It’s hard for me to say how Alita: Battle Angel will play to fans of anime and / or the manga series upon which it’s based. Reviews in those circles have given it high marks so far. As a relative novice, I can say it certainly made me feel the way many of those series feel — disoriented, excited and bewildered.
Disoriented by the endless action sequences interspersed with complex world-building that has little impact on the story being told. Excited by the extraordinarily cool visual effects and action sequences. And bewildered that, somehow, Alita: Battle Angel even exists at all.
Mega-filmmaker James Cameron announced his involvement in Alita 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until Robert Rodriguez signed on in 2016 that the project started moving forward. It’s easy to see why Cameron saw potential here: Set in the year 2563, the story follows the titular cyborg woman learning what it means to be human against the backdrop of a broken Earth society 300 years “after the Fall.” The Fall is implied to be some sort of war between Earth and an artificial intelligence on Mars, and that’s somehow both crucial and wholly irrelevant to anything our main characters experience on the ground.
Alita’s body is discovered having fallen from Zalem, a floating city above Earth that presumably houses the wealthy and better-off, miles above the slums of human existence. Her savior, Dr. Dyson (Christoph Waltz, lovable) is both a cyborg engineer and a bounty hunter. Alita, coming to realize she has amazing fighting abilities, declares her interest in bounty-hunting, too.
It’s a hamfisted and arbitrary “coming of age” story about a young woman, which has already gotten criticism for being inauthentic and sometimes poorly expressed. Sure. It’s about on the level of most ’80s and ’90s action films, wherein the woman’s depth and development is mostly conveyed through the performance of an actress having to deal with all the bullshit that comes with being at the center of a movie mostly driven by men (although Laeta Kalogridis co-wrote the screenplay). Frankly, Rosa Salazar is great as Alita; the CGI doesn’t hold back an expressive performance one bit and the “big eyes” effect works fine in the movie. But I’m not sure if the cardinal sin of Alita is that her coming of age feels inauthentic; if anything, it’s that all of the non-action sequences are boring as hell.
The “emotional core” of the film involves Alita falling for a street-urchin named Hugo (Keean Johnson). In a cast that contains the aforementioned Waltz and Salazar — as well as Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Jackie Earle Haley — Johnson is the sole participant who feels ripped from a Divergent movie. I hate to make it personal. Maybe he’s just another casualty of a script that doesn’t feel at all interested in developing real relationships.
“Real” is an interesting word to use for Alita, too, because the movie is essentially a green-screen experience. It seems like we get one or two movies every year that feel exactly like it. For all the good movies that use green-screen effectively, there are several like this that feel hollow and inauthentic whenever real people are involved in a shot. Get Alita alone in a real room with a character? Looks great. Get a real character into a CGI room with Alita? Garbage. It’s distracting and somewhat frustrating because the film is going for a lived-in look that can’t be appropriately replicated. It’s somehow worse that the movie lands the visuals half the time. It becomes jarring from moment to moment.
Give it up for James Cameron, though, because he may be the only action filmmaker who knows how to make 3D worth the price of admission. I paid to see the film at an early fan event hosted purely to get people talking about 3D as the foundation of the movie as a way of encouraging up-priced ticket sales (I could’ve watched two 2D movies for the price I paid). Honestly: if you’re going to see Alita, you might as well see it in 3D, because when it looks great, it look great.
A few action sequences stand out. The movie introduces a Rollerball-esque life-or-death competitive sport called Motorball (spoiler: Alita is great at it) that becomes the movie’s signature action moment, and a great one at that. Cherry on the cake: The brief appearance of Jai Courtney as a star racer ends seconds later with his decapitation. I was worried for a moment. There is also a well-choreographed bar fight featuring a number of bounty hunters played by small-time character actors like Jeff Fahey, who is always a pleasure.
I guess that’s mostly it, though. Alita: Battle Angel will probably provide a lot for fans of the manga who want to witness moments brought to live through gorgeous visual design and for action filmgoers who are perfectly content to watch a two-hour movie with about 20 minutes of fine-tuned action. I’m one of those sometimes, but not this time.