'Alita: Battle Angel' (2019) Movie Review
Robert Rodriguez Returns
It seems that it has been a few years since Robert Rodriguez has sat in the director’s chair for a full length movie, seemingly residing in television work for the last five years or so. And in all honestly, prior to that, his last few cinematic ventures I wasn’t all that crazy for. His last directorial efforts in film were all the way back in 2014 with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which I could not get into at all. The year before that was Machete Kills and that movie was a major disappointment for me. And before that in 2011 was debatably his worst film, Spy Kids 4-D: All the Time in the World… don’t forget that smell-o-vision, kids. The last movie I saw and actually really liked from Rodriguez goes all the way back to 2010 with the first Machete. Prior to the decline in quality pictures that I just listed, I was a huge fan of Robert Rodriguez’s filmography and still am to this day. I love his action films, he was a talent to be reckoned with in terms of creating an awesomely kick-ass experience in the theater. Aside from his kids movies that he would make occasionally, he was one hell of an entertaining filmmaker. He had an eye for style, he had an ear for dialog and character, and he knew how to make a small budget work to his advantage. Then I felt he lost his touch for a few years until he seemingly stepped away from film entirely.
Then comes Alita: Battle Angel, a passion project for him and James Cameron, who acts as producer and co-writer for the Rodriguez directed film. From what I understand, Cameron has been trying to get this movie made for the last twenty years. So this man clearly has a love and appreciation for the source material. Speaking of the source material, I might as well get that out of the way now and say no. No, I have not read the manga the movie is based on, Battle Angel Alita. A clever little twist on the title there. Anyways, if you are looking for a side-by-side comparison on how faithful this is to the Japanese cult classic, I’m sorry to say that you will not find that assessment here. This review is coming from a completely fresh perspective and that perspective rather liked Alita: Battle Angel. Does it have problems? Yes, it most certainly does. Was I able to look passed those issues to find myself lost in this impressively creative world and grew to love the main characters? Yes, very much so. If someone has a problem with that opinion because it wasn’t an accurate enough depiction of the original manga series, again I apologize, but that argument is invalid to me. I’m critiquing this as a film and a film alone, not a comparison in adaptation.
The year is 2563. The place is a dystopia called Iron City. A Junker searching within the giant piles of trash in the scrapyards just outside the rubble of a city, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes across a dismembered and deactivated young female cyborg. After bringing her back home and supplying her a new mechanical body, we come to find that she has no memory of her past. Not even able to remember her own name, resulting in Ido providing her the name of Alita (Rosa Salazar). From there, Alita is on a personal journey in discovering who she is and what exactly happened to her, all while also figuring out how to live in this overwhelming society filled with scum and crime. On her journey, not only does Alita find answers, but some trouble along the way. Leading to some action-packed adventure with the help of her pseudo-father figure, Ido, and her love interest, Hugo (Keean Johnson).
I actually fell for this makeshift family unit that formed between our three protagonists, I enjoyed their chemistry together and thought they all gave pretty solid performances in roles that do feel familiar yet are played charismatically enough that I didn’t find myself caring. Rosa Salazar absolutely won my heart over honestly; I couldn’t help but root for this naïve, sweet, endearing, badass girl. I thought Salazar was simultaneously adorable and intimidating when she needed to be. I liked figuring out alongside her the puzzle to her past and discovering the missing pieces as she does. I wouldn’t say that the quest was entirely unpredictable, it’s easy to see where it’s going, but I found myself invested in Alita enough to not really care and simply enjoy the ride. I will say that the relationship between Alita and Hugo, even to an extent Ido, is a tad rushed. However, since I liked these characters and was entertained enough throughout to not really care all that much. They are the real heart of this movie and I felt it is a major reason why it mostly succeeds.
With the supporting baddies of the movie, I had a lot of fun with. I found them to be fun and even a bit scary at times. Ed Skrein is having a ball playing this pretty boy, cyborg bounty hunter and is chewing up scenes left and right. Jackie Earle Haley plays this real big, hulking mechanical tough guy that I had a real blast watching every time he crashed his way into the action. He was a real cool monster of a villain that I enjoyed seeing Haley sinking his teeth in with a fun role again. Now when it comes to the main villains, there isn’t a whole lot to go off of. All we have is Mahershala Ali, who initially is setup as the main antagonist of the story, but is quickly sidelined and somewhat squandered with his talents. He doesn’t have all that much time to work with and what little he receives isn’t utilized at all, which by the end his character becomes a complete waste of time. The other sort of main villain is that of someone named Nova, a man who apparently works diabolical schemes from a city floating above the one in which our characters reside in, called Zalem. Think of it as the Elysium of this world. For the most part, throughout the majority of the film, Nova is able to apparently hack into anyone’s body to temporarily communicate to specific people he wishes to speak with. Only in the briefest of glimpses do we see that the character of Nova is played by Edward Norton. Who doesn’t utter a single word and only has about a minute’s worth of screen time. Not exactly what I would call the strongest of character development. But, thankfully, the secondary villains played by Skrein and Haley really get the most time to shine in the movie and they are very good at being bad.
The Action & Effects
Seeing how this is an action movie, it’s probably best to at least talk a little bit about how it was. And I found it to be a lot of fun. The filmmakers did a great job in choreographing visually interesting and cool fight sequences between our heroes and villains. Especially since I was invested in Alita so much, I was able to feel engaged in the chaos that ensued and there is some pretty epic action sequences that happen here. I particularly love that even though Alita, for the most part holds her own in every fight, does get her ass whooped pretty badly a couple times and it does ramp up the suspense a little bit. Realizing during the climax how much I was actually dodging and weaving in my seat from these massive strikes thrown towards our heroine.
This also is largely accomplished through the gorgeous effects work done here, this is some real top of the line CGI work. Yes, I can tell that the film is probably 90% CG, but it was done with an attention to detail that I found to be admirable. The special effects department I feel deserve to give themselves a pat on the back because the visuals are stunning; the environment, character, and vehicle designs are all truly inspired works of art. I had a terrific time exploring the scenery, looking in the backgrounds for creative and awe-inspiring touches within its world.
The biggest thing I was worried about going into the film was what everyone would expect… the eyes. Like everyone else, those first trailers that came out for Alita put the fear of God in me. They. Were. Haunting. Maybe the effect wasn’t quite finished or perfected at the time. Maybe they released a trailer a little too soon. Coming out of the movie, I had no issues with Alita’s big eyes at all. I was pleasantly surprised and extremely glad at that. If those big things on her face were the least bit oft-putting… then that’s over two hours I get to spend with those things staring directly into my soul and I would not have liked that. The final product, however, works wonders for the character.
This is when things start to fall apart a little bit because my biggest problem with the film does come in the narrative’s structure and pacing. In the first act, everything felt natural with its slow development of this unique world and the characters who inhabit it. Then in the second act is when the action starts to pickup, which is fine. But then it reaches a point where there is this gigantic, epic action scene that goes down; which was loads of fun, but the pacing immediately after screeches to a halt. To the point where I started becoming confused as it felt like the story was somehow attempting to wrap up, like it was the end of the movie, even though we’re only like halfway into this. And this slow pace goes on for what had to have been fifteen to twenty minutes. It felt extremely awkward as every scene felt like it was going to be the conclusion. It also doesn’t help with the fact that the dialog becomes overly sentimental and sappy between the characters, not in any way that felt intrinsic to their personalities either. It was a strange departure from what was being built up prior to this point. Then the story quickly reboots itself into overhaul mode, interjecting massive amounts of action and intensity. Although our leads start to make rather dumb choices that only make matters worse for themselves. While I was still invested in what was going on, all of this and the inclusion of excessive amounts of exposition that began overflowing my ears was becoming somewhat convoluted. Then to end it all off with a cliffhanger to set up a sequel, I was sitting there trying to gather my thoughts on everything that was kind of thrown at me at once.
As the ending credits rolled and saw that there were three writers listed for the screenplay, I had a feeling as to which one may have been the cause for this uneven structure problem. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like the writer of Terminator Sega Genisys may have something to do with this… maybe not. Who knows. For all I know it could have been at the hands of Cameron himself, or Rodriguez. But if I had to guess… it was option number three. Regardless, these problems did not kill the movie for me, but did cause some rough edges that needed smoothing out in the screenwriting department.
Despite all of its faults, and trust me, there are many. I still enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel quite a bit. Far from perfect? Sure. Will this appeal to the fanbase of the manga or of the anime world? I haven’t the slightest idea. For an ambitiously made, high budgeted action adventure, I had a pretty damn good time with it. Especially seeing how this is Robert Rodriguez’s first real big budget epic, I thought he handled it extremely well. With that said, the final act does leave something to be desired as it relies heavily on setting up for a sequel. So if no sequel gets greenlit… I’m going to be pissed. And that makes the ending much more of a disappointment. But if it does get a sequel, all is forgiven. So make a sequel. I’m talking to you, Rodriguez and Cameron. Get on that sh*t. I mean it. I spent money on you. Finish your story. F*ckers. Anyways, I recommend the movie. It’s a good time in the theater. Take the flaws that I mentioned into consideration before checking it out and I think you will have a pretty good time too.
That's All Folks...
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