Over the next couple of weeks, you will hear many describe Alita: Battle Angel as a spectacular film. Those people aren’t wrong. Emma Stefansky of Thrillist was right when she wrote: “we’ve finally, finally reached the era in sci-fi moviemaking where the special effects on screen look exactly as good as their creators want them to be.” Indeed this Robert Rodriguez film, which has been in production limbo since the early 2000s (Cameron wanted to make an adaptation of this anime/manga way back then, but technology didn’t permit it) is one of the most gorgeous motion pictures that have graced the big screen in a very, very long time.
It is, dare I say, visually flawless. Our hero, Alita (Rosa Salazar) is gorgeously motion-captured and animated. Her unrealistically large Anime-esque eyes and unblemished features make sense within the context of the story. We’re 300 years in the future. A great war known simply as “The Fall” has left earth in a state of dystopia. Society is scientifically advanced and there are just as many cyborgs as there are whole-blooded humans. Some of these cyborgs still have their organic heads, some just their faces; some, like in the case of Alita, only have their very human brain, the rest of her body manmade.
Rosa Salazar may have only performed wearing a grey suit with loads of wires connected to it, but on screen, Alita looks photorealistic. And so do the other androids, as does the CGI city in which these characters reside in. Iron City it is called. Visual Effects chief, Joe Letteri, known for his work on Matt Reeves’ Planet of the Apes, King Kong and Avatar, hits a home run once again. Not many people can make a CGI city look like practical sets were made and shot on.
Then there are the WOW moments, some of them translated magnificently to the big screen from the manga/anime-short by director Robert Rodriguez, some directly from the highly imaginative minds of James Cameron (who penned the screenplay) and Rodriguez. The sequence where Alita takes on the villainous brute who has metal arms that double as weapons, extending out of his body and twisting and turning like armoured tentacles, comes to mind. As if the love child of Misty Copeland and Ip Man, Alita leaps through these iron tentacles to deliver an ass whooping.
There’s also an action block that takes place in a bar that will remind you of drunk fights in old westerns. That a lot of it is animated means we don’t have to deal with migraine-inducing shaky cams. The standout, though, is the sequences involving the violent sport of Motorball — think basketball plus inline speed skating plus Extreme Championship Wrestling.
The press screening I attended was in IMAX 3D. I rolled out of bed that morning ready to hate the experience. 3D is oftentimes murky, blurry and rumpled. It’s nothing but a lousy gimmick and I avoid it like it’s a high school acquaintance who hits you up on Facebook out of the blue to ask you out for a drink when you know he/she just wants to talk to you about fucking MLM. But surprisingly, the 3D in Alita: Battle Angel (the film is actually shot using 3D cameras as opposed to the post-conversion crap most movies do) is crisp, clean and bright.
Alita: Battle Angel is visually stunning. It’s fantastic to look at. So why then did this two-hour movie feel like a gruelling four-hour marathon? Because it’s only fantastic to look at. A lot of it is James Cameron’s fault, who in his post-Titanic career seems to write scripts that are as meaningful as two grey pebbles and a toothpick.
The lore and general story beats taken from the manga are great. Dr Dyson Ido finds Alita’s functioning brain in a junkyard. He fixes her up and gives her a robot body. She wakes up not remembering who she is. There’s also a floating metropolitan that hovers over Iron City — Zalem, where the rich people supposedly reside (though, we’re not given a glimpse of it). It’s the dream of the oppressed folk of Iron City to one day be in Zalem. There are also the Hunter Killers you need to watch out for — bounty hunters/pseudo police officers that roam the streets of Iron City thirsty for their next kill. And there’s Motorball! All of which sounds awesome.
But these are mere ideas. And Cameron fails to make us care about any of them. An hour in and you still don’t know what/who we’re rooting for or against. Series of scenes come and go, but I found myself questioning what’s Alita’s motivation. What is the driving force of this narrative? What are we trying to win or lose? Who are we trying to defeat? We learn these things only in the last quarter of the movie, before which we’re as lost as our lead character. You can argue that that’s the point and I would be right there with you if what we do get ignites our curiosity or is in any way thrilling.
Unfortunately, scenes just float in and out. It feels like a hodgepodge of ideas crammed into one movie. Why do we suddenly learn that becoming a Motorball champion is the only ticket to Zalem? And if so, why isn’t this movie mostly centred around this gloriously vicious sport like in The Hunger Games? Not to mention, larger mysteries are mostly teased through boring exposition or throwaway lines (i.e: I really want to go to Zalem. It’s a dope place). I’ve been told by apologists that the film has plenty of twists and turns. But what good are twists and turns if they bear no meaning nor weight?
I wonder, what did Cameron see in Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl to make him think that Rodriguez is the right person to bring his screenplay to life? Alita is a film that feels long and groan-inducing, yet things are never allowed to simmer and build. Alita realises that her guardian/father-figure leaves home in the middle of the night. One day she chooses to follow him. Why not craft these scenes like you would a slow-burn thriller? Instead, Alita hides on a rooftop for a short second before BOOM! Another action sequence and the subplot wraps up blandly. On to the next one.
The film is filled with WOW moments, but why are the supposed evocative “non-moments” cringe-worthy or worse… non-existent? I’m talking about the instances of quietness, where two characters simply sit and talk, or share a kiss. Rosa Salazar brings the right amount of vulnerability and grace to Alita, but has absolutely no chemistry with the underwritten and uncharismatic Hugo (Keean Johnson). So, when Alita removes her mechanical beating heart for him, we chuckle instead of feel. But the emotional core of the film hinges on their relationship, which doesn’t work, so the film doesn’t work. There is a fantastic scene in the first act, where a confused Alita wakes up from sleep and slowly inches closer towards a mirror, with deep curiosity. The film could’ve used more of these type of moments and less jumping back and forth between a plethora of ideas, all of which are only explored on the surface.
As a result, when a character chooses to scale up the pipes that lead to Zalem despite its obvious danger, it comes off as moronic rather than a desperate crawl by a helpless individual trying to escape the borders of North Korea. Alita is a stake-less and emotionally void film because of how little we give a damn about the characters that fill our screen. You know a screenplay sucks when the likes of Mahershala Ali and Christoph Waltz can’t make us care about them. Oh! There’s also Jennifer Connelly and I can’t for the life of me figure out why her character’s even in the movie.
The whole thing is frankly one big disappointment, especially for a fantasy junkie like myself. There is an interesting world to be explored here that’s rich in lore. This could’ve been the next big thing. But instead, we ended up with a film that’s the equivalent of a hot bimbo — drop dead gorgeous with an unbelievable physique but can’t hold a substantial conversation if her life depended on it.
Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
The film is filled with WOW moments, but why are the supposed evocative “non-moments” cringe-worthy or worse… non-existent?