Movie Review | Alita: Battle Angel
Movie summary: A deactivated female cyborg is revived, but cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is. (IMDb)
Alita: Battle Angel feels like yet another mis-step of a studio trying to create a 'cinematic universe' to rival the one built by Marvel Studios. There's a lot of characters and concepts introduced in some great world-building, but the movie forgets to really do anything with any of it. A lot of pieces are set up, and most of them are still sitting there when it's all over.
It's a shame as what is there is actually pretty good. Rosa Salazar is great as Alita despite the glimpses of a history that still isn't fully explained by the end of the movie. That doesn't stop her being sweet and likeable, while still feeling entirely convincing in the middle of a fight. It's a genuinely very good performance aided by some excellent CGI.
And to head off an inevitable criticism: I don't think the uncanny valley is invoked here, thanks to the setting. The trailers don't really help by showing Alita fully formed in a human-shaped body and making her look very much like a young woman in body armour. However, we first meet her through Christoph Waltz's Dr. Dyson Ido as a head attached to the top part of a chest.
Her appearance does still take a little getting used to, but the movie repeatedly hammers home the point that she's a cyborg and it ceased to be an issue for me well before the halfway point of the story. That might vary from person to person, but there are so many characters here that are barely human in appearance, Alita might appear more 'normal' simply because she is at least humanoid.
The thing is, while that might be a good thing for the character of Alita, it does serve as a reminder of one of the movie's biggest issues: everything feels a little unreal. It's not quite uncanny valley territory, but the world feels a little too removed from our own to truly connect with. It does allow for some 'out there' visuals and set-pieces, but still feels like a barrier to real immersion.
Alita: Battle Angel is the kind of story that I think would've been better served as animation rather than live-action - even if that animation was something along the lines of Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin and still keeping a clear visual distinction between regular human beings and the multitude of cyborg characters we meet.
The best of example of how this could improve things is Keean Johnson's Hugo. Even ignoring the fact that he is Alita's love interest because... the story needs her to have one, it's jarring seeing how his appearance changes in the film and seeing him go from fully human to not is more than a little distracting - if he'd been CGI from the start, that change in appearance would be much less of an issue.
Speaking of Hugo, he's a reminder of the last major issue I had with Alita: Battle Angel - there are very few genuinely likeable characters in the movie. Again, Salazar as Alita is as good as you'd hope. Waltz's Ido is fine too, as are some of the more peripheral characters who have brief moments to shine. The problem is everyone else.
The villains being unlikable is obviously fine, but there are too many morally 'grey' characters that veer a little too close to the darker side of grey to really enjoy their presence. Look, I get that this movie wants to sell the setting as being a truly dystopian future where everything has gone to hell, but it does become a little tedious by the end.
As seems to be becoming a habit for me, I do want to qualify these extensive criticisms as being the issues I found worth bringing up that might put other people off. Everything I haven't mentioned tends to range from okay to exceptional, with some of the visuals certainly fitting the latter. Even if some of the real doesn't quite fit with the artificial, it's at least constantly inventive and interesting to look at.
And, to the movie's credit, I did want to see more by the time Alita: Battle Angel finished. Yes, part of it is that this movie didn't really do enough to stand on its own, but I really did want to see what happened next. I wanted to spend more time with Alita and Ito, and to see what happened next to them and their world.
Alita: Battle Angel is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, although it's very much a 'fast food movie': you'll enjoy it while it lasts, but wish you'd gone for something a little more satisfying when it's over. A more complete story rather than aiming at franchise-building would've helped immensely.