At what point do we stop being overzealous when establishing a new franchise? It seems that since the original Iron Man (2008) teased the significance of S.H.I.E.L.D (which did not interfere with the quality of the film), franchises have been increasingly bold in their attempts to sequel tease, often at the expense of their own film. The MCU has several entries guilty of this before Kevin Feige and company got the memo and course-corrected. However, films like Batman V Superman (2016) and The Mummy (2017) had to learn the hard way. And here comes Alita: Battle Angel, the Robert Rodriguez directed, James Cameron produced anime adaptation that has been gestating in development hell for the better part of two decades. And like the aforementioned films, it too can’t help itself but to sequel bait instead of presenting the audience with a satisfying standalone story that will 1) actually inspire people to show up and 2) make them WANT to see more without being coerced.
Based on the manga Battle Angel Alita (originally known as Gunm in Japan) by author Yukito Kishiro, the film is a cyberpunk futuristic fantasy focusing on the title character (an excellent Rosa Salazar) – a cyborg found in a junkyard by the compassionate Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who gives her the name Alita. Salazar completed her performance via motion capture, and based on the trailers the look of Alita was always going to be a tough sell. However, the effects are better than anticipated. While Alita is never photo realistic, she blends into the environment very well, particularly in close-ups and profile shots, and in the action scenes where she never feels out-of-place or PhotoShopped in. The issues with the effects have more to do with the other CGI characters and the heavy green screen. As Alita comes to life, she acts as the audience surrogate for this futuristic society.
Alita is amazed by her new surroundings, especially as she has no memories of a past life even as the Dr confirms that she has been around for 300 years. Ido’s affinity for Alita is directly a result of the tragic loss of his daughter, also named Alita, who died before Ido could build cybernetic legs to replace her missing limbs. However, this plot thread is treated as an afterthought, robbing the film of some emotional weight between its two lead characters.
Alita quickly meets and falls in love with Hugo (Keean Johnson). Their dynamic centers around whether or not a human can develop true love for a cyborg. There’s a touching story to be told there, but it’s only told in broad strokes without any introspection into Hugo and what he truly thinks of Alita. His goal in the film is to escape the dystopian city in which the film takes place to get to Zalem – the sky city. Alita will risk whatever it takes to help him reach his goal, even at her own detriment.
The film’s true hook lies in the back story of Alita, where she is revealed to be a former soldier with abilities of advanced martial arts. She recalls these abilities in the present, allowing her to fight off baddies with relative ease. The action is hard-hitting, swift, and impactful. It combines speed with power in a way that is worthy of the anime that inspires it. This is made possible by the digital effects, and leads one to wonder if the filmmakers would get anywhere close to this standard with live actors. The film is heavily stylized (at one point a tear drop is literally split in half by a sword) and may not be for everyone if they can’t get past how effects heavy the set pieces are. For me, I met the film on its own terms and enjoyed the effects immensely. The one negative of the action is watching Waltz stumble around with a comically large hammer. It would probably be more efficient if he just had a gun or some kind of plasma whip. But Rodriguez does an excellent job of tracking the action and conveying just how badass Alita is in a matter of seconds. From alleyway brawls to motor ball, the film’s action feels electric while many modern blockbusters feel tired.
The screenplay was written by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. This is a bit ironic since the film misses a key ingredient that shows up consistently in Cameron’s filmography, particularly the ones he wrote in addition to directing. Cameron’s films are structurally simple, but universally beloved due to the clarity of their core relationships when combined with the plot’s absurd external circumstances. From Aliens (Ripley and Newt) to Terminator (Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, John Connor and the T-800) to Titanic (Jack and Rose) and the list goes on; Cameron crafts character pieces showing the budding relationships between two characters amidst pulpy, high concept plots. Alita has the latter, not the former. This is at no fault of the cyborg herself – Salazar gives the best performance of the movie, delivering a tapestry of emotions that no one else matches up to. If perhaps Cameron had directed as opposed to Rodriguez, Alita’s relationships with Ido and Hugo would have benefited. As it stands, the film lacks a thematically rich emotional bond that could have propelled it from an entertaining action spectacle to a visceral and emotionally satisfying epic.
I wanted more from Alita: Battle Angel, but what I got isn’t without merit. Where it shines – the action, the lead character, the frenetic style – makes it worth seeing on a large screen. But will you remember it two months later? Not only is the actual villain plot of Alita largely uninteresting, with a lead antagonist (Mahershala Ali) that makes Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy seem significant and captivating, but it seems the actually interesting parts are being withheld for the sequels. If you want to start a franchise, it’s not enough to hint at a larger story. Get us to remember this story first.