A feast for the eyes if not necessarily the brain, Alita: Battle Angel brings enough wide-eyed, visual splendor to offset its narrative clunk.
There’s no shortage of matter over mind movies hitting the box office these days. In some respects, digital effects artists have become more filmmakers than the filmmakers themselves. While this is true in Robert Rodriguez’s new film, Alita: Battle Angel, it has a little more going for it than the typical substance-drained CGI smash-fest we’re used to seeing. Like it’s protagonist, the heart of the film is strong.
Let’s talk about the matter first. Alita absolutely is a CGI smash-fest, but oh-my-gosh is it a great one. The battles are imaginative and pack a serious punch. Most of the cyborgs Alita squares off against are creatively designed and avoid cookie-cutter conventionality in terms of design elements. There are no carbon-copy characters. The camerawork is as mobile as the fights, keeping us in the heart of the action throughout the whole film. It even manages to keep a little of that manga flair, the most obvious being the oversized weapons that a few of the characters wield. Another major positive is the world of Iron City, which feels genuine and has a tone and color all its own. The film deftly gels it all together, adding to the authenticity, making it easy to suspend disbelief in this world. This is a film to admire on the big screen if you can.
Despite nearly every scene having some form of computer-generated effect, especially with the facial altering of Rosa Salazar to get Alita’s googly-eyed look, it settles easily into the back of our minds. Alita’s appearance quickly becomes normal, and we don’t think twice about it after the first couple of scenes. I think this is largely a testament to the VFX teams, but also Salazar, who really sells the performance. She and Christoph Waltz are acting up a storm in this film, selling hokey dialogue with professional delivery, bringing suitable gravity to hold the film down when it threatens to balloon away into ridiculousness. Where the film is let down is in the efforts of the supporting cast, mostly Alita’s troupe of humans she befriends, led by the unbelievably bland Hugo (Keean Johnson). Hugo seems designed to exude what Robert Rodriguez thought was cool 30 years ago, leather jackets and tough-yet-nice-guy attitude. I couldn’t help thinking he was living his midlife crisis through this unfortunate roll, reliving the glory days of a cool that Hugo sadly fell well short of.
If you think I’m being too harsh on poor whitebread Hugo, wait till you see how he’s mistreated by the script itself. Him and everyone else, for that matter, audience included. The script…well…the script is pretty garbage. The dialogue is the biggest culprit, constantly swerving the film into realms of teen corniness that would make the cast of High School Musical blush. It delivers romance with the smoothness of a basement neckbeard, it advances story beats with hammy exposition, it casually flings around meaningless words like panzer-kunst with a straight face. Not far behind the spoken word train wreck is the narrative. It treats big baddies like video game bosses, letting Alita pummel them into mechanized pulp, then letting them escape only to return three more times, graduates of the Doctor Robotnik school of defeat. It also presents us with a city on the hill, a futuristic Jerusalem—the floating city of Zalem, unattainable for all but the very best…unless you climb the access pipes with your robotic body. Alita’s script demands that you check your brain at the door.
Clocking in at just over two hours, it’s not as lengthy as most epic adventure films of late, but, covering three whole issues of the manga, it’s chock full of content to the point where the pacing is completely shot. Alita has so many climactic battles, undergoes three different journeys of discovery, and ultimately still doesn’t achieve what she wanted, forcing the film to fast forward months of time in the last five minutes in order to set up the sequel that will, in all likelihood, never come. Had it not assumed audiences would want more down some future road and instead simply focused on the story it was telling here and now, the film’s structural issues might have been mitigated.
Despite the obvious problems with it, I can’t say that Alita isn’t an enjoyable film. There’re some great cinematic moments and thrilling action sequences that benefit from the big-screen treatment. Some of the dialogue, coupled with Salazar’s delivery, cements Alita’s badassery as a character, and the film is never boring. As long as you let your eyes do the work and let your brain take a two-hour power nap, Alita: Battle Angel promises a fun ride.