Review: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Alita: Battle Angel is a tale of an abandoned cyborg returned to life without her memories, finding herself in a ruined world beneath a floating city. It’s got all the features of a major studio blockbuster – big action sequences, a vibrant future noir world, an obligatory romance.

After months of staring this trailer down, I feel like I have to look it in the eye. It’s the most jarring detail, something painfully discomforting to look at. But where it turned me away from the film in the trailers, it works in the full context – it’s an intentional invocation of the uncanny valley, immediately marking Alita as out of place.

Alita: Battle Angel comes off as a film not certain of what it wants to be – it’s everything and nothing at once. Throughout the opening act, it sets itself up as if it’s going to be this classic dystopian tale with deep lore – and it really wants us to learn this lore, as the entire opening feels like nothing but exposition. But this doesn’t go anywhere – the dialogue is largely amateur, the elements of the world stale. There’s no attempt at any meaningful philosophical pondering, so why waste our time acting like there’s some grander concept at play?

Tacked onto this is a familiar love story, a young woman new to the world falling for the first young man who introduces her to it. There’s no meaningful chemistry between the two, but despite this failure, the film at least uses these moments to explore Alita as a character outside of the initial wonder and the later warrior.

After wasting our time with themes it doesn’t actually want to explore, Alita picks up the pace during the action sequences. This film is really dumb, and it’s at its best whenever it embraces that fact. It’s brutally violent and visually chaotic – that is what Rodriguez knows how to do. It’s a shame so many action directors feel a need to justify these battles – this film could have trimmed quite a bit of fat and been a much more engaging experience if it just dropped some of the political intrigue.

The one redeeming element of the narrative is Alita herself – this is a character who finds her own story, has passion and energy. These elements aren’t limited to her seeking out fights – her curiosity seems genuine, and her evolution as she begins to understand the world is largely successful. She’s alien in the right ways, making extreme gestures that are believably not as extreme from her cyborg perspective. All of this adds up to an ideal action protagonist, someone who carries the plot instead of being pushed along.

The worst part about this movie is that it ends – specifically, that it ends way before it actually ends. This is apparently going to be a story in multiple parts, as the conflict the movie keeps building toward doesn’t actually happen within the film. I felt blindsided by the credit roll – was their goal to leave the audience as immediately underwhelmed as possible? The film doesn’t do enough to leave me wanting to dive back into the narrative of this world – I just wanted a cool closing action sequence.

But the fact I wanted that means there’s some success – this is a movie that got better as it went on, to the point I must have been invested by the end. Between the lead character and the visual design, a sequel could turn out a lot better since it gets to skip over the set-up.

All in all, Alita: Battle Angel perfectly encapsulates the styles of both Rodriguez and James Cameron. There’s chaotic violence, a bold new world…and a consistently fumbled plot. If you can tolerate the sometimes maddening narrative, you’ll be rewarded with some truly fun action sequences.

3 Stars Out of 5

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