Movie Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

Director: Robert Rodriquez

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Edward Norton, Keean Johnson)

Plot: In the year 2563 the Earth has been devastated by war and cybernetic implants are the norm. Cybersurgeon Dr. Dyson Ido finds the remains of a young female cyborg in a junkyard and restores the amnesiac girl to life.

Review: Hollywood and Anime have not had a good relationship. Whenever Hollywood tries to adapt a popular Anime film things have gone…bad. Ghost in the Shell was a recent attempt that failed to grasp what made the original so compelling and successful. That misfire is a an exceptional piece of work when compared to the garbage fires that were Dragonball Evolution, Death Note and The Guyver. But perhaps the grand ambition of James Cameron and wildfire style of Robert Rodriquez can make this work.

Alita: Battle Angel certainly seems to trying to jam in every aspect of the long running manga source material, trying to jam an expansive and complex lore and storyline into a single film. We’ve been told that they’ve worked in many of the familiar visual elements on top of all that. Now hold on tight because we’re going to try and explain this plot…

Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) is a surgeon who specialised in cybernetic implants. Whilst scavenging for parts in the junkyard dumped into the Iron City slums by the floating city Zalem he finds the remains of a cyborg consisting of a head and shoulders. He connects these remains to a cyborg body and resurrects the girl he would name Alita (Salazar). Although she has no memory of who she is or what happened to her, Alita shows a strong aptitude for combat and has remarkable reflexes.

As she seeks to remember who she was and build a new life in Iron City, Alita gets involved in a number of plot threads. First, having heard about a series of murders, Alita suspects Dr. Ido of being the culprit but instead discovers that he moonlights as a bounty hunter wielding a radical rocket powered warhammer. Alita then wants to be a bounty hunter. She also discovers the world of Motorball, a vicious bloodsport played mostly by powerful cyborgs. The high speed, inline skate based brawl can lead to the champion being sent up the strictly upper class Zalem. Dr. Ido is involved in some way, helping build cyborgs for competing, and Alita wants to be a Motorball player. Then we have Hugo (Johnson), the love interest for Alita who provides cyborg parts for the black market and harbours a darks secret. We also have Dr. Ido’s ex-wife Chiren (Connelly) who is angry at Ido because of the death of their daughter, also named Alita, whose cyborg body is now housing the new Alita. Chiren is also building cyborgs for Motorball and works for Vector (Ali), the guy who runs the games and works for Nova (Norton), some evil emperor type on Zalem.

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it was. It’s a huge number of plot elements, not even mentioning all the characters like the rival bounty hunter Zapan (Skrein) or the connections between then all and Hugo. The biggest failing of the movie is their attempt to jam this all into a two hour running time, giving the impression that the script was a series of note on post-its. Exposition dump doesn’t even begin to describe it. Ernest Cline almost looks concise next to this movie. The confusing part is that there’s a pretty easy fix that I assume they didn’t use out of loyalty to the source. The bounty hunter and bloodsports plots can provide the same purpose from a character perspective, so pick one or the other. You could streamline the story and spend more time on developing the character of Alita, put time into following her as she learns about the world and develops a clear world view.

Oh, and they couldn’t find a way to keep Chiren in the story so Jennifer Connelly just randomly turns up in places she has no reason being. It becomes comical – we have a bonkers level action sequence and they go to leave only to find Jennifer Connelly was standing slightly off screen. It was weird.

Putting the script issues aside, there’s plenty to enjoy. The movie is a visual delight and the biggest stars are Weta Workshop. Their designs and effects were the stand-out best part of Ghost in the Shell and it’s true again with Alita: Battle Angel. All of the cyborgs are fantastic to watch, and are very diverse in design. It strongly evokes the anime origins of the show in the best possible way. Alita herself was given large Elsa eyes, which is certainly a bold decision. It could’ve looked creepy but it turned out to be an interesting choice. It is a bit weird that no-one else is rocking this look though.

Speaking of Alita, the motion captured performance from Rosa Salazar was very, very impressive. She’s carrying a big franchise on her shoulders here with the additional complication of working through heavy effects work and she does an amazing job. Salazar manages to keep us involved in Alita’s journey throughout the madcap plotting.

With a better edited and reworked script this could have been great. As it stands, Alita: Battle Angel is good.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN