Alita: Battle Angel (2019) Review

5:10 PM

An Angel Falls. A Warrior Rises?
Had Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) allowed Alita (Rosa Salazar) to wear the metallic armour that she found in the abandoned ship, the narrative would have been able to progress without detouring to pointless action sequences. Alita retaliates by becoming a hunter-warrior. Her new peers are unwelcoming and, when confronted by a terrifying mechanic monster, do little to help her. Instead of donning her desired new body, Alita has to be savagely attacked for Dr Ido to fulfil her request. This is just one example of Alita: Battle Angel's script favouring spectacle and exposition over genuine narrative and character development. 

After the overwhelming success of Avatar, James Cameron offered his second baby, Alita, up for adoption. Cameron picked Robert Rodriguez, whose most legendary film is Spy Kids, to raise his child. James Cameron is an auteur so it is hard not to wonder what Alita would have been like had he retained full control over the project. A James Cameron-directed version of Alita would have likely told a delicate, focused and well-paced story. In contrast, Robert Rodriguez's take on Cameron's vision is messy, incomplete and relies heavily on setting up a sequel. It shouldn't have been too difficult to tell an origin story about an ex-warrior cyborg, but Cameron and Rodriguez's screenplay suggests otherwise. How did one of Hollywood's greatest storytellers sign off on such a tangled script?

ThroughoutAlita, characters are constantly talking about and playing motorball (rugby meets basketball on roller skates). It became blatant that the deadly ‘sport’ was going to be intrinsically linked to Alita. Unsurprisingly, the film’s villain Vector (Mahershala Ali) manipulates Alita’s boyfriend Hugo (Keean Johnson) into encouraging Alita to compete. Without any training, Alita is unbeatable – she is able to defeat some of Earth’s most-wanted scumbags. Like a lot of Alita’s action, the motorball game is thrilling and visually impressive. It also demonstrates Alita’s position in society – an insignificant girl who has the bravery, courage and skill to take on some of the world’s biggest monsters. However, Alita never completes her game of motorball. Instead, she leaves at a pivotal moment to rescue Hugo from the hunter-warriors. This is yet another frustrating example of the script sacrificing Alita’s story in favour of needlessly increasing the stakes. 

This exposes another of Alita’s problems – the characters (especially the villains) are poorly defined, and their motivations are foggy. Vector wants Alita killed but is also secretly stitching Hugo up too? Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) is cold and moody until she conveniently succumbs to her maternal instincts in the third act? These abrupt changes in characterisation highlight the script’s incoherency. When describing her character, Jennifer Connelly has homed in on Chiren’s battle with grief. Neither Connelly’s performance or the film’s script explicitly accentuate this undertone until the character’s final scene. It looks like Connelly, Cameron and Rodriguez have tricked themselves into thinking that Chiren is a three-dimensional character. Mahershala Ali’s Vector also spends a large part of the film seeming futile despite a solid performance. Vector is essentially Chiren’s chauffer until she decides to take a backseat. Ali has a great moment when his character dies while simultaneously being possessed by Nova. 

Alita’s compelling titular character is one of the film’s redeeming qualities. She might not be the inspirational and powerful heroine that James Cameron is dubbing her, but she is likeable enough to engage the audience. Firstly, Alita is an outstanding visual creation. Her interactions with the ‘human’ characters are seamless and her warrior past allows for some exhilarating, inventive and kick-ass action sequences. Secondly, Rosa Salazar delivers a strong performance. It must have been difficult to convincingly convey emotion through a motion capture suit, but Salazar succeeds. Thirdly, Alita represents strength and resilience. She is a selfless girl with a big heart. When a stray dog is murdered by one of Zalem’s machines, Alita marks her face with its blood before fighting back. This moment epitomises who Alita is – a warrior for the underdogs, a fighter for the minority. She stands for unity and ends the film as a symbol of resistance and a leader of a rebellion. It is unfortunate that this film will likely never get a sequel (predicted to be a box office bomb) because it only tells the beginning of Alita’s story. 

Did James Cameron make the right choice when he decided to dedicate all of his time to the Avatar sequels instead of towards the launch of Alita? In short, yes he did. Not only is Alita: Battle Angel predicted to fail at the box office (its $200 million budget doesn't help), it lacks originality and substance. Luckily for Cameron, he will easily be able to bury his association with the project and blame the failure on Alita's bad foster parent Robert Rodriguez. Although it has impressive visual effects, Alita fails to capture the same magic, immersion and creativity as Avatar did in 2009. There isn't anything new about the origin story of a cyborg warrior set in a dystopian future.

Alita: Battle Angel is a derivative and convoluted sci-fi epic that greedily expects audiences to pay for a sequel. Dua Lipa might argue otherwise but Alita: Battle Angel sings its own swan least she goes out fighting.

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