Alita: Battle Angel, according to some entertainment news sites, is destined to be a flop. It isn’t all that surprising because Hollywood has made it a habit of adapting some big anime from Japan and screwing with it so that it loses all the cool stuff that made it a hit in the first place. The recent Ghost in the Shell live-action adaption is proof of that. It has been producer James Cameron’s dream to bring the anime/manga story to the big screen for a long time. Unfortunately, if analysts are correct, this means that his dream will be a huge box office flop.
Sad, really. I rather liked Alita: Battle Angel.
Oh, it’s got some really big problems but, like the character itself, there’s much more to her than meets the eye. Or is that her huge bug eyes that creep everyone one? Nah, it’s actually good, bug eyes and all.
I managed to watch it way ahead of most Western audiences, thanks to the fact that I live in the Philippines and we got an early release date. So this will be a SPOILER FREE review of Alita: Battle Angel.
Alita: Battle Angel takes place way in the future. A devastating war called “The Fall” has practically wiped out most of Earth. Only the flying city known as Zalem still remains as well as Iron City, whose inhabitants work for the Factories of Zalem and exists from refurbishing the garbage dumped from Zalem. Dr. Ido, a scientist and robotics expert, discovers a dismembered cyborg girl, seemingly dumped from the floating city. He takes the girl home and repairs her and gives her the name Alita. Alita, who has amnesia, discovers that she has an innate ability for fighting but what other secrets from her past does she have?
I guess I’ll give you a little background before I start with the review proper, regarding both Alita’s legacy as well as my history with it. Alita: Battle Angel, the live-action film, is largely based on the OAV Battle Angel as well as Gunnm, the manga the OAV is derived from. While it does have a cult following, it never really became huge when compared to the likes of other cult animes like Akira, Ninja Scroll and even Fist of the North Star. I knew the manga and anime existed but I never really bothered watching or reading it. I did watch the OAV (which is still available on YouTube, by the way) and remembered liking it but not overly excited over it. Maybe it’s because I generally prefer Japanese dialog with English subtitles.
With that in mind, I can say that the live action adaption is remarkable faithful to the OAV. They made some story changes to the overall structure but, overall, it pays a lot of respect to the source material. Unfortunately, the original OAV (which I’ve seen) is just around 1-hour long. James Cameron had to find a way to pad in the time, which they did by adapting some of the bigger story arcs from the manga (which I haven’t read). In the process, sadly, it just feels like they tried to cram in so much story into the film’s 122-minute runtime. It’s because of the extra content that they filmmakers had to rely to tossing in several exposition dumps to explain the new story threads.
There are times when there are several story arcs happening at the same time and it just feels like there’s no focus. The pacing suffers since they’re trying to juggle multiple stories at the same time. This is very evident during the more quieter moments, which usually revolve around Alita and her love interest. Hugo. The film just grinds to a snail’s pace whenever the two try to act all lovey-dovey with each other. I say “try” because the chemistry between them just doesn’t work. Also, the dialog during these moments just feel incredibly awkward. It’s “I don’t like sand” levels of terrible. I will say that the actors who play Alita and Hugo appear to be giving it their best but, when you have to spout such clumsily written lines, it just won’t work, no matter how good you’re actors are.
With that being said, I would say that, at the very least, most of the performances are good, not great. Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, who play Chiren and Vector, are rather disappointing as they don’t really display all that much emotion and come off more like robots than the actual cyborgs in the film. Then again, that may be intentional?
Christoph Walsh as Dr. Ido gives the best performance in Alita: Battle Angel but it is kind of sad that he doesn’t give that one outstanding performance to elevate it to greatness. A lot of weight and pressure was put on Rosa Salazar as she plays the titular character and she gives a rather hit-or-miss performance. I was impressed by her during the earlier parts of the film, where she comes off as rather naive and happy. It’s the more romantic moments with Hugo and when she had to act tough which I didn’t buy into. Then again, the mere fact that she can pull off a relatable performance with all that weird equipment on her is amazing in itself.
The mere fact that I can feel that I can even criticize Rosa Salazar’s performance is a credit to WETA, the special effects company that James Cameron got to do the special effects for Alita: Battle Angel. Of course, WETA made a name for itself with the Lord of The Rings trilogy so it’s not that hard to imagine them doing a good job here. But there were definitely times when I totally forgot that Rosa Salazar wasn’t there and that Alita was essentially a CGI character. Yes, even with those freakishly huge, bulging eyes that should make her look like a monster that escaped from the uncanny valley! The weirdness of those bulbous eyeballs gradually disappeared from my mind because it genuinely seemed like this computer generated character was actually there in the scene!
The visual effects is also enhanced by practically everything looking incredibly photorealistic. The flying city of Zalem looks imposing and grand. Well, the outer facade looks like it, anyway. This is in stark contrast with Iron City, which looks and feels real and lived-in, like it really does seem like several generations have lived in it. Even the future looking and not-so-future looking tech and props look great! Oddly enough, the things that do sort of look out of place are some of the cyborgs that populate Iron City. They just look too shiny for a grimy and dirty place like Iron City. I wish they just looked a little more run down to make them match the world.
The fight scenes also look incredibly good. I mean, the film is called Battle Angel, after all! But the action scenes do lend itself well as they all feel incredibly satisfying to watch. The weird thing for me is that, since Alita and the cyborgs are all computer generated, the combat scenes are all technically gigantic CGI battles, which a lot of people complain with most superhero films and action movies. I predict I won’t see them complaining all that much here because, not only are they all visually interesting, they all are exhilarating and easy to follow.
I do have one somewhat minor nitpick with the film and it’s mostly the decision to make Alita: Battle Angel PG-13. Despite saying that I love the fight scenes, I do feel they could’ve took things up a notch with the violence. This is a world that’s supposed to be filled with lawlessness, yet you never really see anything all that violent throughout the film.
I hope that the analysts are wrong about Alita: Battle Angel and strong word of mouth will make it a success. Overall, the film’s strengths, namely the visual style, fantastic special effects and thrilling fight scenes, do more than overcome its rather plodding story and terrible romantic subplot. It definitely worth a watch in my book and I really do hope James Cameron makes a sequel to this just so we can get a little more of the overall story.
Have you seen Alita: Battle Angel? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!