Movie Review: “Alita: Battle Angel”

It is possible in this day and age to produce a stunningly beautiful, completely entrancing, and utterly remarkable looking film.  This is the sort of piece which brings to our world that which we all know to be fake, but still manages to appear completely real.  It is technology at its finest.  However, if the visuals are not married to a worthwhile story, the exercise is one in futility.  Such is the case with the long-delayed, finally here, based on the manga “Gunnm,” Robert Rodriguez directed, James Cameron and Jon Landau produced, “Alita:  Battle Angel.”

In the simplest terms, “Alita:  Battle Angel” is the story of a cyborg, Alita (Rosa Salazar), who is brought back to life after several hundred years of inactivity by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz).  With no memory of who she is, where she came from, or anything else, Alita slowly finds her way in a post-apocalyptic world that was largely destroyed by the United Republic of Mars (URM) before the humans defeated the invaders.

The movie then offers a coming of age story, with Alita slowly regaining some of her memories, learning about this new world, and figuring out where in it she belongs.  The questions she has, ought to perplex her, but in one of the failings of the film, they never quite seem to – she just goes out and does stuff, bad idea or good.  It could be argued that she is just headstrong, and she is, but it isn’t terribly compelling to see her make mistake after mistake after mistake, to venture where she ought not and do what is clearly wrong just because she is headstrong.

So, she remains with Dr. Ido, who knows more about her past than he cares to admit.  She forges a relationship with Hugo (Keean Johnson), the handsome boy who is hiding a secret.  She becomes a “hunter-warrior” (a bounty hunter), as her fighting skills, wherever they come from, are second to none.  She wants to make her way up to the mysterious city in the sky just because everyone around her seems so enamored of it even if no one will tell her anything solid about it.  She desires to play professional Motorball, a game kind of like a cross between car racing and a roller derby where cyborgs beat each other up in brutally vicious ways despite knowing its viciousness.

That last paragraph can easily be translated to:  this is a movie where the world where we may not know all the details but they have clearly been meticulously thought out even if the character’s actions are not. What we of this place, Iron City, is rendered beautifully.  What Rodriguez and company have created to tell this tale is a digital marvel, as is Alita herself; Salazar wore a motion capture suit on set.  Despite being CG, emotions are clearly visible on Alita’s face throughout.  She will never be mistaken for anything other than a digital creation, but the manner in which we see her interact with other people and the environment feels perfect.

The story that these impressive visuals and well-considered world are married to is, as should be apparent by now, lacking.  The characters are utterly flat, with the main villain, Nova, not really appearing; his witting (or not) accomplices, Vector (Mahershala Ali) and Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), are unable to formulate much more of a plan than “send someone to get Alita;” and Dyson flip-flops about every idea he has.

This last, while it may sound minimal, is exceptionally concerning.  Dyson, Alita’s father figure, knows her exact history and refuses to let her have a body that is better suited to that history… until he changes his mind for no particular reason.  He refuses to help her play Motorball because he doesn’t want her hurt… until he changes his mind, again, and again does it for no particular reason. There is a whole lot of Dyson’s story, a story that would help ground the movie, that feels as though it’s been left on the cutting room floor if it was ever filmed at all.  As it stands in the final edit, he changes beliefs on a whim and that makes for storytelling as poor as Hugo’s big reveal to Alita in which he confesses to something completely different than what he’s accused of… for no particular reason.

These gaping issues with the plot lend further credence to the notion that there is much that has been worked out about this world and the characters that we never get to see. Whether that stems from a problem with the screenplay (written by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and Rodriguez) or the final cut of the movie is not something that we know, nor which is necessarily relevant in reviewing that which is being put on screen.  Wherever the failure may originate, it is carried through all the way to the end.  This, as with so many other movies, is one that is clearly begging for a sequel, but it’s not clear that it ever makes the case that it deserves one.

Go see “Alita: Battle Angel” on the biggest screen with the loudest sound and best 3D you possibly can.  It is an amazing technological feat.  It is a completely disappointing movie, but an amazing technological feat.

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photo credit:  20th Century Fox

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