Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writers: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Ed Skrein
Release date: February 14, 2019
This is yet another attempt at making a good American live action adaptation of a manga/anime. This is a project James Cameron has been wanting to make for years, but it’s Robert Rodriguez who is in the director’s seat this time. Alita: Battle Angel is certainly an interesting and ambitious film, but it falls short of its goals.
Alita: Battle Angel adapts the manga Battle Angel Alita, which I have not gotten around to reading yet. Set in a cyberpunk future, Alita is an amnesiac teenage cyborg repaired by a kindly doctor named Ido. As Alita gains more memories of her past, she makes friends with a boy named Hugo, and enemies with those in power.
Alita: Battle Angel boasts impressive visuals, some well done action scenes, and a strong performance from the main lead. I was actually taken aback by how realistic the effects were for turning Rosa Salazar’s face into the big eyed anime girl. While there are a few moments of jarring greenscreen, for the most part, everything was seamless. It also smartly mixes in a few practical effects with the CGI. The action scenes are very well shot and directed, with some rather gruesome violence for a PG-13 film. The scenes involving a sport called Motorball are some of the most exciting and fun to watch in the whole film. The world feels lived in with every shot of another citizen or building telling you a little more about the setting and its people. It’s got some great filmmaking and eye candy in it, make no mistake.
All that said, the movie severely suffers from a bloated plot. It’s only just over two hours long, and has material for two or three movies. Rather than focus on one story arc and leave the rest for sequels, it opts to try and cover all of them. It moves from plot point to plot point without giving any one of them time to develop fully. Either cut down on the material, or make it much longer. There is a sport called Motorball in the film’s world that has a whole tournament centered around it, and ends up being integral to the plot and development of the character. It’s barely given any more importance than the other events of the film. The plot is scattershot and tries too hard to cover as many arcs as possible to set up a sequel it hasn’t earned. The longer it goes on, the more obvious it is that the film is struggling to fit in as much material as possible, and it crumbles under the weight of trying to do too much with too little time. Structurally, it plays out like a fighting anime: Alita will fight an enemy, and will either gain memories of her past back or a powerup that makes her even stronger. This sort of story structure would work for a longer form of storytelling, but this is a single movie. Different rules need to be followed.
I have to give attention to some of the dialogue in this script. It’s very cheesy, and not always in an endearing way. Near the end of the film, there’s a death scene that caused me to chuckle because of the lines and the delivery of them. Other lines of dialogue elevate the corniness due to good delivery, or there is a level of cringe that is intentional, such as Alita trying to give an inspiring speech that falls completely flat.
Alita’s cast gets high marks, mostly. Rosa Salazar makes Alita come off as both a badass and an adorably naïve teenager. Salazar’s best acting comes from her use of facial expressions and eyes. It’s an effective and emotional performance that helps us track Alita’s development over the course of the film. In addition to her, Christoph Waltz does a great job as Alita’s father figure, coming across as a warm and wise man but also adding layers to the role. Ed Skrein plays an unlikable bounty hunter named Zapan, and boy does he do a great job of making you hate this tool. Too bad Keean Johnson and Mahershala Ali fail to leave much of an impression, as well as Edward Norton. Yeah, Edward Norton is in this, merely as a tease for movies to come. If you’re going to have him, give him something to do.
Alita: Battle Angel is not an abomination like Death Note was, but it is still not the success we were all hoping it would be. It starts strong but loses steam the longer it goes on. It’s an admirable attempt with very strong qualities, but only an attempt nonetheless.