Sometimes, a film trailer screams out “Danger! Avoid at all costs!” Loudly. That was “Alita: Battle Angel” for me. The trailer just looked awful.
But, then the trailer was shown before basically every other film that ever existed, and I started to wonder. Maybe this film was something special, after all. Why else would Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly be in a film that looked this bad? All three have won Academy Awards and none of these folks — with the exception of Connelly — should be hurting for work. And yet, here they are.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is based on a popular Japanese manga series. More importantly, the film is directed by Robert Rodriguez of “Sin City” fame and written by James Cameron (I don’t need to tell you who he is) and Laeta Kalogridis. None of these names made me hungry to see “Alita,” but its cast left me curious. The film might look like a SyFy film, but there had to be something I was missing if stars of that caliber were willing to be featured.
Where to begin?
“Alita: Battle Angel” isn’t total crap. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not crap, per se. It’s a bit of a hot mess that doesn’t know what exactly it’s doing, but it’s not crap. Rosa Salazar stars as the CGI title character, Alita, a cyborg whose brain and cybernetic heart are discovered in a junkyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz). He gives her a new body and name — both belonging to his dead daughter. Alita’s backstory is a mystery, but her brain is very human, and so are her experiences. She thinks chocolate is basically manna from heaven, and she doesn’t understand stranger danger.
When she meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita is thrown into a world of motorball and first love. She also becomes a target for Vector (Ali) and hunter-warriors (a.k.a. bounty hunters). The plot gets a little convoluted here, and frankly, I was just glad I was in a theater that offered alcohol. Alita & Co. reside in the Iron City, a junkyard of a city that is patrolled by robotic centurions and the aforementioned hunter-warriors. Basically, everyone dreams of going to Zalem, a wealthy city in the sky, but admission is very limited.
As the film progresses, we discover dastardly details about Hugo, intriguing plot points for Ido and snippets of Alita’s back story, which isn’t really interesting. The film is meant to be several levels of amazing, but honestly, it’s not. The romance between Alita and Hugo is all kinds of weird; Ido feels like an actor reading lines and any backstory we get from Alita is blah. (Seriously, she was a soldier in her past, a fact incredibly obvious from how many people she kills or maims.)
One personal qualm for me as an animal lover: They kill a dog. It’s gutted — thankfully offscreen — by one of the bad guys. (But, seriously, the one animal in the film is simply there to be viciously slaughtered? Isn’t that a cheesy, outdated trope of horror films?)
“Alita” is all over the place. I don’t exactly know how to explain it. Almost every character we meet in the film is a bad guy in some sense of the term. Alita is meant to spur our emotions, but again and again, she just seems like a petulant child — which I guess she kind of is — but she’s not a character we can begin to understand. Hugo is meant to be this grand, romantic love interest, but he’s just a boy who loves sports and has horrible taste in friends and lovers. Even Waltz feels like an elderly person whose been turned loose at a mall and told to find his car in the parking lot. Nothing feels natural, and nothing flows.
Connelly and Ali aren’t horrible, but they even suffer from being in this finished product. Connelly is Chiren, Ido’s ex-wife who has apparently gone to the dark side. Ali is probably one of the strongest characters here, but I think that’s just because he has this natural chill and coolness that just bursts forth from him. (Honestly, he could probably read the ABCs to you, and it would be completely spectacular.) What works best is the fact Vector is possessed now and then by a character named Nova (a high-profile cameo that isn’t revealed until the film’s ending scenes), and Ali manages to create two different personas for Vector and Nova. (Of course, he does.) He’s the only person in this film that actually nails his performance, although I feel like this isn’t one he’s going to be incredibly proud to claim.
Perhaps the saddest thing about “Alita: Battle Angel” is the fact the film sets up an obvious sequel. The film has performed decently overseas, but it’s below the American estimate. I can’t say I’m surprised. The film was bumped from a December opening to a Valentine’s Day weekend premiere — because what’s not romantic about cyborgs being dismembered and sliced in two? — and edits were made along the way to the film, including changing the size of Alita’s rather large irises.
The film is bloody, brutally violent and rather dull. The romance is awkward, the relationships stilted and the film’s heroine rather uninteresting. “Alita” is meant to be a film of self-discovery, but it’s one girl’s journey to finding herself, discovering her past and uncovering her future. However, honestly, she’s so bland, it’s hard to care about her past or present, and we as an audience don’t want to be around for her future because it means we’ve prolonged the film.
Bottom line: If you’re a fan of the manga, you might like the film — honestly, I have no clue — but if you’re hoping for a thrilling adventure, save your money and stay home. “Alita” won’t be providing anything but puppy slaughter, and no movie ticket is worth that cost.