Alita: Battle Angel
When James Cameron gets involved in a project, it’s enough for film fans to perk their ears up. However, when James Cameron offers you a project because he can’t figure out how to “pull it off,” it should cause you some concern. The Canadian director has made the two highest grossing films in history (Titanic and Avatar), but his genius was unable to crack open the Japanese manga series “Battle Angel: Alita” to transform it into a film version.
Alita: Battle Angel is set in the 26th century, a couple of centuries after a world war (colonizers on Mars were involved) decimated the planet. The result is that an elevated city is the last haven on earth. The wealthy living on this floating city, while the rest of the world population left gathers underneath, where they can collect and make a living off of the scraps that are thrown down. The film opens when Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of a robot with ancient technology. The robot has a human brain, but suffers from amnesia; thus the Dr. names her Alita (Rosa Salazar), who with her overly-big eyes is reintroduced into the world.
The world from the manga series and the concept that James Cameron had for this film were incredibly ambitious and rich with lore and characters. However, the script and directing by Robert Rodriguez leave much to be desired. The main challenge was adapting the first four books of the series into one film; the result is an incredibly crowded film with so many characters and names thrown about that there is no room for the story to breathe. There seem to be so many themes thrown around that none cab find a proper place to land. I essentially was entertaining myself more by trying to find which prior movies and stories Alita was ripping off (the ones I could pinpoint were Elysium, The Iron Giant, and “Frankenstein”) rather than investing myself too much in the world. The dialogue itself felt completely recycled and cringe-worthy, with the most cliched and predictable lines uttered by our actors in their given situations, “It’s a harsh world, the strong prey on the weak, you gotta hold on to your dream.” *face palm*
The problem with choosing Rodriguez as a director is that he’s an incredibly tongue-in-cheek filmmaker, going completely into the genre (Sin City) or poking fun at it (Machete, Spy Kids). In Alita the script and his direction seem to be trying to take the project too seriously, to the point that viewers will be laughing more with this film than with most comedies, and not at the intended moments by the filmmakers. One of the main problems that led to such a loss of confidence in the legitimacy of the story was the chemistry between the two lead actors: Salazar and Keean Johnson.
The two young actors are supposed to play love interests but have absolutely no chemistry. They both seem to be too intimidated by the big set they are on to truly delve into the complexities of their characters and the world they inhabit. Johnson put on a performance more akin to what you would see in a TV broadcast soap opera, while Salazar (while more charismatic) seemed to be confusing the ingenuity and cruiosity of her amnesiac cyborg with the enthusiasm and energy of a high school freshman. The result is that you don’t buy Alita’s innocent rediscovery of herself, which seems to be the only constant thread in the film’s narrative.
But Rodriguez is able to play to one of his strengths: violence. The campy and ridiculous aspects of Sin City and Machete make their way into this film, with incredibly gory scenes such as Alita cutting off a man’s face, chopping another in half, or decapitating one with a single kick. The film came alive in these action scenes, where we found the greatest originality; such that would have made even Tarantino proud. That being said, I am shocked that this film, with such heavy depictions of violence, was given only a PG-13 rating; the film is incredibly more violent than most R-rated action movies of today.
Given such a rich world to work in, it was also an impressive task to take on for the production designers and visual effects teams (specifically Alita’s entire CGI face), however these teams did manage to pull off their concepts. There are incredibly rich details scattered throughout the screen that give depth to the story and characters that neither the script or the actors are able to give. As for the CGI, it was impressive enough in the background aspects of the film, but many of the CGI characters seem to be only half-rendered and of the quality you’d expect in a video game, the dialogue uttered by these characters felt like that of an animation film. Given that this film was delayed over and over again, you would have expected more.
In the end, Alita seemed to be too great of a heist to pull off. Rodriguez is able to deliver the most fun when he finds his way into action sequences, but the subsequent world-building, characters, and story fall incredibly flat. If James Cameron couldn’t do it, it’s hard to find someone in Hollywood who can.