The following spoiler-free review is based on the 3D IMAX version of Alita: Battle Angel
Alita: Battle Angel is an incomplete origin story. There are great moments of genuine charm and excitement, liberally scattered about a foggy presence where plot and characterization would be. It’s the frequency of these moments, and the strong performance of titular star Rosa Salazar, that provides the good in this film.
It’s the classic tale. Man finds a remarkably in-tact android girl on a refuse pile. Man fixes her up. Android girl wakes up a sprightly amnesiac with an instinctual martial arts ability and super strength and thus begins her journey of self-discovery. Man plays overprotective father-figure. If the story had stayed focused on the relationship between Alita and Dr. Ido [Christopher Waltz], Alita: Battle Angel would have been a better film. But unfortunately, after the well-paced opening sequence, the unnecessary plot points and underdeveloped themes start piling up like the detritus from a floating future city.
The technical aspects of Alita are handled extremely well. Alita and the motley assortment of battle droids, we meet throughout the film are a seamless presence in a more grounded atmosphere. Alita has a unique look. While the themes are cyberpunk in nature, Iron City is not shrouded in darkness with nondescript factories belching smoke into an otherwise tenement filled landscape. For the most part, events take place during the day, and the streets, while bustling, don’t exhibit the grimy desperation of the genre even as the floating metropolis of Zalem looms overhead.
A short featurette after the credits shows off a bit of the behind the scenes magic that went into creating Alita‘s world. Director Robert Rodriguez is conspicuously absent but James Cameron and other technicians describe the different rigs that Salazar had to wear. They went beyond motion capture into performance capture, a more detailed process that doesn’t miss a single tic of emotion in the faces while simultaneously capturing the body movements.
Alita works well as an action film, managing to imbue its copious fight scenes and other action sequences with the satisfying crunch we come to expect from such a spectacle while allowing Rodriguez to tell an engaging visual story. There is usually an emotional anchor, and most scenes manages to go on long enough to be impressive without dragging on and losing momentum. The animation in these scenes has weight and doesn’t fall into the trap that snares many big-budget, CGI-heavy flicks: looking like a multicolored lava lamp being tossed around haphazardly.
Still, I have a few critiques:
A Waste of Mahershala Ali & Others
Of the characters in this film, only Alita and Dr. Ido are fully realized and given the proper weight of personalities. The next on this sliding characterization scale would be Zapan played to screen chomping perfection by Ed Skrein. This is especially egregious because the great Mahershala Ali plays Vector, one of the main antagonists.
Ali looks sleek and sexy in his impeccably tailored suits, but due to story circumstances, his true motives are unclear. He wields power as the owner of the ubiquitous 26th-century sport, motorball. He inexplicably and openly engages in a bunch of shady violent actions that would definitely adversely affect his brand to the point it seems unlikely anyone would want to participate in his game if they weren’t conscripted into it. Ali is doing the best with what he’s been given but he’s not been given a lot. He gets a bit more interesting toward the end but there is not a way to go into detail about that without spoiling things. Overall, Vector is generic as far as antagonists go. Speaking of…
There Are Too Many Antagonists
Vector is joined by Chiren [Jennifer Connelly], both in proximity and the way her actions don’t seem to match her stated purpose. Perhaps there are some clarifying details tucked away in the hour of story that Rodriguez had to excise from Cameron’s 3-hour version of the script.
Zapan is a hunter-warrior, Alita‘s version of a bounty hunter in a world with no police. His entanglement with Alita is a bit contrived but their scenes together are a good time even when he’s just smarmily shouting exposition at her.
Amok [Casper Van Dein] provides visually appealing boss battles at different points in the film.
Lastly, there is a mysterious shadow antagonist named Nova. If Alita was the TV show pilot it really wants to be, this character and his role in the world would be most intriguing. As it stands, he’s just another element to add to the list of wasted opportunities.
The Requisite Teen Romance Feels Particularly Tacked-on
While Hugo, played by sweet-faced Keean Johnson, is a pleasant enough character, the romance built between him and Alita is weightless. There are no emotional stakes that their relationship accomplishes which couldn’t have been better served by focusing more on the emotional connection between Alita and Dr. Ido. In fact, if they gave Nurse Gerhad [Idara Victor] more than a few lines and any characterization at all, they could have built the emotional foundation of the plot on these three as a surrogate family unit.
There is also some really convenient shenanigans in the third act regarding Hugo’s arc and their relationship that really add to the “wait, what?” feel of the romantic storyline.
Movies Need Endings
Alita doesn’t so much end as just stop, and it does so with dangling plot threads galore. Not everybody is Marvel. They built their movie universe of TV-style serial storytelling over a decade of hard work by both a battalion of filmmakers and a fleet of marketing wizards. It doesn’t seem like a sound business decision to assume that the general movie-going audience wants to spend $20 a pop to see unfinished stories masquerading as feature films.
It doesn’t matter that Alita has the pedigree of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, there is a difference between telling a good story that sets up the possibility of a sequel and rolling out 2 hours of set up for the real story that’s coming down the pike later.
The prognosticators are not optimistic about this film’s chances at the box office. However, at my screening, folks seemed to be walking away happy and excited, so perhaps word-of-mouth will save Alita from its projected fate. There are several plot points big and small that were brought up but not explored. If I were tuning in to Season 1; Episode 1 of the Alita series this would be a very enticing intro. As a completed piece of cinema, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Despite its considerable faults, I managed not to be bored out of my mind. I might not have felt compelled to care about 45% of what was presented to me, but the fact that I never completely checked out is a big point in Alita: Battle Angel‘s favor.
Alita: Battle Angel will be in theaters everywhere 2/14/2019