Centuries in the future, Earth has been ravaged by a vague war known as “The Fall.” Most people live in squalor, while the elite live in a sky city named Zalem. A doctor who performs cyber-prosthetic surgery, Ido (Christoph Waltz), discovers in a junkyard of scrap metal the remains of a cyborg. He rebuilds her, calls her Alita (Rosa Salazar), and explains the world to her for our benefit.
She doesn’t remember anything of her past, but soon enough everyone in the city’s underbelly (and a select few from the city above) want her dead. Funnily enough, Alita just happens to be equipped with uncanny martial arts abilities that can quickly dispatch of most cyborg assailants.
So we have Alita: Battle Angel, the James Cameron scripted and produced, Robert Rodriguez-directed adaptation of Gunnm (“gun dream”), the popular 1990s manga. I have never read the manga. Perhaps it is truly groundbreaking. I also do not know how faithful an adaptation Rodriguez’s film is. All I can say is this: Alita is a clunky mess.
The world of Alita: Battle Angel is vast and dense, thus the film requires a hefty amount of exposition, most of which is dictated to Alita in the first 30 minutes of the film as a series of parameters. Ido explains something to her, then prompts her that it is dangerous and/or should be avoided at all costs. Because, foreshadowing.
Alita then meets a boy, Hugo (Keean Johnson), who serves his time as the static love interest. He shows her the opposite side of the coin, that things can be fun and exciting. Most of this comes in the form of Motorball, a fictional sport involving rollerskating on ramps and throwing a ball into a hole in the wall. Or something. It is an arbitrary sport that looks fast-paced and exciting, but it is ultimately confusing to ascertain the stakes.
And Motorball is just the beginning. Soon there will be Hunter Warriors, evil assassins who are mainly made of metal, flashbacks to a war in Alita’s past, a man who can transfer his consciousness into the body of cyborgs, etc.. The world-building piles on, and the film just can’t carry its weight.
The unbalance is that of a pinball machine tilt. Too much jamming on the exposition, and the whole thing locks into place. I guess in this analogy the pinball is excitement, falling rapidly out of play.
This is not to say that Alita is boring, per se. But it becomes a slog when the majority of the narrative involves explaining in a tell-don’t-show mentality. The actual narrative action of the film begins at the very end. As Alita comes to understand more about her past, and the story aligns her with what has been foreshadowed previously, the stakes become real and the tilt of exposition-heavy storytelling falls away. The machine resets. But this is the film’s climax, when it really ought to be the inciting incident.
The film ends with a form of sequel baiting that is almost always groan-worthy. Without spoiling the specifics, it involves literally pointing toward the next film and the reveal of a major acting figure. It’s a lazy tactic, and it makes you question the worth of the film you just watched, as the film has not justified such momentous shot-calling.
To say the film is unimpressive would be difficult. Rodriguez has successfully crafted this world. It looks vibrant (the lighting, as artificially crafted as it might be, is quite breath-taking). The look of Alita, which initially caused a jocular internet response, is not off-putting. I find it to be a rather seamless effect, and Salazar’s performance is impressive given that her face is literally reshaped by computer graphics.
It is the inconsistency of effects that allows this CG world to show its seams. Each actor has a different level of CG-augmented appearance to them, and most of the others don’t look as seamless as Alita. Putting some of these characters in scenes together does not mesh well.
Long story short, Alita: Battle Angel has its glossy surface. It has its tactical set pieces. But it is not a story told smoothly. The narrative is not compelling, because everything that needs to be set-up is done so inelegantly. Ultimately, this makes the film read bland, less exciting. Most likely, forgettable.
Alita: Battle Angel: C-