At The Movies - Alita: Battle Angel An Awesome And Frustrating Enigma
I wish I had the confidence of Alita: Battle Angel.
For a movie based on a manga (by Yukito Kishiro) that’s extremely obscure outside of Japan, it holds nothing back with regards to its intricate world, vast storytelling, and elaborate effects without a care for how it may translate.
Whether or not you think it was a sound investment on 20th Century Fox’s part, every cent of its 170 million dollar budget is up on screen. This isn’t too surprising though coming from producer James Cameron, who has a history of investing heavily in risky projects. It is unusual for director Robert Rodriguez however, being by far the most expensive movie he’s ever made. How well does it pay off on quality though.
American adaptations of manga and anime haven’t had much luck to put it mildly. For all it’s effort, does Alita: Battle Angel change the tide?
Set in 2563, centuries after an apocalyptic event, Iron City exists as an insulated society built on the scrap heaps of a rich and mysterious sky civilization called Zalem.
A cybernetic scientist and prosthetist Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the remnants of a cyborg and reconstructs her, naming her after his deceased daughter.
Having no memories of her prior life, Alita (Rosa Salazar) attempts to find out who she was, discovering incredibly astute fighting skills along the way, which she uses to fight back against cyborg assassins stalking her on the behest of authorities from Zalem.
The world of this film, like in any great cyberpunk story, is both complex and captivating.
Iron City and the whole culture and history surrounding it is very well realized, and a lot of effort went into the world-building of this society, its systems, its power structures, etc. It does manage to feel real and lived-in, genuinely intriguing you with such concepts as the organization of Hunter-Warriors, a registered system of bounty hunters in place of law enforcement with a strict code, or the Panzer Kunst, an elite martial art the cyborg army Alita once belonged to specialized in.
This is something a lot of animes do really well, and is thus where the manga origins of this story are most apparent. But as often happens in sci-fi movies like this, that world-building and myth-making does overwhelm the story at times.
The story of Alita: Battle Angel though would be a mess even without these elements.
There’s some really fascinating stuff in it in relation to Alita’s journey of self-discovery (literally trying to learn who she was) and the mystery behind the powers in Zalem, but it all comes down to the lacklustre script and shoddy structure. There’s some noticeably awful dialogue, poor exposition, and pacing inconsistencies indicative of a much compressed story.
It eschews the three-act convention for a more convoluted framework, and the focus is often shifting, with the major storyline by the end not being the same one as at the beginning. And it’s not a terribly interesting storyline either, characteristic as it is of many a youth-oriented genre tale, made worse by an incredibly clumsy execution.
The film itself doesn’t have a resolution, with a hasty climax, open plot threads, and a cliffhanger ending.
This is another area where Alita’s overconfidence is impressive, but also a severe weakness. It’s not merely analogous to films like The Super Mario Brothers Movie, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, Eragon, or Fantastic Four, which set up never-to-be sequels only after fulfilling their own narratives. Alita: Battle Angel is an incomplete story, like the first Lord of the Rings movie or one of the later Harry Potter films, and unlike those examples there’s no guaranteed follow-up.
I was very worried about the uncanny valley design of Alita, her enormous eyes most of all; and while you don’t ever get used to it the movie justifies it by acknowledging in-universe her alien appearance.
In fact, it really works to the films’ advantage, as Alita’s artificial body, as in Ghost in the Shell, is a vital aspect of her character struggle and the films’ symbolism.
Rosa Salazar gives a pretty good performance in all of this, conveying the personality and dedication of her intriguing and relatable cyborg excellently.
The rest of the cast are mostly fine, though some of their characters are underdeveloped.
Such is the case with Ido’s ex-wife played by Jennifer Connelly, whose curious history would have been worth exploring. Instead a lot of the movie is dedicated to the bland Keean Johnson’s Hugo and his tepid romance with Alita.
Mahershala Ali is really stylish but can’t come across as much more than a generic villain, while Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley’s antagonists act as mere mini-bosses. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. plays a write-off character and Jeff Fahey’s cyborg cowboy with a pack of robot dogs does not get enough screen-time! Christoph Waltz plays the only other figure of substance, though Ido’s significance even wanes as the film goes on.
But if nothing else, Alita’s off-the-wall action and inspired visuals make it worth the watch.
Effects-driven though they may be, there’s something beautiful in just how eccentric and bold the fight scenes are.
You can definitely feel Rodriguez’s touch in the slow-motion instances and more outrageous choices. Yet they’re magnetic. And the aesthetics in the production design and cinematography are great too, at times feeling reminiscent of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element; when Ido goes out into the expressionist night in his trench-coat and fedora, he looks like he just walked off the set of Dark City. But just as often the film is entirely independent in style.
As exquisite, inventive, and entertaining as it is flimsy and tentative, Alita: Battle Angel is ultimately a fun movie.
I wish the script were tighter, better plotted, and appropriately paced, but it’s engaging enough to make for a fairly enjoyable experience regardless.
Unfinished narrative aside, I am interested in where it’s going, how Alita’s story will end and what a Battle Angel even is anyway.