Alita: Battle Angel Review
by Erik Amaya
Alita: Battle Angel may be the best live action American adaptation of a Japanese manga and/or anime ever made. But considering the remarkably low bar set by films like Ghost in the Shell and Dragonball, all Alita had to do is be halfway decent to get that acclaim. Which is exactly what the film directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron sets out to be — halfway decent.
Set some 500 years in the future, it details a society broken up between the last remaining Earth sky city and the people fighting for scraps below it. Almost everyone is partially cybernetic and, as always, makes do with the scraps offered from the aristocratic world above with a plucky can-do spirit. Into this realm descends a mostly destroyed total cyborg replacement from Mars. Having lost her memory and even her name, she is dubbed “Alita” by Ido (Christophe Waltz), the kindly cybernetics expert who reassembles her using a replacement body he developed for someone else named Alita. As the cyborg acclimates to her new environment, she becomes enamored with Motorball — the world’s leading professional sport — Ido’s side-gig as a bounty hunter, and Hugo (Keean Johnson) a young, 100% human male also eking out a living under the shadow of the last sky city.
As played by Rosa Salazar, Alita has the never-quit heroine vibe one gets from anime protagonists like Nausicaa in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It is a refreshing change of pace from the battle-hardened protagonists one usually sees in post-apocalyptic landscapes derived from the aesthetics of 1980s manga and anime. Alita’s literally wide-eyed embrace of her new surroundings goes a long way to making the film feel new and different despite being very familiar otherwise.
It is a key problem with adaptations like Alita and Ghost in the Shell — The Matrix got their first and ransacked material like the Battle Angel Alita manga and Ghost in the Shell for all the visual and thematic elements which made them exciting and new over 20 years ago. And to finally see it realized on screen, it is no wonder why James Cameron spent those decades developing Alita. It is rife with question about humanity and technology merging and a perfect testbed for the computer generated human simulacra he was interested in creating since T2: Judgement Day. Had the film come out in 1999, it may have beaten The Matrix to the prize and set the standard for sci-fi action pictures in the 21st Century. Sadly, in 2019, little about Alita seems fresh except the main character’s desire to be caught up in events.
In fact, the film might be better if it had embraced an element of manga and anime The Matrix did not claim for itself: oversized emotions. At just about every turn, big emotional events are muted from the shouting close-ups one might find in the pages of Battle Angel Alita. Sure, Alita is allowed to express joy, but there is little sadness when her first body is destroyed or a crippling confusion when the memories of her old life begin to surface. Even her growing attraction to Hugo is treated with a matter-of-fact sensibility which makes the film harder to engage with overall. Whether that is a problem with the script, Rodriguez’s direction, or half-hearted performances from actors like Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and a poorly utilized Mahershala Ali is difficult to pinpoint. Though, it probably is a combination of all three as Jackie Earle Haley and Ed Skrien do a fairly good job at playing anime villains. They both seem familiar with what they are supposed to do with the parts; which is more than can said for Ali, whose mid-level bad guy always seems lost in the plot. A wonderful cameo by Jeff Fahey also proves this world has some life to it despite its similarities to The Matrix.
But even with its problems, Alita: Battle Angel isn’t exactly a bad movie. It looks pretty, for one thing. But like some of the performances, it never completely commits to itself like it should. In attempting a brighter post-apocalyptic setting, it could have set itself apart from Matrix also-rans. It could have also allowed itself to be as earnest as Alita is throughout the picture. Nonetheless, it is a perfectly pleasant, if unremarkable ride.