film & game reviews, the retro way.
Jackie Earle Haley
Based on the manga Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita), Alita: Battle Angel is Hollywood's latest attempt at turning a cult Japanese comic into a live-action blockbuster. The titular cyborg being played by an entirely motion-captured Rosa Salazar.
With James Cameron producing and Robert Rodriguez on directing duties, this was certainly an ambitious endeavour with a good amount of potential. Of course, the main challenge with this one was to create a fully animated character who would convincingly interact with real actors. Even though this isn't quite as ground-breaking of an idea as the filmmakers tried to sell it as (see Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy).
An early trailer failed to get enough people onboard with the visuals so the film's release was pushed back by six months, the extra time allowing for improved effects and more promotion. Set in 2563, hundreds of years after a catastrophic worldwide conflict, the film follows a scientist who finds the head of a cyborg among a mountain of scraps and fixes it using new parts to become the big-eyed Alita, who has no memory of her past. As she learns about the world she was reborn into, she begins to feel that she once had a very specific purpose.
What begins as kind of a sci-fi version of Pinocchio soon evolves into a film noir cross between Ghost In The Shell and Rollerball as Alita becomes a pro at a deadly game called Motorball and takes on a group of Hunter-Warriors before setting her sights on a much more powerful enemy. Along the way, she falls in love with human Hugo (Keean Johnson), discovers that her "father" Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is more than he seems and gets to the bottom of who is trying to hunt her down and why.
All the ingredients that would usually make up a really fun and interesting sci-fi film are present from a simple, unique premise to the solid cast of characters, the intimidating villains and exciting action scenes. Unfortunately, the visuals far outweigh the script and it's easy to see where most of the filmmakers' efforts went. The Alita "effect" was always going to be distracting and well into the uncanny valley but it would have just about worked had the film been well written.
Alita: Battle Angel is both a great-looking, often entertaining action film and a clumsy, underwritten, bizarre mess that just doesn't work. Having experimented quite a bit in terms of CG-packed action scenes with the Spy Kids franchise, Robert Rodriguez knows his way around that environment and he manages to put together some enjoyably elaborate and fast-paced action sequences. The motion-capture effect on Alita works sometimes but, most of the time, it doesn't quite get there and you're left staring at a needlessly distracting effect when there is no reason why Rosa Salazar couldn't have been given a partly CG'ed robot body like all the other characters in the film.
The villains are easily the most enjoyable part of the movie and have far more charisma than the disappointingly bland leads. Where the film truly fails, however, is in its basic storytelling. In a desperate attempt to quickly set up a sequel, we are left on an ending that feels like the start of a film's second act in that it's incomplete and feels like it's preparing you for the actual ending. This means that Alita: Battle Angel is mostly just exposition followed by a second act and credits, which is just not enjoyable to sit through.
Considering the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, not to mention behind countless computers, this needed a lot more personality, far better writing and less focus on a special effect that never feels all that special. Alita: Battle Angel delivers in the action department but is about as cold and hollow as an empty cyborg head.