Review: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

“I’d rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

*This review may contain spoilers*

Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi action film based on the Japanese graphic novel Gunnm, directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, El Mariachi) and starring Rosa Salazar (Bird Box, Maze Runner Series), Christoph Waltz (Django, Inglourious Basterds) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book, Moonlight). Set 300 years after “The Fall” of Earth, scientist Dr Ido finds a damaged cyborg in a scrapyard beneath the last floating city of Zalem. After rebuilding Alita, she becomes to realise her significant power and martial past.

After praise from fellow sci-fi lovers revived my interest in Rodriguez’s cyberpunk manga adaption, I finally got around to watching Alita and had a years’ worth of build up behind it. The film opens strong, with fantastic visuals that this film sustains and an attention to world building that is incredibly thorough. Delivered through simple exposition dumps, Iron City is shown as much as it is told, keeping me more visually intrigued through atmospheric details such as a cyborg with four hands playing guitar and the various different races, languages and factions that inhabit the world. It is clear that the source material has a lot of story to be told, in which the films does a good job at exploring as much of it as it can.

The animation on Alita’s face is occasionally obvious and can distract from the scene but her expressions are spot on, bringing a solidly empathetic character that has the same emotional weight as the supporting cast, if not more due to her giant eyes! However, the narrative immediately presents possibly the worst movie trope of all: Alita cannot remember her past. The amnesia style of storytelling can be a lazy form of writing and Alita definitely falls for this, as we follow her discovery of chocolate and centurion robots to name a few, that are neither funny nor interesting. Her introduction to the racing sport Motorball was an exception, as the film builds gradually on Alita’s realisation of her general strength, which concludes in a satisfactory end to her characters journey and some fantastic scenes of her taking out other cyborgs with ridiculous proficiency. It’s easy to get behind the father / daughter relationship shared between Alita and Ido, aided by Waltz injecting his loveable and quirky personality into this layered character. Ido is poorly written, delivering several exposition dumps and character backstories that may have been incredibly unnatural, but Waltz manages to cut through the clichés with ease, propping up these interactions with humanity and charm to a point that the writing could go by unnoticed.

Character designs on all the cyborgs are stunning, with almost every action scene utterly carrying the overall film. From the flashy armour of hunter-warrior Zapan to the chilling, insect-like criminal in an alleyway ambush, each one of these characters are completely unique and visually astonishing, standing out as easily the best part of the film. Each time I felt myself floating away from the loose story, there would be an action scene that is so visually engrossing that it hauled me straight back in. In fact, the only point in which the writing feels competent was before a final Motorball action sequence, as Ido notices the other contestants are all hunter-warriors or criminals, building to a mind blowing, explosive CGI showdown that had me wondering why the film couldn’t end with this scene! When the sparks start to fly, the CGI doesn’t just keep up, it propels every shot with a brazen style that appears almost straight from a comic book.

Unfortunately, around the halfway mark of the movie, the film takes a shabby shift in narrative that even the strong cast cannot hide. The story isn’t sure how to squeeze in the next action sequence and the dialogue between our romantic leads is borderline unbearable, to rival the cheese of Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. In Alita’s infinite wisdom, she conceives a plan to provoke a bar full of hunter-warriors in order to ask for their help in stopping her enemy Grewishka, which has no logical reasoning behind it but to start a cool bar fight scene. She then perches on Hugo’s window and watches him sleep, just to push a couple of shots of actor Keean Johnson’s physique, as the story becomes more like a teen romance novel than a sci-fi epic. Johnson’s acting becomes questionable as he is unable to carry the cringey screenplay with the level of skill we’ve seen from our leads, and this issue extends to most of the supporting cast. Ido’s estranged wife Dr Chiren is built as an important part of the story, but ultimately ends up being another lazy way of delivering Ido’s backstory and takes a huge personality shift at the end of the film that is neither previously set up or necessary.

Possibly Alita’s biggest misstep is in its lousy treatment of its “main” villain, played by 2-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Ali is a phenomenal actor, but his character is completely overshadowed by the big bad Nova. The screenplay pays more attention to setting up sequels in Nova that we get a hollow shell of a character in Vector, which leads to little to no pay off during the films climax as the story rushes to finish multiple arcs that have not been properly explored beforehand. This is a problem that many modern films fall prey to, as every studio is trying to jump on the MCU bandwagon, pushing a focus on building bigger cinematic franchises for financial success rather than telling the singular story at hand. The direction also takes an adult shift that is incredibly jarring, as Alita starts dropping F-bombs and a child gets violently cut in half by a sword, which had me question who this film was made for, as it appeared to be a family adventure film up to the third act. There was a redeeming moment during the finale as Hugo unnecessarily falls to his death, a bittersweet ending to their insufferable relationship!

Alita: Battle Angel will likely hold your attention due to its stunning visuals and incredible action sequences, but its overstuffed plot and unbearable dialogue may be enough to tank the film for story-driven viewers. If you’re already a fan of science fiction movies or its cyberpunk framework, Alita should deliver enough excitement to satisfy. I give Alita: Battle Angel a 6/10!

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