I came into Alita: Battle Angel with tempered expectations, as you would in any anime/manga live-action adaptation these days. During its preview cycle, I had flip-flopped from initially dismissing it to eventually developing a enthusiastic curiosity for it. It had looked better and better with each trailer and it wasn’t hard to get enamored.
Fast forward to having watched the movie, Alita: Battle Angel shattered my expectations both good and bad, while delivering on more of what I hoped but failing in more ways than what I had wanted. Alita had me torn in the worst ways. On one hand, the movie was a incredible visual spectacle. It has jaw-dropping and clearly-presented action as well as gorgeous environmental and character design. On the other, the narrative leaves a lot to be desired.
Alita started off really strongly for me. The world was rich with lore and mired in mystery and possibility. The classic James Cameron world-building is in full force here. The movie’s main locale, Iron City is depicted as a hauntingly beautiful dystopian wasteland that stretches for miles. The hustle and bustle of the city in daytime give way to the eerie looming danger at night. The atmosphere was palpable and reeked of poverty and desperation but also of hope.
The action segments all throughout the film are absolute thrill rides. Here Rodriguez flexes his muscles to astounding effect. Whether its the various Motorball sequences, robots fights or the action packed flashbacks, Alita does action really well. This is commendable especially since the similar scenes in most CGI-heavy movies oftentimes devolve into a jumbled blurry mess of bodies and movement. Here, the action is so clearly-presented and beautifully-rendered, sometimes even in slow motion, that you can’t help but stare in awe.
The central characters such as the kindly father figure, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) and the suave bad boy Hugo (Keean Johnson) both have a surprising amount of depth. They have dark secrets and shady dealings that add a lot of complexity to their characters. These aren’t just one-note stereotypes, at least not on the surface. These are characters filtered through the grim and rusty strainer of dystopia.
The main character Alita, voiced by Rosa Salazar, is a strong lead for the movie. She’s beautifully rendered and mo-capped, throughout the intense action scenes as well as the subtle ones. Salazar puts in a tremendous performance as the titular cyborg, toeing the line between child-like wonder to badass fighting machine with elegance and confidence.
However, the character possesses a central flaw that makes her a little hard to root for. Throughout the movie, she eviscerates enemies mercilessly, in gruesome ways. Granted many of them deserve it but I found it really hard to empathize with the character when she’s constantly slicing people’s faces off left and right and stabbing her enemies in the eye without a second thought.
Somewhere near the halfway mark of the movie, things start to deteriorate real fast. The plot loses traction and squanders everything positive going for it in its engaging first half. The narrative sort of goes into a familiar loop, one that involves plot points and interactions that have already been told one way or another. The story beats become a cycle of getting a new upgraded body, beating a bad guy, who escapes before being finished off, then rinse, repeat.
The film itself also feels like it gets really confused on what it wants to be, it flip- flops awkwardly from cyberpunk action thriller to sports film by way of its Motorball subplot and then back again. It never focuses on taking either of its sides to a more dynamic or satisfying close.
This duplicity leads the plot to focus on the wrong things without leaving time to focus on the right ones. Plot threads are left hanging aimlessly without any meaningful payoff. Important story points such as Alita’s origins, and the identity of antagonist Nova, all swirl so slowly around the narrative seemingly drawing ever closer to their pay off but never really reaching it. They just keep swirling, some for a little too long and some never stop swirling at all even after the movie ends, making room for the eventual sequel.
Even the inspiring climax of the movie feels largely unearned. The ending immediately jumps from tragic loss to glorious victory within mere seconds from each other without highlighting the important catharsis that should’ve occurred in between. It feels rushed, even with its 2 hr and 22 min run time, it feels like it didn’t have time to prioritize the most important bits of narrative, despite having time to indulge multiple subplots and cyclical story loops.
All in all, Alita: Battle Angel is a quite a mixed bag. There’s plenty to like, with its amazing visuals, jaw-dropping action and incredible design work. However, there’s also a lot that is sorely lacking in the movie’s narrative and story decisions. Despite all that however, Alita is still one of the better manga adaptations out there, fans and viewers hoping for good time will still definitely find it here.
Thank you to AOC Monitors Philippines and 20th Century Fox for tickets to the advanced screening of this movie.