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. (from IMDb)
Some film projects seem to lose something in translation if you're not fully aware of its niche origin. For example, I had heard of Ghost In the Shell before it was made into a live action feature film a few years ago, but I had very little knowledge of what it was exactly. But when I saw the first trailer for the cheesy-titled Alita: Battle Angel, I had no clue that it had previously been a manga from the early-to-mid 1990's (titled Battle Angel: Alita). In fact, I didn't even know it was spawned from the manga until I saw it in the film's credits after it ended. But Alita (which, let's face it, would have been a sufficient title by itself) seemed rife with issues since its first trailers debuted. The film was initially scheduled for a summer 2018 release, then a Christmas 2018 release, and then postponed till Valentine's Day 2019. It seemed like a risky production altogether, and despite dethroning LEGO Movie 2 (in its second week) on its opening weekend, it still didn't debut to very impressive numbers.
Alita: Battle Angel centers around a distant future post-Apocalyptic world where the rich and powerful live in a sky city while the poor and less fortunate live in Iron City below. One day, a cybernetics doctor named Dr. Ido finds the torso of a female robot in the trash pile beneath the sky city. He takes the piece home and gives it a new body and activates it. What makes this robot special, too, is that it has the brain of a human living inside its shell, but when she awakens, she has no memory of who she really is. The doc names her Alita, and the spunky cyborg begins her journey of self-exploration. The film does well to paint this new world for its viewers. Some films that build new worlds for viewers to process and accept do a terrible job (Jupiter Ascending, anyone?), to the point where just nothing really makes any sense. Alita's world is relatively easy to grasp early on--especially as other characters around her explain their world to her in exposition-dumping sequences--while hiding key information that serves as twists as it's revealed throughout the course of the movie. These little twists work most of the time, too, in the story's favor.
Acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron - most known for his monumental box office behemoths, Avatar and Titanic, as well as birthing the Terminator franchise - has reportedly been trying to get Alita to the big screen for years, but wanted to wait until the technology was right. While he didn't direct it, his fingerprints are notably all over this film, down to aspects of the central love story. I think we can all agree by now that Avatar was tremendously overrated when it released, but you can see that Cameron handles Alita as if it were as big or significant as Avatar's success proved it to be. But that's just not the case. Alita ends up being a pretty good story, but you're not likely to leave it feeling like you've seen something truly extraordinary. If nothing else, Alita lives up to the B-movie aesthetic the trailers gave off and serves as decent entertainment.
One of the film's biggest problems may be its central love story. Without spoiling too much, the story relies on the budding affections between Alita--a cyborg--and Hugo, a full-fledged human. At times, it's kind of sweet, but his character proves to not be all that he seems. I think the lack of black-and-white, straight-forward characters in this world makes it tough to invest in them. While this does cause Alita to stand out from the world around her, it forces the viewer to not trust anyone, and it seems to have an adverse affect on the filmmakers' intentions. They want you to support Alita and Hugo no matter what they do, and it doesn't really work. Then again, if their intentions are NOT this, it still ends up being less than effectively executed. Perhaps part of the problem is in Keenan Johnson's portrayal of Hugo. His mannerisms are kind of like a lesser Joseph Gordon Levitt (mixed with a younger Keanu Reeves?)--that is, if he was playing a character in a 1980's dystopian sci-fi film. He doesn't quite fit into the film, and at times, you have to wonder if Alita is just too naive to see past his charm, or is just taken by the fact that a human sees worth in her cyborg self. Their subplot ends up detracting from the story. Where Peggy Carter helped make Captain America great, or Steve Trevor helped motivate Wonder Woman, Hugo doesn't quite work as a motivation for Alita (and Keenan just can't make the material work).
Despite its weak points, the film has enough oomph to make it watchable. Supported by three, celebrated, Oscar-winning actors -- Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali -- certainly doesn't hurt (although we all know that isn't a guaranteed recipe for success), but each one does add something to the film, most of all Christoph Waltz as Dr. Ido. Rosa Salazar is also great as Alita, but the film buries her under gratuitous CGI (a la whenever Andy Serkis plays characters like Caesar, Gollum or Snoke, although his peformance seemed to shine through the digital makeup a little more), which I'm not entirely convinced was wholly necessary and, no matter how good the effects are, it's obvious how computer-generated Alita's character is. The action scenes are good, making for some exciting sequences, but the cyborg bounty hunters are grotesque and rather intense. The story also involves a sport called motorball that is like a gladiator style event mixed with skating and racing. The movie doesn't rely too heavily on these moments (and it's definitely NOT a sports film), so they do enhance the movie as an action set piece. And the sequence looked especially good on the IMAX screen. (On that note, I thought the 3D was underwhelming and it worked okay on an IMAX screen. Comparatively, the IMAX format genuinely wowed me with Aquaman, while I don't think it added much for Alita.)
The content really pushes the PG-13 rating. Surprisingly, there is almost no profanity, only occasional mild language-- that is, until one completely random moment where Alita uses the "F" word. It's one of the most out-of-place uses of the "F" word since Cameron's Titanic (which is by far one of the dumbest uses I've ever heard in a film, especially given the nature of that film). Here, Alita says it while striking a blow to a villain, saying, specifically "F--- your mercy," and it's so out of place that it really lifts the viewer out of the moment at the same time as just sounding incredibly corny (instead of tough). The worst Alita says the entire film (other than that moment of course) is "cr*p," so how does this cyborg who doesn't even know who she is know that particular profanity? It's just so silly. Otherwise, there's one quick use of the "S" word by Hugo, and almost nothing else from other characters throughout the movie. Sexual content is mild, with just occasional subtle references. The most obvious might be when we see Jennifer Connelly lying on a bed in a room with Vector and, while her upper body is covered, stockings and garters on her leg are showing. Nothing is shown, but it seems to imply the two have more than a business relationship. The violence is really the biggest issue with Alita. The cyborgs usually have human faces (like, real-life faces)--except for one or two which are entirely CGI human-like faces (like the character Grewishka--and so, when they're smashed or killed, we see bluish or greenish blood coming from their faces. In one such scene, Alita beats one to death in the face and we see it lying on the ground with a smashed-in head with blue blood all over it. Another is smashed into a wall and its robot body drops off, leaving its disfigured humanoid head stuck to the wall with more blue blood on it. An animal is killed off screen, but we see its red blood pooling on the floor, to which Alita dips her fingers in and wipes it under her eyes as war paint. Another scene shows a cyborg punch its arm into another cyborg's humanoid eye socket and break off its arm. For some scenes after, we see the forearm of the cyborg sticking out of the other cyborg's eye socket. Later, a human is literally sliced in half at the waist by a sword and we briefly see the body lying on the ground in two pieces with lots of blood on the ground around it. (I saw this in IMAX 3D and it was especially unsettling--to me, at least.) In another scene, we see a human head that's been removed from its body, and although it's only shown briefly, it becomes the main focus of the shot. A bit later, we see a wide box opened up with the eyes, brain, and other organs of a human kept in jars and on "life support" as they've been harvested from a human to be reused. Finally, a cyborg with a CGI-made human head is sliced in half vertically and we see the cyborg fall apart with the human-ish face looking gooey as it comes apart. Less gory, but still gross is another scene where a cyborg with a real human face has their face sliced off partially, which reveals the mechanics of their face underneath as they scream in horror.
Alita: Battle Angel isn't quite the game-changing epic I'm sure Cameron wanted it to be, nor is it quite as bad as looks like it could be, but at best, it's an entertaining 2 hours, although it does feel much, much longer (which doesn't speak well of the film itself). You certainly could do a lot worse than this manga-turned-live-action-feature-film, but truly, you can also do a whole lot better. If they ever did do a follow-up, I might be semi-interested in checking it out, but if we never see Alita on the screen again, I certainly wouldn't lose any sleep over it.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 2/23/19)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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