Alita: Battle Angel and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Man, I don’t know the first thing about this series! Every time you find out about ONE legendary anime that defined the genre, there pops up another dozen or so that you need to catch up on as well, and I’m a busy guy! I don’t have time to catch up with the stuff I already need to; let alone this one that I’m only now aware of because the movie is coming out! Speaking of which, wasn’t this supposed to come out like a year ago? Granted, the amount of CG on display here is staggering and I can see even the SLIGHTEST hitch in post-production causing massive delays, but being a February burn off instead of summer blockbuster or even winding up in the post-summer slowdown period seems like a bad sign. I don’t know, this is clearly one of those movies that have SO much passion and resources behind them that it can either be a total masterpiece or a hilarious disaster with almost no chance for landing in-between. Are we talking Mad Max: Fury Road, or Battlefield Earth? In either case, we should strap in just to be on the safe side! Let’s find out!!
IN THE YEAR THREE THOUSAND (or some other far off date), the world has basically been reduced to two major cities, Iron City below and the sky city of Zalem above, after the devastation of THE FALL which was a big war hundreds of years ago. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is a robo-doctor (as in he fixes robots; not that he is himself a robotic doctor) who scavenges through the trash tossed down by Zalem for useable parts to keep his clinic open for those in need, but one day he finds far more than eh could have ever imagined! He finds the remnants of some kind of robot which he takes home and learns has a human brain as well as some other unique parts which he attaches to a spare robo-body he had lying around and brings her back to life; giving her the name Alita which no doubt has some significance we’ll learn about later on in the movie. Alita 9Rosa Salazar) has no memory of who she was before being tossed in the garbage which is sad to be sure, but the local badboy Hugo (Keean Johnson) as well as the totally rad sport of Motorball at least help to pass the time as she tries to find answers to her past. Well needless to say as the movie goes along, we find answers to more and more of these questions which lead to Alita being put in more and more danger as others discover who she is as well. Primarily, she starts getting pursued by the local kingpin Vector (Mahershala Ali) who has connections to everyone in town; including Dr. Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) who is helping him in exchange for a chance to reach the shiny city in the sky. Along the way she’ll make friends, encounter enemies, and even have to deal with insufferable douchebags like the robo-bounty hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein) who coincidentally seems to hold yet another piece to Alita’s past. Can Alita survive long enough in this harsh world to learn who she really is? Just how powerful is she, and how far will she go to protect those she cares about? Wait, so if she was built to be an ULTIMATE WARRIOR, why did they give her the brain of a teenager!?
As played out some of the entries have started to feel, I still enjoy what Marvel brings to the table each year with its fun and almost effortlessly great catalog of films, but when I think of what I TRULY want in a big budgeted blockbuster it’s a lot of stuff that wound up in this movie. I’ve heard people reference Jupiter Ascending when talking about it (both positively and negatively) which is an apt comparison even if I don’t LOVE this movie as much as I did that film. We all know that the higher the budget gets the broader the audience has to be, otherwise you’re spending a bajillion dollars to make something that will only appeal to weirdos like me, but sometimes a movie will slip right past conventional wisdom and be something that’s truly unique and couldn’t have been as fully realized without such well-crafted special effects behind it. A lot of the time these films won’t find their audience right away (*cough* A Wrinkle in Time *cough*) and only time will tell if the strong projections for this film will pan out, but in either case we do have something that’s got its own identity and does a solid if somewhat clunky job of putting it all together. If nothing else, it gives us a perfect example to explain why Ghost in the Shell is just a lousy film among its many other faults.
Possibly the film’s greatest strength is how well it can sell its sci-fi premise which is accomplished not by filling in every last gap of scientific know how but to sideline ALL that stuff and create a world that feels authentic and lived in. I have no idea how these robots work, why Alita would need to eat, or how a human brain is supposed to function that well for that long even with a super awesome robo-karate body, but the film still manages to make it all work within the world it creates. All of this hyper advanced scientific stuff is always framed as mundane and as a part of everyday life that people may not fully comprehend the engineering behind but can use and operate with ease; similar to say how cars might as well work by magic for as far as my understanding of an internal combustion engine goes. There are also plenty of visual cues smartly employed throughout which makes this one of the comprehensible robot films in a long time (certainly more so than the Transformers movie; even the VERY excellent Bumblebee) with the basic idea of SHINIER EQUALS BETTER being a consistently useful marker to determine a character’s relative strength when squaring up before a fight scene. Said fight scenes by the way are another thing about this movie that’s VERY comprehensible and Rodriguez and crew do a phenomenal job of recreating anime style action to something that at least has to reasonably pass as realistic. No, none of these robots move or carry themselves as realistically as possible (even relatively small robotic parts would STILL be very heavy), but this kind of action has rarely looked this good in what I guess could be considered a live action movie.
Now I for one was never particularly bothered by Alita’s eyes being so big which means it’s hard for me to say if those who DID have that issue with the trailers will still be bothered in the finished product, but there’s really nothing about this movie that feels out of place or stands out as particularly off-putting due to how consistent the art direction is; again, a reason why this movie probably wouldn’t have worked if it DIDN’T have such absurdly well connected and powerful filmmakers throwing their weight behind it. It’s not just that though, and this is probably the best place to start comparing it to the OTHER big Hollywood anime movie of the last few years. Ghost in the Shell THE MOVIE shares a lot of similarities with this one but approaches the material in a wildly different way which is one of reasons that film failed to impress. What comes off as effortless in this film, simply by having lots of extras and small moments of people just LIVING in this world, is an arduous task for Ghost in the Shell that can’t help but feel utterly sterile and artificial despite trying to be seedy in places as well as show how the underclass is getting along in this world. Both movies are similarly grand in scope and have characters with similar goals and backstories (women who are mostly if not entirely robotic struggling with identity and trying to take down THE MAN), but Alita is allowed to FEEL things and be someone likable in a world that feels real enough, while The Major is barely fazed by anything that happens and even the big revelation of that film (which is also quite a huge YIKES moment) doesn’t sell as much as it should given the rather sedate performances as well as the emotionally restrictive storytelling up to that point. Look, you want to sell ANY premise no matter how ridiculous? One of the best ways is to make it a soap opera with lots of characters screaming, laughing, crying, and a movie around it that understands that drama doesn’t come from the situations characters find themselves in as much as the characters who find themselves in those situations. Rosa Salazar (along with most of the cast in this) not only gives a fantastic performance in this, she is backed up by very impressive special effects team that made her shine that much more throughout; all of which goes to show you that it was just important to get Alita to become a genuine and likable character as it was to make cool looking action scenes.
Now as much as I’ve been praising this movie, there is a HUGE problem with it that hurts this film pretty badly, and that is its structure which feels like a three episode mini-series rather than a feature length film. Actually, scratch that. The first hour or so of the movie does genuinely feel like an amazing origin story with a clear end point and potential for a future sequel, but then things keep going after that and it’s there that we get more and more into the Motor Ball thing which is a real step down from what had felt like a satisfying conclusion to her first adventure. Eventually the ball gets rolling again (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) and there’s enough momentum to carry things to the end of the film, but it feels like we got our awesome first movie and then it’s somewhat disappointing sequel all at once. Points for expediency I guess, but it would have been nice to if they didn’t try to cram so much into this film. If something this expensive could have been viable on a streaming service then I could see that being a superior version, but we’re not there yet and we’ve got the movie we’ve got which is kind of a mess in the second half. Not helping this of course is the OTHER big problem I had with the movie which is that Motorball never made the least bit of sense to me. It’s introduced early on and is innocent enough when we’re watching kids on the street play what looks to be rugby crossed with roller derby and basketball, but when they get to the stadium and the thing turns into a total blood sport with robots, that’s when it starts to lose me; especially with it being SUCH a focal point of not just the day to day lives of the citizens of Iron City, but to the narrative itself. I mean sure, most cyberpunk story lines are gonna have something to represent the Opiate of the Masses with visual callbacks to The Coliseum being a symbolic shortcut to decadence and debauchery (as well as making a direct line between that and modern day sports), but it always felt like there were much more important things to do rather than waste our time here. I don’t want to spoil too much here, but there’s not even any honor to the sport considering what we see in the stadium throughout the movie, and you can’t trust the rewards of it ever materializing considering just how corrupt society is at that point. It’s almost like something out of a Monty Python sketch; in order to take the castle and be declared its king, you must first best your opponent… IN A GAME OF HOPSCOTCH! Poker would have been a better way for the good guys and bad guys to match wits, because at least in THAT case the bad guys will ACTUALLY have to risk something in order to play! I don’t know, maybe they’re saving the stadium riots for the sequel, but if there was one thing I would have cut out of this movie to make it a more reasonable length, it would have been pretty much all the scenes there.
So to bring it back to that original question; is this movie Mad Max: Fury Road or Battlefield Earth? At least for me, it skews far more towards the former, though I’m at least a little bit surprised that the problems I have with the movie are rather mundane ones about pacing and structure rather than anything in particular with the premise or the writing. Sure, Motorball is a big anchor weighing this thing down, but that feels more like a misunderstanding of what the film’s strengths are rather than a baffling turn of events in an otherwise great movie. Anything made at THIS big a scale is bound to have a few missteps here and there considering how many hands were working on it, but the vision itself manages to still be very coherent and expertly realized which gets a big ol’ thumbs up from me! Even with its awkwardly paced second half and overly long run time, I still recommend checking it out at theaters as something like this deserves the big screen experience and I think if you wait for the home release you’ll miss a fair amount of the film’s grandiosity which is an important element to all of this working so well together. Seriously, what else would you WANT to buy a ticket for if not to see awesome fight scenes with CGI robots? Transformers milked that formula for six movies, and they only managed to get it right once!