An Angel Falls. A Warrior Rises.
Set in the twenty sixth century, several hundred years after a cataclysmic war, Dr Ido [Waltz] searches through the rubble for discarded cybernetic parts and comes across the upper-torso of a teenage girl with a living human brain. Bringing the parts back to his workshop, Ido hooks her up to a new body and wakes her. The young lady is conscious and aware of the world but has no memory, so Ido names her Alita [Salazar]. After a wealth of exposition, we learn that the world is divided between the floating utopic city of Salem and the brutal realities of Iron City. As Alita tries to remember her past, she meets Hugo [Johnson] and becomes interested in motorball – a violent gladiatorial robotic version of roller derby run by gangster Vector [Ali].
The first thing about this feature that both surprised and truly impressed me was the amount of practical effects and colourful Central American influenced production design. I had fully expected this film to be a wall-to-wall greenscreen nightmare but the constructed sets and locations helped give this world a genuine, lived-in feel and injected a level of detail that most blockbusters tend to sorely lack. But I feel I’ve been down this road before with Ghost In The Shell – another supposedly faithful adaptation with the original creator’s consent and an absolutely stunning visual style and colour palate but so little in terms of a connection with the story, heart and general narrative direction of the source material. In truth, that is the biggest crime these films perpetrate, to take so much world-building potential, pair it with spectacular craftsmanship and lash it to an unimaginative, flimsy script.
I respect James Cameron (acting as writer and producer) and Robert Rodriguez as visual filmmakers who have pushed the medium from both a blockbuster and independent angle. I think they are both truly visionary at times and have created astounding works. But this film brings out the worst in both of them. On the one hand, we have so little of Rodriguez’s personality on show, leaving Alita feeling like a very reined in ordeal. Taking on board Cameron’s script, Rodriguez may not have felt at liberty to go to more bombastic places seen in films like Sin City or Spy Kids and for better or worse, this has left the film feeling a touch flat and unambitious. Then we have Cameron’s script which takes the general idea and setting from the manga and puts one element of that story into central focus. I had a real problem with this but I’ll get onto that in the next paragraph. It’s evident from this movie that Cameron has fallen back on rote setups and fuck-awful dialogue to produce something so very hammy and cliché, rife with stale parental archetypes and a hideously pedestrian love-story. Much like Ready Player One, all the characters are one dimensional, fall into every overused pitfall and the first act conveniently rushes along, introducing characters in the most asinine way that robs the setting of any sort of scale.
A large part of the story is devoted to the barbaric sport, motorball. In the manga, motorball plays a decent role but not to the extent that it does in the film, which hinges so many plot points on the games and the prize awarded to the victors: the opportunity to go up to Salem (apparently the only way one can). In promotional material, Cameron talks about Alita’s arc and journey and then riffs that the motorball sequences are fantastic action set pieces. For a film driven by visual effects, I was hoping these scenes would be the ones that blew me away and they weren’t. Here we have the predominantly green-screen, CGI constructions and as it’s only featured twice, it didn’t live up to the hype, even if the direction and effects were competent. And throughout the whole experience, with the largely forgettable score blaring and an utterly painful commentator delivering some of the most dire dialogue, it hit me that motorball is this film’s pod racing but failed to reach the heights achieved in those sequences.
Stepping away from visual effects, mostly, we need to talk about the performances. Salazar is a genuinely talented individual who emotes passionately, conveying a wonderful level of innocence and a fantastic arc from childhood to young womanhood. Unfortunately, the majority of this is lost under CGI and terrible writing. In addition to this earnest lead performance, bringing to life a violent but strangely relatable analogy for puberty, we have extremely adept and accomplished actors who are pigeon-holed into noticeably superficial parts. Vector quotes Milton believing it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven and that’s pretty much everything we get to know about him, Dr Ido and his former partner Dr Chiren [Connelly] are grieving parents who took two parallel moral paths to cope and Hugo is a punk kid who has genuine feelings for Alita but needs to clean up his hoodlum ways before they catch up with him. It’s all so agonisingly worn out and unoriginal that it’s difficult to care about anyone.
The more I think about it, the more I conclude that the only real positives stem from the manga; the cool concept, the world building, the general design, the central role, etc. It also occurred to me that a lot of the changes made in this live-action version were part of the 1993 OVA Battle Angel. Admittedly, nobody wants to hear “the source material is better.” Of course it is, it almost always is but that’s no excuse for the film to glean the aesthetic while failing to capture what made the original so very entertaining and popular. One could argue that this could easily have been another self-aware surprise like Aquaman but its po-faced melodrama and self-importance left the entire experience remarkably predictable and hackneyed. What’s more, the lack of real conclusion and sequel setup with a hitherto-mute Edward Norton, leaves so much of Alita’s story left under a fog of mystery in the least pleasing way. So many franchise-hungry films have left an opening instalment with a “see you in the sequel moment” that audiences are both wary and sick of. For long-running confirmed series or those with already-shot sequels, these setups mostly work but for the vast majority of abandoned properties, we are left with these hollow, open-ended stories that lack a definitive close.
As a final point, I want to return to James Cameron. When discussing the best living directors, Cameron’s name will crop up because of his industry changing achievements. But since he has been dividing his time between the bottom of the sea and Pandora with some 4 Avatar sequels planned, this film could not be completed by Cameron himself and was handed over to Rodriguez but the truth is that people (both audiences and industry professionals) don’t come to a Cameron production for the story, they come to see how the technology will be pushed decades ahead. They come for the innovation. And most disappointingly, Alita doesn’t exhibit any real innovation. Much like Avatar, the story is questionable, the characters rather straightforward and the action acceptable but unlike the 2009 megahit, the visuals aren’t nearly as spellbinding enough to blind us all to its flaws and weaknesses and what we’re left with is a rather capable but ultimately disappointing release.
8th February 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
A major part of the story is that Alita has no memory of who she is. Fans of anime and manga will recognise this trope as one of the most customary for a character, so I’m not complaining about that, I’m miffed about what was hinted at. The first time Alita gets her first solid flashback is during a fight; the violence triggers a memory of her on the surface of the moon, battling forces under the call-sign 99. It’s very fucking cool. What’s frustrating, however, is the entire backstory of Alita’s origin and her past which is only hinted at, no doubt so it can be slowly explored over a series of potential sequels that we likely never see.
Idara Victor plays Nurse Gerhad, who works with Dr Ido. I don’t know if a lot of her role was cut for time or if she had always been this way but there was something standout about a character who was present for the majority of the character building scenes from start to end but only had a line or two. To be fair, these kinds of supports aren’t that uncommon in a blockbuster of this nature but something about her limited dialogue and minimal development really irked me.
“How you control it, I don’t know. You didn’t come with a manual”
In A Few Words:
“Yet another project that crawled its way out of decades of development hell only to feel like it might not have been worth the wait”