Alita: Battle Angel
Michael Potts | 18/02/2019
A fun and visually arresting action blockbuster, but one that arguably comes late to the party without enough time on its hands.
It follows the titular heroine (played by Rosa Salazar), a cyborg with only her human brain remaining who is found in a junk heap and restored by Dr Dyson Ido (Christolph Waltz). Without her memories she is introduced to the dystopian Iron City, which sits beneath the floating city of Zalem, the last of its kind following a cataclysmic war known as ‘The Fall’ which had ended some 300 years previously. Delving into a world of bounty-hunters called Hunter-Warriors and a gladiatorial, roller derby-esque sport called Motorball, Alita struggles against a harsh and corrupt society where everyone’s goal is to reach Zalem, by any means necessary.
One of the film’s biggest problems is the gross mismatch between its narrative content and its runtime. Having been adapted from an original manga, there was always going to be a significant amount of cutting that would need to happen to the story. However, almost every plot point and character moment is dealt with so briskly that much of their emotional weight and resonance is either watered down or sapped completely. Characters who should be impactful, especially Alita’s love interest, Hugo, frequently don’t merit much more than an acknowledgement of their existence. Scenes that should be either crushing or uplifting pass by without the emotional spikes they should be causing. A number of the themes the film should be dealing with given that they are squarely raised by the subject matter are glossed over or even ignored. Add to this the fact that the story told in the film is not complete (it is clearly written with a sequel in mind), and the best that can be said of the plot is that it isn’t really offensive in any way, but it’s never more than adequate.
This issue also has detrimental effects on the pacing of the film. Because of the sheer amount of plot the movie has to get through it almost always feels as though you are being rushed through as a viewer. Counter-intuitively this also means that the film feels very long, despite its completely conventional run-time of barely more than two hours, given the large number of events and the amount of information being shown. Unfortunately, these writing problems can’t be overlooked on the basis of novelty – the last decade has been marked by a number of dystopian film series’ (and more than one sporting a female protagonist, The Hunger Games being the most famous). Again, the writing isn’t egregious, but there’s a strong sense that we’ve seen it before, and done better at that.
There are two things that save Alita and make it worth watching: the action sequences and Rosa Salazar’s performance. Dealing with the latter first, Salazar makes the role her own, and comes across as more human and relatable than practically any other character. She hits the right emotional notes on almost all occasions and shines through the CGI to make for surprisingly engaging viewing. As to the film’s other strength, the stylised combat and movement that Alita showcases is top notch. Both Motorball and fight sequences (which are not mutually exclusive) are incredibly fluid and bring with them a powerful elegance. To be sure, there are scenes of real brutality, but that very brutality is made beautiful by the style with which it is inflicted. This is where Alita: Battle Angel is at its best and it is a joy to watch.
Alita: Battle Angel can be summed up as having the issues of the stereotypical action movie: it can be a tonne of fun at times, but don’t expect to have to switch your brain on. Even so, unless violence and the like aren’t your thing, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.