Alita: Battle Angel is a film that has been in development for around 20 years. With the first details of the film being announced around 2000, this has been a passion project for writer/producer James Cameron. However, when he started to get more involved with Avatar and its sequels, he couldn’t be as involved in the Alita as he wanted to be. In came Robert Rodriguez. After Rodriguez was brought on to tighten up the script, Cameron was satisfied enough with his work that he allowed Rodriguez to take over the film. Even when filming started, it wasn’t a simple process as there were constant delays to release dates. I even remember seeing trailers for this in front of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Unfortunately though, the wait wasn’t worth it, it feeling very clearly like a set up for future films.
The film takes place over 500 years into the future after a wall that has left Earth devastated with there being the floating city of Zalem hovering above the city of Iron City. One day, scientists Dr Dyson Ido finds a disembodied female cyborg with a fully intact human brain whom he repairs and names Alita. As Alita grows to understand the world she gets introduced to the world of Motorball and the world of Hunter-Warriors (aka bounty hunters), along with the desire of people to go up to Zalem, even though no-one has ever done so, along with finding out more about who she is. Now there are some interesting ideas in the film about class disparity but these kinds of ideas aren’t explored fully. This is part of the big issue of the film, that being how it is structured. There is no natural progression for all of the different elements of the film, none of them being given enough time to breathe so we can fully understand the characters. The film shifts from Alita getting involved in Motorball, to Alita becoming a Hunter-Warrior, to Alita finding out who she is and we never spend enough time with each of these elements to see how Alita really feels about them. There are a few moments between Alita and her human friend Hugo that come close, but these are too few and far between. A key example for the structural issues comes with Motorball. At the start of the film, Alita plays a small game of Motorball with her friends, then Alita doesn’t play again for well over an hour and the next time she plays, she’s suddenly an expert at it. This really feels like it was several books worth of story from the manga that were smashed together, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that the original script was 146 pages, with 600 pages of notes.
Even with there being so many elements, there are a lot of parts which exist solely to set up future films. There are plot points and characters which are given the bare minimum of explanation because it was clearly designed for these elements to be explored in future films. This is seen with both the subplot regarding Alita’s backstory and scenes relating to Zalem, with cameos from Michelle Rodriguez and Edward Norton which are clearly meant to be expanded upon in the future.
The performances meanwhile are a mixed bag. The only reason the film works at all is because of Rosa Salazar as Alita. Whilst there are some issues with the motion capture, which I’ll get into later, there’s a real heart that Salazar brings to the role with her reactions to the world around her feeling believable, along with her relationships to the other characters. Christoph Waltz as Dr Ido meanwhile is pretty good, showing his concern for Alita and his mindset regarding crime in Iron City, along with it being understandable why he has a protective streak for Alita. Keean Johnson as Hugo is solid as well, having good chemistry with Salazar and showing his desire to leave for Zalem and the lengths he goes to in order to do so effectively. The rest of the cast though are completely wasted. There are interesting ideas at play with Jennifer Connelly’s character, but she’s barely in the film and nowhere near enough time is given to her character development. This is also true for Mahershala Ali, who is clearly giving it his all, but isn’t in the film long enough to make his character an actual character. The supporting performers who come across best are probably Jackie Earle Haley and Ed Skrein because, whilst their characters are very one-note, you can see that they are having fun with the roles.
On a technical level, the film is mostly very impressive. The production design for Iron City is strong, giving it a very lived in world and, whilst there isn’t anywhere near as much of it in the film as I would have liked, the depiction of Motorball is strong, giving a good sense of speed to the whole thing. The designs for the cyborgs though are a bit of a mixed bag. The actual designs are impressive, each of them being distinct and allowing for the actors to shine through in their performances. However, this is where the issues come in. Most of the cyborgs in this film fall right into the uncanny valley. This isn’t really a factor for the more exaggerated designs of characters like Grewishka, but for Alita herself it is a big issue. Right from the first trailer, I had a lot of concerns over making Rosa Salazar’s eyes bigger, to replicate the feel of manga. Whilst this sounds like a good idea in theory, in reality it just looks unnatural and every time I saw her eyes it just took me out of the film. This was also the case for the clothes Alita wears, with every costume just looking artificial and kept making me think that Alita wasn’t really there and I was just looking at pixels, and for a film that was clearly striving for photorealism and making the characters look as believable as possible, this was a big issue for me.
Overall, Alita: Battle Angel just feels like a missed opportunity. There are some interesting themes that could have been explored, with strong production design and a solid anchor for the film with Rosa Salazar. However, it just feels like so much was crammed into this film that none of it was given the necessary time to develop it. It really feels like multiple films were squeezed into one, and even then a lot of sequel bait was included, which really highlights to me the issues with the film. There’s just too much in here for a single film and as such, there isn’t time for character development so the film can introduce plot elements in order for the film to make any kind of sense. However, this just makes it so there was no real emotional core to the film and I just found myself bored watching it.
My Rating: 2.5/5