Not knowing a great deal about manga, I definitely could have gone without seeing Alita: Battle Angel. However, a friend of mine was desperate to see it so I decided to be a pal and go with her. I mean we’re talking Robert Rodriguez directing, James Cameron producing, and starring Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali. There was so much going for this film that I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. And, as I have the tastes of a 12-year-old boy, I do love a film about fighting cyborgs. Especially when those fighting cyborgs are being directed by someone like Rodriguez. So, I was all set to enjoy this film despite my initial hesitation. But, considering the lukewarm reception is received from critics, could this film really live up to the expectations it set for itself? Was this another case of harsh critics or easy to please fans? I had to find out for myself.
A film adaptation of Battle Angel Alita was first announced in 2003 but was left in development hell thanks to James Cameron’s ridiculous desire to make Avatar and a load of follow-up films. So the idea languished until Robert Rodriguez was announced as director in 2016. What we end up with isn’t the great film the source deserved but it has it’s positives. Rodriguez is a director who has often proven himself to be adept with action sequences. His editing is focused and quick and the camera is energetic but there is slightness to its movements. His action sequences always contain a very real sense of fun and playfulness. Something he brings to the post-apocalyptic world we see in Alita: Battle Angel.
In the 23rd century in 2263, an interplanetary war known as “The Fall” left the Earth in ruins. 300 years later the poor people are left on the ground struggling for food and scrounging for mechanical parts. They can only dream of what life must be like in the wealthy sky city of Zalem. In Iron City, the scientist Dr. Dyson Ido finds a broken female cyborg with a working human brain. He decides to attach the brain to a new body and revives her. Unable to remember anything of her past, he decides to christen the cyborg Alita and treats her like a daughter. One night, when Ido is attacked, Alita summons up her forgotten skills with martial arts and easily fights off the bad guys. This sets her on a journey to discover who she is and save her adopted father.
A narrative that all sounds quite promising and, I have to admit, the initial stages of Alita are wonderfully done. The violence pushes the limits of the rating but it’s mostly all mechanical parts and motor oil that we’re seeing being flung across the screen. There are very few flesh and bone casualties that make much of an impact and those are mostly emotional. Rodriguez was always a great choice to take over this film and the slickness of the fight sequences are all the proof you need. The choreography is mesmerising and as graphic as it possibly can be for this audience. And he finds a great star in Rosa Salazar who plays Alita. She brings heart and emotion to a mostly mechanical being.
However, I still wasn’t blown away by this film. The problem is, the story is just too tangled that it feels never-ending. My first comment when the credits had finished rolling was “I feel like we’ve been watching this film for days”. This is typical post-apocalyptic stuff where the haves and have-nots are kept apart until the have-nots finally start to decide that their rulers maybe aren’t that great. They just need one person to kick things off. One being powerful enough to say it’s time to change things. Inevitably in this kind of genre, that person also gets caught up in a load of other nonsense too. There’s the domestic relationship with her adoptive father, the added complication of his ex-wife, a weird sport, and the inevitable teen romance. There’s just too going on and it does not come together well.
The emphasis is in all the wrong places, great characters are sidelined, supporting storylines aren’t given the weight they deserve, and the central romance is ringed out for as much juice as possible. Despite the beautiful visuals and stunning action pieces, I have to say this is one boring film. And there hasn’t been a more desperate, and outrageous cliffhanger in a film since The Adventures of Tintin. It completely ruins the tone that the rest of the film is building up to. I’m not saying we needed complete resolution but this is the film version of The Sopranos just fading to black. It’s just a really bad way to bring this film to a close.