A lot of great design work and a surprisingly strong lead performance, Alita is only somewhat forgettable in its action-heavy pacing.
It is the 26th century, and the world is not as it was: much of the land is desolate wasteland, and cities are mostly rusting and over-populated with a cybernetically enhanced populous. High above, a great floating utopian city, that everyone below covets. From this city’s refuse, a doctor finds the remains of a young cybernetic girl. Reviving her, he gets more than he bargained for.
There was a lot of cynicism towards Alita: Battle Angel when footage was first released. Based off a Japanese manga, viewers were subjected to actress Rosa Salazar having giant, disproportionate CG eyes, mimicking the classic drawing style of the medium. This glaringly obvious use of CG unsettled a lot of potential audience members, especially as it would be in the forefront of the movie… If it didn’t work, it would impact the film heavily.
But, as 80% of this film is computer generated (this isn’t a far cry from what Ready Player One provided, in terms of amount of practical effects) the big eyes aren’t the worst thing about the film. In fact, you do get used to them… mostly.
Like a lot of science fiction, Alita: Battle Angel has small issues that become larger if you give them any amount of attention. The opening scene for example, sees Dyson (Christoph Waltz) walking quite comfortably through a gigantic pile of trash and machine parts, left from the floating sky city. It is perplexing that there’s stable ground at all, this rubbish pile is as tall as skyscrapers.
Or how our villains are basically in charge of every relevant thing in the city… It feels convenient; like a character or two have been cut out of the original source material to make a shorter story. The screenplay almost trips on its own feet doing this, when the motivations of characters starts to blur when conspiracy is clearly afoot. There’s also a sense that the story isn’t as clever as it wants to be: an early plotline involves distrust of an established character… it is plainly obvious what the truth is.
Without spoiling anything also, the ending feels extremely rushed and quite unfulfilling. There’s a lot of towering emotional developments that barely get the time dedication required for our characters to react to them properly.
All of this said, the movie is a ride. It is visually extremely appealing, in fact, looking at the design work was more arresting than the performances. Ed Skrein’s character Zapan had some of the coolest robot concept design, as well as the dozens of cybernetic characters the storyline throws at you. It is all very inventive, and for me it is exactly the sort of visual flare that I enjoy. It is an interesting world, with interesting concepts and ideas that are at times put aside for the more flashy, consumable ideas. Mostly a violent robot rollerblade sport called Motorball.
There’s a lot of good talent here too, quite likely providing a boost to the overall quality of the picture. Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, and Jennifer Connelly, although the last two feel somewhat shortchanged.
With James Cameron as producer, it isn’t surprising that the production value is high and the design is solid. An art book of this film would be gorgeous. But looking at the film objectively, it isn’t exactly memorable. It doesn’t have the cerebral designs of something like Ghost in the Shell; there’s no dedication on what it means to have 90% of your body be robotic, it is accepted as easily as getting a new jacket. It is entirely about the action, which is solid, and the weapons, cyborg bodies and clothing are all very cool… But give it a few years, it will all have dated, looking like floating actor faces on a jumble of wires and shapeless metal.
As a sci-fi fan, you really should go see Alita as quickly as possible. For everyone else, if you do like the look of it, you should see it sooner rather than later.