Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Keean Johnson
Written by James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, Robert Rodriguez
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Comic book-to-film adaptations are a dime a dozen these days. That’s no complaint, I assure you. In fact, I think comic book adaptations are a fascinating and engaging way to tell diverse and exciting stories that more “traditional” storytellers are hesitant to tackle. But while Marvel and DC are seeing their comics come to life on both the big and small screens, the world of Japanese manga is slow to get the same treatment, at least in the United States. Since 2010, there have only been four major adaptations including Alita: Battle Angel, with Oldboy, Ghost in the Shell, and Death Note being the other three. While I recognize that there is an inherent difficulty in adapting Japanese-rooted stories for American audiences, I still find myself eagerly awaiting each new offering in the hopes that the final product is something amazing. Alita: Battle Angel gets a lot right but it stumbles getting there.
The story is simple: Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) finds the remnants of Alita (Salazar) in the scrapyard beneath Zalem, a giant floating city that is likened to paradise. After Ido reconstructs her, Alita seeks to cure her amnesia to figure out precisely who she is and what is her purpose in life.
The spectacle of the film completely works. Alita‘s world is rich, diverse, and believable, thanks to gorgeous sets and fascinating inhabitants. This place feels believable, a possible vision of the 26th century and it’s a marvel to behold.
Salazar shines as Alita, bringing warmth, determination, and formidable strength to the titular role. Between her performance and the truly astonishing CG, Alita is brought to fully formed life. Waltz, as always, is a joy to watch, even though his character is bound by a limited emotional range. The interaction between the two feels genuine, even if the relationship develops at break-neck speed.
Unfortunately, there’s way too much story going on here. There are multiple subplots that could have served as the foundation of their own film. Alita helps Ido, a secret Hunter-Warrior, chase down a cyborg serial killer who is dismembering human women. Then Alita learns motorball – think Rollerball with cyborgs and you’re pretty much there – because the reigning champion can gain entrance to Zalem. There’s also the subplot where Alita becomes a Hunter-Warrior herself in order to face Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). And through all of this is the romantic subplot between Alita and Hugo (Johnson), which is by far the weakest thread. This is thanks in part to Johnson’s wooden performance. Predominantly, it reduces Alita from a badass fighter who is trying to figure out her own life to just a girl that is constantly saving this undeserving and, frankly, awful person.
Then there’s the issue of how the film treats its black cast, of which there are only three noticeable characters. The first is Idara Victor, who plays Ido’s nursing assistant. For a role that should be vital, she is relegated to two, maybe three lines and is basically there to fill up space. Next is Jorge Lendeborg Jr., whose character is Hugo’s friend and then not
Even the strength of the female characters is built on some sort of weakness. For Alita, her entire purpose of finding out who she is gets pushed to the side for Hugo. While that might be fine for a separate film that focuses entirely on their relationship, this iteration tries to convince audiences that Alita and Hugo’s love is pure and true after a few days of her being alive again! Then there’s Jennifer Connelly’s character, Dr. Chiren. Originally the wife of Dr. Ido, she now works with Vector but ultimately stands up to him after she finds her inner strength when she remembers what it means to be a mother. Folks, I groaned so loudly that I rightfully earned
The film is stunningly lit and cinematographer Bill Pope makes great use of the playground that Rodriguez and Co. built. From bringing the camera close into the action to pulling it back to reveal the scope of the setting, the film never feels visually restrained.
The action is also wonderfully crafted, combining elegance and excitement into an exhilarating final product that is wickedly fun! The
Alita: Battle Angel is an action/adventure spectacle. While the film falters in its storytelling and treatment of characters, it’s so damn badass and fun that it’s worth suffering its flaws.