Alita: Battle Angel is a cult-classic Japanese Manga series from the early 1990s that, for some reason or another, James Cameron has been absolutely obsessed with for the past twenty years or so. It’s the story of a young cyborg girl, salvaged and repaired by a caring scientist, who discovers she’s actually some sort of ancient robot super-soldier, and decides to use her abilities to fight injustice in a futuristic, borderline post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk world. I suppose Cameron’s obsession with it makes sense, in a way. Alita as a character is one-part Terminator, and one-part Sarah Conner, all rolled into one. And generally, when a movie is stuck in development hell for as long as Alita has been, it usually ends up being an absolute trainwreck. Yet while not quite being a complete catastrophe, Alita still doesn’t quite live up to the decades of hype surrounding it.
I’ll say this for Alita: The action and visual effects are top-notch. Which, honestly is a bit of a relief, considering how bizarrely unsettling they seemed when the first round of trailers and promo images started hitting the internet last year. The title character’s strange, disproportionate eyes and face were just on the edge of the Uncanny Valley, and I was genuinely concerned that it would be far too distracting, and that the film should have just stuck with actress Rosa Salazar’s natural face. But since then, the insanely talented digital artists at WETA have really smoothed out the edges in both the character and the rest of the film’s visuals, and the results are absolutely stunning. Watching this felt just like the first time I saw Transformers as a kid, and being in absolute awe of how realistic the robots looked and felt onscreen. There’s not a single moment that I can remember during Alita’s runtime that I found myself finding flaws in the CG characters and backgrounds. It’s gorgeous, and it really helps to make the setting and the techno-futuristic world seem all the more real. The overall aesthetic of the film is incredibly engrossing, and I kept getting distracted just by tiny details.
Director Robert Rodriguez has always had an eye for slick, uniquely cinematic and stylized action, and those talents are certainly on display here. Often times in effects-heavy films, like Transformers, the CG models sort of blend together during action sequences, making it difficult to tell what exactly is going on. Alita skirts this issue by a masterful use of framing and choreography, making each fight both visually and narratively coherent. The battles are gritty and violent, pushing the boundaries of the film’s PG-13 rating, but are always thrilling and full of energy. I particularly like how the designs of Alita’s enemies always have distinctly jagged and monstrous silhouettes, which contrast perfectly with her smaller, more graceful frame. I’m a huge fan of robots punching other robots, and I definitely got my fill here. Alita, despite her appearances, is an absolute badass, making even Cameron’s previous Terminators look almost pathetic by comparison.
But the most impressive thing about Alita isn’t her amazing fighting abilities, it’s her ability to emote and elicit sympathy from the audience. This is due entirely to Rosa Salazar’s incredibly endearing and irresistibly likeable performance, imbuing the character with an authentic and genuine sense of child-like wonder, which serves as an excellent narrative and thematic contrast with her violent abilities. There’s notes of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, with wide-eyed curiosity and wonderment at the achievements of mankind, while at the same time harboring feelings of disappointment and disillusionment at their moral failures. She’s an overwhelmingly charming and sympathetic figure, making her easy to root for.
Joining her is a stellar cast of absolute A-list performers, most notably of which is the always-delightful Christoph Waltz as Alita’s adoptive father. He’s warm, kind, and essentially serves as the moral center of the film, appearing every couple of scenes to give some nugget of advice to Alita (which she then promptly ignores). He even gets a chance to shine in a couple of action scenes, wielding a massive, rocket-powered hammer. His chemistry with Alita is easily one of the highlights of the film, with the two having an extremely believable and heartwarming father-daughter bond.
That being said, the rest of the cast is almost completely wasted. Mahershala Ali, who seems like he’s in everything recently (which, given his sheer talent, is certainly not a bad thing), does absolutely nothing for the entire duration of the film. He wears sunglasses indoors and nice suits, and that’s about it. He’s technically the closest thing the film has to a main villain, yet he spends most of his time standing around and talking. And even then, about 75% of the time, another character is speaking through him, using him only as a sort of human sock puppet.
Likewise, Jennifer Connelly is also in this film, sometimes, doing things. Important science things, I’m told. She plays Waltz’s ex-wife, and acts like she really couldn’t care less about anything going on around her at any given time. I’m not entirely sure why they even cast Connelly, who’s an exceptionally talented actress, if all she was going to do was stand and stare at people.
To their credit, most of the movie’s other supporting characters and B-villains, who are all played by character actors for the most part, are pretty fun. Ed Skrein plays a douche cyborg bounty hunter, who serves as Alita’s main rival through much of the film. He’s pretty much the exact same character he played in Deadpool, with some of the Daario Naharis snark he brought to Game of Thrones. Jackie Earl Haley, who’s always entertaining, plays Connelly’s main enforcer, mainly popping up every couple of scenes to set up another action set piece. Jai Courtney is also in this movie for approximately thirty seconds, as another cyborg, and I’m going to resist the urge to make any “robotic acting” jokes about his previous roles. Because that’s beneath me. Ed Nortan is in maybe two scenes, but with his hair and makeup, I genuinely thought he was James Cameron until I looked it up later on IMDB. I really hope this was intentional, because it was hilarious.
The absolute, hands-down worst person in this entire film though is Alita’s love interest, who is the least charismatic human being I’ve ever witnessed. He and Alita have absolutely zero chemistry, and every single line of dialogue he has is delivered with the same amount of charm as a TV remote. Seriously, I think he’s the only purely human character in this entire movie, and still manages to be the least convincing in behaving like an actual person. It’s almost like they accidently cast some random teenager from a Disney Channel show. I spent every scene in which he was on screen for this movie to just break traditional narrative convention, and kill him off as quickly as possible.
Another big issue with Alita actually goes back to how much of a badass she is. While yes, it makes for some cool fight scenes, and makes her a competent, compelling protagonist, it also sucks all of the suspense out the film. She’s too much of a badass. You never get the sense she could lose a fight, and she really never does. By the end of the movie, the action scenes are still fun to watch, but they quickly lose their sense of urgency. And unfortunately, the film is also rather thematically shallow. It seems like it exists solely for the visuals alone, which is a shame, because it really could have explored some fascinating existential and philosophical ideas relating to the concept of cyborgs and what humanity really means. But nope, punching is cooler to look at, so we don’t have time for such silly nonsense in Alita.
The dialogue is also pretty awful. At first, when we first meet Alita and she and her new father are talking, their speech is stilted and awkward, to the point of almost being cringe-inducing. Exposition is clunky and strangely-worded, with nauseatingly cheesy and goofy phrasing. And I thought, “That makes sense. She’s not human, and is still learning, and he’s kind of a weird guy, so I guess they would talk kinda funny.” But then the film introduces more and more characters, and they all still talk like that, which suddenly made me realize, “My god, I’m going to have to deal with this the entire time, aren’t I?” It’s fitting that Alita is based on a Japanese Manga, because that’s exactly what all of the dialogue sounds like: Poorly translated Japanese.
Perhaps the worse offense Alita commits, though, is trying to cram far too much narrative information into one movie. Cameron and Rodriguez intend for Alita to be a franchise, and so the vast majority of the film’s runtime is spent establishing history, characters, and plot points that are meant to set-up future films, rather that accentuate the one that the audience is presently watching. This results in a plot that feels paradoxically both too long and too rushed. All of the character development and proper establishment for Alita’s main story is quickly blown through, so that it can introduce more and more lore as seeds for its hypothetical sequels. It never really feels like a self-contained narrative, and the plot therefore doesn’t have a proper ending. There’s no real sense of progression, stuff just keeps happening and happening for reasons that are never quite explained.
Despite the impressive visuals and some admirable performances, its narrative and thematic flaws ultimately make Alita feel like a relatively hollow experience, like a machine without a soul. It’s all shock and awe, with no heart to center itself around. There’s times when we get a glimpse at the complex, nuanced story that could be told here, but it’s always pushed aside for more action or another information dump. It just goes to show that a movie can’t get by on action alone. It’s a shame, too, because the world presented to the audience is a beautiful, fascinating one that I would love to learn more about, if only the plot were as compelling as its setting. And given the film’s disastrous box-office performance, I highly doubt we’ll be getting those sequels that Alita seems to believe it’s getting with such conviction. If you’re interested in seeing it, I’d wait and catch it on Netflix later this year. It’s really not worth the price of admission, in my admittedly cynical opinion.