I talked a bit about Alita: Battle Angel‘s source material last week and this week I get to talk about the film having seen in this past weekend.
Disclaimers – I will try to keep this review spoiler free. Also, I saw the film in 2D which means I can’t speak to how well the film shows in full 3D.
I’ve been a fan of the Battle Angel/Gunnm series for a couple decades now. I’ve read the books. I’ve seen the animated two episodes that were done years ago. I used to draw Alita when I was younger and I’ve been fond of the characters and world for as long as I can remember. That gives me a bit of a different perspective going into the film. I knew what to expect — or at least I thought I did. More on that later.
Alita: Battle Angel starts off with a man named Doctor Dyson Ido finding and restoring a cyborg that he finds in the scrapyard underneath the floating city of Zalem. The cyborg — a young girl — is revived with no memory of her past. Ido names her Alita and helps get her back on her feet. She soon meets Hugo – a young man with a dream of one day traveling to Zalem — the floating city that hangs above the scrapyard. He shares with Alita his love of motorball and the two quickly become friends.
It turns out, however, that life in the city is dangerous — especially after dark. A violent encounter with the cyborg Grewishka triggers some of Alita’s memories of her past and reveal her hidden combat skills. She decides that combat may help reveal more of her memories while the escaped Grewishka and his associates plot her destruction. Much of the films plot revolves around her quest to become stronger and learn more of her past while Grewishka and those close to him work against her.
The visuals in the film are strikingly beautiful. There has been a lot of concern about the CG imagery — Alita’s oversized eyes in particular. There is a point to them. They are intended to highlight Alita’s otherworldly, nonhuman nature but they are a bit jarring. The rest of the CG, however, is fantastic. The city looks alive and real while the combat sequences are engaging. The film’s world has a physical presence to it and that is no doubt a result of James Cameron’s involvement (Terminator 2, Avatar). The violence is toned down a fair deal from the source as well. While blood and brains are frequently smeared across entire panels of the manga the film shows very little of either. It’s frankly a decision that has little impact on the story itself and allows the film to be much more accessible to a wider audience.
The Roza Salazar — the voice and motion capture behind Alita — does a wonderful job with the character. She’s a joy to watch. The character shines during each and every moment she’s onscreen. The other characters vary. There are some great performances by the leads — Hugo and Ido along with the more villainous Zapan and Vector are all very well portrayed and almost perfect matches to their source material. Other characters vary in quality either due to their portrayal (Tanji’s actor came across a little weak) or due to muddled motives (I was never really sold on Chiren’s motives).
While the action, imagery and characters are mostly quite strong the film falters is in it’s overall execution. There’s a core story — Alita’s conflict with Grewishka and her relationship with Hugo — that is compelling and makes for a strong heart to the film. Where it stumbles is in some of the added padding around it that is meant to set the groundwork for sequels. The movie pulls in material and characters from later books which, while interesting to see on the big screen as a fan of the series, do little more than add some confusion around the story itself and leave the ending feeling a bit unsatisfying. There are plot threads that simply do not get resolved as they are intended for possible future installments — sequels that may not happen. This is a real shame because I can’t help but feel that if they had streamlined things a little more it would have made for a much more cohesive film. It’s a decision which — like Alita’s eyes — is easier to accept as a fan but possibly not as much as someone new to the franchise. As a result it has impacted the film’s reception, its box office and has reduced the chance that we will ever get the sequels that this film desperately wants.
As a long-time fan the extra content was easier to digest. In fact, the added content and nods to future characters and books was a delight. I felt unsure of what would happen next due to how the story had been restructured but at the same time pleased that it held close to its roots. The film cherry-picks events and characters from both the original manga and the original animated adaptation with some characters and sequences drawn from each. Chiren, for example, is never mentioned in the books while Zapan is notably absent from the animated adaptation. There are also plenty of other Easter eggs for fans to find — like Hugo’s bike (likely inspired by a bike Alita uses in much later volumes of the manga), Murdock the Hunter Warrior and his cyborg dogs and the appearance of Joshugan the Motorball champion. Even then there are still elements that deviate from either source like the absence of the symbol on Ido’s forehead and the origins of Alita’s combat body. It’s hard to question those changes without knowing what might have been planned for future installments. Of those, however, only one felt notably out of place to the point that it was distracting — another unnecessary element that just added more baggage to the story than needed.
It’s easy to see where critics have taken issue with the film. It’s overloaded with setup and can at times seem a bit too complex. However, at its core Alita: Battle Angel is a fantastic ride and it’s a shame that some of the extra burden it carries leaves it far weaker than it should have been. Still, the action and the emotional heart of the film – and in particular Alita’s relationship with Hugo – are excellent and worth watching from beginning to end. Alita herself is compelling to watch onscreen. I can only hope the foundation that the first movie has set is allowed to be built upon and that the entire franchise hasn’t simply collapsed under the extra weight the film was saddled with.