Alita: Battle Angel - Review

Influences and artistic voices clash in a $200 million attempt to win over the masses.

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There’s a dialogue happening in between the frames of Alita: Battle Angel. Conversations that last only a second before the next action scene can fill the screen or a special effect can dazzle the eyes. The words are shared between two distinct voices, each vying for his vision of the film, and in a larger sense, how a story this massive should be told. James Cameron has experience in this genre, making him the perfect person to produce, while Robert Rodriguez is attached as director. I say attached because anytime his creative influence does show up, it’s nipped faster than you can say “I’ve already seen this movie 100 times”.

The film begins in a standard place. Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the head and heart of Alita, a war-machine from the past, lying in the middle of a landfill. The garbage is disposed from an upper city called Zalem, where the well-to-do people live as the rejects subsist in a lower plane known as Iron City. While there is a slow start, Alita admirably wastes little time dumping exposition, instead throwing us in the middle of Alita’s maturation into a capable fighter and individual. In a climate that allows films like Avengers: Infinity War to succeed and Blade Runner 2049 to bomb, it can be hard to predict what audiences will latch onto. Thus, we see little of the all-or-nothing big-budget ventures of the last decade, replaced by films that satisfy the need to be amazed while also presenting something that could be called a story. This is Alita in a nutshell, though it would be criminal to call it an Avatar copy: this film has heart, a charismatic lead, and the possibility to succeed far beyond itself. It won’t, though, because although Rodriguez’s voice shines through, the studio needs another Avatar.

Credit where it’s due, the special effects used to design Alita (Rosa Salazar) are something to be admired. It’s genuinely difficult to tell whether or not she is an actress or an effect, and some twitchy mouth movements aside, it’s 100% seamless. In action sequences the camera does everything it can to close in on her, highlighting blood, sweat, and arm movements that emphasize her humanity: Alita is the #1 attraction to this film, and she does not disappoint. Unlike the so-so supporting cast, Alita is humble, innocent, and thoughtful, more like an Avenger than a dark, brooding pit of self-loathing. The film is best when it focuses on her origin, what odds she must overcome to reach the final battle, and take revenge for those the shadow-like government of Zalem have killed. Goofy terminology abounds (“Hunter-Warrior”, “Zalemites”, “URM Berserker”), but it’s delivered with the confidence of a sturdy franchise; Alita may not blow people away, but it cherishes its material like few franchises do.

The biggest setback for Alita is its tone. One moment there is a dramatic call to arms from Alita to the other Hunter-Warriors, a group of vigilantes who chase criminals for the government, the next she’s punching a hole through someone’s face and saying “fuck you”. When the gloves come off, Alita can be a surprisingly visceral action movie, not unlike the dramatic and emotional violence of Avatar. You may be getting sick of that comparison, but unlike me, James Cameron’s script never gives it a rest. Alita is the new arrival in a world of hurt, and quickly becomes the poster-child for her newfound people despite realizing that she doesn’t belong with them at all. The films ends with her triumphant victory, and a chance to face the biggest evil of them all, Nova (an utterly ridiculous-looking Edward Norton that I beg we see more of). The tone is positive, characters exist only to teach and exposit, and Alita suffers a predictable romance coupled with loss that hardens her to the evils of the world. When Rodriguez’s chaotic, climactic action sensibility shines through, Alita: Battle Angel can be a lot of fun; but this is a James Cameron film, and he won’t let you forget it.