you get A-grade talent like Christoph Waltz to come in and read exposition on a manga world he sure as hell would have never heard of in his life in front of a green screen and side-by-side with a jump suit Salazar with dots all over face, of course the actor is not going to care much – they just want their pay slip. It was just annoying because most characters were written in a certain way that they were supposedly harbouring deep complex feelings about others and their own morals, but the actors never showed that – they were all so wooden. Waltz and Jennifer Connelly, in particular, were seemingly meant to take on the movie’s biggest emotional arcs but never did their performances, or even the writing, help to realise said arcs. They felt just like actors reading lines. Plus, Mahershala Ali turned out possibly his worst performance in a movie ever. Now, there did not seem to be anything inherently wrong with Ali’s portrayal of the film’s antagonist, but Ali just came across as so detached and absent from whatever film he thought he was acting in. I mean, he literally just did Green Book a couple of weeks ago… what the hell…

The worst performer though would have to be, no doubt, Keean Johnson as Alita’s love interest, Hugo. Granted the kid’s a fresh face and it would appear Alita was his first big budget film, but jeez, seriously? Keean Johnson was rather terrible in this movie, sharing no real chemistry with Alita and just continuing to look like the biggest d***head on screen. Every line Johnson spoke was cheesy and shaky as I would even go so far to blame Rodriguez for not ensuring the kid chosen for the role of Hugo was more up for the job than Johnson or that Johnson was just up to par with his line delivery, when the cameras begun rolling, in the first place. Although to end this acting rant on a more positive note, I would like to highlight Ed Skrein, who’s charming and witty portrayal of a bada** cyborg bounty hunter really worked – in fact, Skrein gave the film some much needed charisma where a lot of it was drowned out. Yet, as much as I enjoyed Skrein’s appearances in the film, they were very few and far between… you know, being that Alita was over two hours!

Alita: Battle Angel was ridiculously long. The movie dragged multiple times and could quite possibly not be watched outside the realms of a cinema as its meandering lengthy runtime could easily be substituted for more entertaining pastimes when watching at home. The movie felt full of exposition which was incredibly sad knowing that many of the visuals were being put to waste – not living up to their potential of actually telling a story frame by frame. The plot felt out-of-sync and not well-realised, like there were multiple stories occurring at once. Remember how I said, Alita has been marinating for years, soaking up some of the filmmaker’s best ideas and some of their worst ideas? Well, it’s almost like there were so many ideas for Alita that, by the time it came to shooting, the filmmakers decided to shove everything into the plot and see what worked.

Alita: Battle Angel consisted of the Ghost in the Shell-like cyborg finding their identity plotline, the violent bounty hunter plotline, the large-scaled Nova-based war plotline, the romance between cyborg and human plotline, the inventor, Dr. Ido, and his lost love plotline and finally the bombastic roller derby, Whip It-like, plotline. Alita: Battle Angel made it hard to judge what film it wanted to be: a sci-fi film, an action film, revenge film, a political war film, a romance film or even a sports film. And of course, most of these plotlines and genres were able to compliment one another, but overall the film felt like one big mess of story threads and world-building, that, at the end of the day, just no longer made sense. It was almost as if Cameron wanted to morph Alita into an epic, the size and magnitude of Titanic or Avatar, but neither Rodriguez or the screenwriters were able to fulfil Cameron’s wishes. And in the act of trying to wedge everything together, certain character’s motivations and morals soon became muggy and conflicted; for example, in the bounty hunter storyline Dr. Ido would be against Alita taking part in bounty hunter shenanigans since it’d be “too dangerous” for her, but then in the roller derby (I don’t know what the actual sport was called) plotline, Dr. Ido seemed more than comfortable to let Alita play, despite cyborgs being known to die in the ring every damn week. There came a point where nothing made sense anymore and certain character choices felt so vague and ambiguous that no one onscreen really even felt like they mattered to the overall storyline at all.

To add to the messiness of the script, the finale to Alita honestly reeked of set-up. The final few shots in fact may as well have been labelled “For Sequel Use Only”. The fact is, by the end of Alita, I felt exhausted and rather bored.

Although that’s not to say I did not have a completely horrible time when watching Alita: Battle Angel. Amongst, Salazar’s performance and the visual effects, the action sequences in Alita were more than enough to highly entertain. The film happened to be surprisingly gruesome and kind of grisly in its acts of violence, to which was surprising for a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster. Although being a Rodriguez film, it shouldn’t have come as a major surprise to how insane a lot of the action got. Either way, thanks to Rodriguez, the action in Alita did not disappoint and offered some great moments.

Overall, Alita: Battle Angel was not the ingenious Cameron/ Rodriguez collaboration most hoped it would be. Although a towering achievement over many anime/ manga Hollywood adaptations, Alita still managed to underwhelm, offering room for improvement in few areas. With a more straightforward plot and actors who honestly seemed like they gave a sh*t, who knows, maybe Alita could have been a solid cult classic, but in an era where we patiently wait for “Avatar 2″ and the most memorable 3D Rodriguez experience was Sharkboy and Lavagirl… I don’t know, what were we actually expecting?

Alita: Battle Angel sadly belongs in the… KINGDOM OF THE CRIMINALLY DULL…

 

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