Going into Alita: Battle Angel, I had no preconceived notion of what to expect, or what it was even about. All I saw in the previews was a wide-eyed, CGI girl kicking butt and taking no names, so I figured it was the perfect flick for me.
Alita: Battle Angel is based on a Japanese manga series Gunnm, and directed by a true filmmaker’s filmmaker, Robert Rodriguez (known for movies like Spy Kids and From Dusk till Dawn). Known for making his most awesome films on a modest budget, he often mixes practical (low cost) effects with computer imagery to get the results he wants. Alita‘s Hollywood blockbuster budget of 200 million is a welcomed, difficult change of pace for Rodriguez’s style. A change that ends up simultaneously working for and against Alita: Battle Angel.
Taking place hundreds of years into the future, after a massive interplanetary war left the world ravaged, we see the remaining people of Earth have come together and built Iron City. A multiculturally vast city with scrap metal and junk plentiful, above Iron City floats the mythical utopian city of Zalem, a place everyone dreams of travelling to.
The story focuses in on a cyber-doctor named Ido (Christoph Waltz), who finds a young Alita unconscious in a scrap yard. When Alita finally comes too, she has no recollection of her past self, only that she has a lust for combat. As Alita explores the new life she’s been given, Ido attempts to protect Alita from her inexplicable past life.
An incredible amount of time is spent building up this larger-than-life, post-apocalyptic world that Alita interacts with, and it’s a huge payoff for the audience. We see a diverse mixing pot of cultures interacting within the context of this cyberpunk society. Scenes are chock-full of what can only be described as “stuff”. Marketplaces, battle arenas, seedy underbellies, everything in Iron City is explored in-depth and beautifully brought to life.
Rodriguez knows his stuff when it comes to directing combat scenes, because Alita consistently shows off fluid and thrilling fight sequences throughout. Utilizing lots of CGI and high-flying acrobatics, the action is quick and to the point. Alita packs such a violent punch that I am surprised they held onto their PG-13 rating, especially considering that several people (humans and robots) get chopped in half. One guy even gets a severed hand in the eye, how brutal.
The acting could get a little wooden and hokey at times, but in a charming, Robert Rodriguez sort of way. In many respects Alita reminded me of Rodriguez’s film Spy Kids. It too got super silly, uncomfortably sentimental, and occasionally dropped off the uncanny valley. But both films have this indescribable sense of fun and wit that pulls the viewer in despite reservations.
Unfortunately, Alita gets to the point where it’s juggling too many characters, too much plot, and not enough time to satisfy the story. Before you know it, you’re halfway into the movie and suddenly they’re talking about newly revealed villains and random, unestablished plot threads. This is most painful in the final twenty minutes, where Rodriguez was clearly too preoccupied with setting up for sequels that he forgot to end Alita on a high note. Every major narrative thread is hurriedly wrapped up in the last couple of minutes, with barely enough content left open for another movie anyways.
The film even repeats itself several times in rapid succession. Without spoiling anything, something tragic happens to one of our lead protagonists, twice, within a span of five minutes. The first time it was emotional and sad, the second time I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t help but laugh.
And that was what stood out most for me while watching Alita: Battle Angel. Even when the film wasn’t making any sense, or the characters nosedived of the uncanny valley, I was still having a great time watching it. Just like the Spy Kids franchise, it has a unique charm and undeniable sense of excitement that can’t be artificially replicated. And it has some pretty badass action stuff too.
The Verdict: B-