The brainchild of producer/co-writer James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel takes place in the futuristic war-torn Iron City, a sprawling junkyard populated primarily by cyborgs and people with cybernetic enhancements, with the unreachable utopia of Zalem looming high in the sky over all of them, and the main source of televised entertainment being a fast paced and brutal sport called Motorball. The film begins with Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finding the severed head of an artificial being in a scrapheap and, after attaching it to a cybernetic body, Ido’s newfound discovery regains consciousness and finds that she can’t remember who she is or how she came to be disassembled and as the girl – soon named Alita (Rosa Salazar) – attempts to piece together what happened to her, sinister forces start conspiring against her as it is revealed that there’s far more to her than meets the eye.
It’s actually difficult for me to confidently sum up the plot of Alita because the storytelling at hand isn’t as strong as it should have been; Robert Rodriguez apparently had to cut down three hours worth of James Cameron’s material and unfortunately, he doesn’t quite succeed. For me, the troubles occur right at the beginning because we are thrown straight into the story without a proper explanation of just what happened to Iron City/Zalem (the film simply begins with text along the lines of “300 years after The Great Fall”) and there’s a feeling that we’ve been placed into the middle of the story, without letting us get a sense of the world’s history and with characters who are briefly introduced without giving us satisfying explanations as to just who they are or what they do. Mahershala Ali’s character, for example, is just thrown in but, even after the film finished, I was still unclear as to just what he did – Head Gamemaker? – and this initial narrative stumbling into the film’s world isn’t helped by some rather messy editing decisions.
Although the story is never boring and there’s enough in there to keep audiences entertained, the narrative is still far too unrefined, messy and occasionally nonsensical and slightly confusing (apparently in this world, a young girl can become a licensed and notorious bounty hunter in two minutes just by filling out a few forms) and there’s certainly a lot of plot going on – with Alita’s central quest to discover who she is, an overarching plot thread involving something called URM, a sinister unseen enemy and a shady government conspiracy element that wouldn’t be out of place in a YA novel, and a few side missions into the Motorball arena; sequences involving the latter sure are ambitious and provide the bulk of the entertainment value but trying to make it pivotal to the main plot was a misstep because it’s incompatible with the main narrative. Cameron and Rodriguez’s ambition and chutzpah is admirable but the story of Alita isn’t told in a cohesive enough manner and much of it actually feels like something that we’ve seen before – not a new and original story that’ll be remembered in five years or so.
Plus, it doesn’t help that the film can’t resist having a romance thread between Alita and Hugo (Keean Johnson) and those parts prove to be far too cringey and sappy, not helped by a slightly manipulative score and some eyeroll-inducing lines of dialogue. “You are the most human person I have ever met”? Bleh.
The visual effects and the design of the locations and characters form a major part of Alita and while the postapocalypic junkyard world of Iron City is nicely designed, as are the Motorball arena and the looming leviathan of Zalem, but much of the film regrettably looks quite ugly and, as you may have gathered from the film’s posters, it often appears as though the actors’ faces have been haphazardly pasted onto CG bodies – even Alita herself often looks quite offputting. With those awkwardly, unrealistically large eyes that would make Tangled jealous! The high-octane action sequences are plenty entertaining but many of the big encounters – especially those set in the Motorball arena – are too quick and hastily put together, often resorting to Transformers style robot smashing and bashing. Maybe it’s because I saw this film in 3D, maybe the glasses hindered my vision, but it was often too difficult to clearly see just what was going on.
Looking at the main characters, Rosa Salazar is a strong and confident enough lead and there are plenty of moments where she kicks butt and demonstrates her compassion, resilience and bravery as she starts off as a young, naive, fish out of water but then grows in confidence as she gradually works out just who she is, but there’s also something offputting about her; though she’s meant to be confident, ballsy and quick witted, dishing out several putdowns and quips, she sometimes comes across as arrogant, a bit unpleasant and maybe a bit too full of herself.
Christoph Waltz is alright as Dr. Ido – the classic father figure and mentor who’s deals with personal issues while developing a strong attachment to his surrogate daughter, hiding many many secrets in order to protect her, secrets she eventually discovers – and Waltz is relaxed enough in the role but his line delivery is occasionally awkward. Jennifer Connelly plays the morally ambiguous character of Chiren as she apparently works for the bad guys but may, in fact, be hiding pure motives and Connelly shows this duality quite well, even though her character is ultimately forgettable. As Vector, Mahershala Ali is as cool, confident and charismatic as you’d expect him to be but his role is that of a typical, two-dimensional YA baddie – quite boring and merely a conduit for the real, unseen enemy, Ed Skerin plays yet another cocky, swaggering, pompous ass in a perfectly entertaining manner, playing the most formidable bounty hunter Zapan, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. finally gets to shed his “nice guy” persona that he’s built up in films like Love, Simon and Bumblebee, playing something of a schoolyard bully, and Keean Johnson is decent as the love interest of the piece but at the end of the day, a love interest is all that he is.
In conclusion, I went into Alita: Battle Angel not expecting much and, while it turned out to be a perfectly fine piece of popcorn entertainment, a lot of it tested my patience as the story was a bit of a sprawling mess, not properly enlightening the audience about the “history” of Iron City or its inhabitants properly, the effects could’ve been better, and the lead character occasionally rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a 2 1/2 star film but, given the ambition that went into it, and the plot which sometimes got interesting, it gets rounded up to a three.