Alita: Battle Angel
Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, and Laeta Kalogridis (the former, Alita’s director, the latter two, Alita’s screenwriters) are powerful world builders. They spend every waking moment creating a universe that you can enter, roam around in, and experience. Sin City is a true recreation of Frank Miller’s source material when it comes to its aesthetics. Titanic has a pure recreation of the titular vessel, and Avatar’s Pandora was a dream to explore. Alexander attempted to cover many aspects of the late great’s legacy (pun intended). What do all of these films have in common, though? Their environments are immaculate, but their stories are flat enough to be flimsy, bendable, and tearable (thus, terrible; homonym intended). What happens when all three filmmakers work on the same passion project? A gorgeous film with an exhaustingly frustrating story. Alita: Battle Angel is eager from the get-go, but its unbelievably lazy story is unforgivable. Its title is true, because it wears its heart on its sleeve (angel), but rebels against telling a non-typical, cliches-ridden tale (battle); hey, if the film can have awful lines, why can’t my article about the film?
The rating would have been even lower, had it not been for the strengths. The performances aren’t exactly Godzilla levels of confusing (where Bryan Cranston had no business delivering such a powerful performance in a film that was dependant on a giant lizard fighting stuff), because at least here, Rodriguez and company are trying to tell a more layered story (but not succeeding). So, when Christoph Waltz’s doctor character emotes with such ferocity, I can see why. When Jennifer Connelly’s turncoat character seems reasonably torn between her values, it makes sense to the greater whole. When Mahershala Ali steals the entire picture with his villainous presence, I can get behind that. Then there is Rosa Salazar’s title role that is pure enough to mask just how brutal some of these dialogue cues are. She is Alita: a cyborg that is trying to remember where she came from. Her discoveries are fast enough to seem like reasonable recollections, and slow enough to not seem like she is running around in circles the entire time. She might be hell bent on stupid action catchphrases, but she was clearly programmed that way. Her push for the truth, and her enjoyment of a second life, help make the film much more bearable, and you can thank Salazar’s honest performance for that.
The film starts off so interestingly, too. The score by Tom Holkenborg (who is apparently no longer going by Junkie XL) is truly engaging. Seeing Alita respond to the world for the first time is magical. Clearly this is example # 98732913 of how Metropolis has affected science fiction for good, but hey, at least it started off as a noble interpretation of the silent masterpiece (you have your upper class elite, the lower class slums, the androids and the revolts). This seemed like an earnest adaptation of the original manga source by Yukito Kishiro, who clearly took a common sci-fi trope and made a literary epic with it.
Then, the plot actually begins. Honestly, if Cameron and Kalogridis spent as much time detailing a story as they did putting tiny little final touches on their world, Alita could be brilliant. Instead, all the usual suspects are here. Villains that laugh when they enter a room to express disapproval. “No” being screamed when something traumatic happens. One liners that range from unnecessary to the bottom level of cringe (especially when Grewishka says them; what happened to your career, Jackie Earle Haley?). You have Cameron’s absolute obsession with the most blatant symbols (let’s squash a cockroach during the most convenient time to impress the audience with our turn against lifeforms, right about now). Then there are just embarrassing inclusions. Why in God’s name does Alita slice one of her falling tears in half? Why was this painstakingly animated and clearly worked hard on? To represent yet another awful symbol that Alita is literally fighting through her tears? I think that metaphor actually just became worse, now that I realized what it actually means as I write this. That is the power of Alita.
It’s too bad that the film becomes an obstacle course (try and avoid the awkward filmmaking decisions), because there is an interesting take on an apocalyptic future here. Is it original? No, but there is a definite nuance on paper here (but absolutely zero effort when it comes to execution). We see Alita remember her crucial past little by little, but by the time we get each check point, we begin to care less and less. We go from wondering who she truly is, to shrugging when we find out she’s basically a key to the world. So much of this has to do with — once again — diehard devotion to the wrong places. In this paragraph’s episode of “Rodriguez & Co. Cuttin’ Corners”, we’re going to argue that Alita should have been at least a half hour longer. Tune in to the next paragraph to catch your thoughts on that one.
Welcome back. You read what I said. The major issue with this film is that it was clearly catered to selling tickets (as is the usual Cameron mold). It is a perfectly neat two hours, it fits the PG-13 stereotype (one single use of the F-bomb and all), and it sets itself up for at least one sequel (because, of course it does). Had everyone on board (I blame Cameron and his producer partner in crime Jon Landau) tried to just make one solid film, this may not have been so bad. Instead, we get this: a rushed film with little chance to soak it all in. If Alita herself had more time to realize who she is, for relationships to develop, for society to figure her all out, and for the gravity of this future world of ours to really hit home, all of its ambitions may have been felt.
But no. We absolutely have to spend the final ten minutes setting up for the next film (with head spinning celebrity cameos and all; you have to see the next film if so-and-so is going to be in it!). There isn’t even a proper conclusion to this film. It literally ends on a cliffhanger (not a steep one, but it’s still enough of a drop from here) that sets up the next film (Alita: Battle Cinema Standards, it might be called; not sure). If Cameron and Landau focused on one-picture-at-a-time, we could have had something meaningful here (then again, make way for twelve Avatar sequels). It looks like Rodriguez was all on board with making this world make sense, but there was not much of a literary world to work with.
It’s weird that I am getting so defensive here. I didn’t even have high hopes for Alita until its first ten minutes. There was a modern take on the Metropolis tale. I was witnessing a 2019 depiction of how animatronics are being integrated into humanity, in both moral and immoral ways. There is definitely a deeper discussion, here. But we had to make way for the fast food fodder we always get. We could have had a conversation, rather than yet another line about how Alita is a “little flea”. We could have really sifted through the rubbles of society with a fresh pair of eyes (Alita’s, to be specific), but we had to taunt Alita with saws before we got killed instead. There truly was potential for something powerful, like Alita herself. We ended up with a Furby spewing programmed commands instead.
Outside of the fans of this film that had a blast with its (actually great) effects and action choreography, who is going to care about what the sequel(s) have to say? If the first film skimped out on the very basis of what makes cinema matter (a connective story), why should we invest time in the afterthoughts? Alita had the heart of a film made for cinephiles, but the mind of the business-side of the industry. Its critical reaction seems split down the middle, and I can easily see why. This is far from the worst film of the year, but it actually had the potential to be one of the best action films of 2019. Instead, it will be a distant memory by the time Alita 2: Cyborg Boogaloo comes out, and we have to remember that part 1 even existed.
Could we at least have seen the ending of that Motorball match, with all of the paying audience members having been abandoned by all of the athletes?
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.