Alita Battle Angel Review

The Plot

A mysterious young girl wakes up in a cyborg body in the distant future of the 26th century where man and machine have largely become one. On a quest to reclaim her own forgotten past, she meets a fantastic array of friends and foes alike as she explores the vast lawless slum sitting beneath a Utopian city in the sky.

The Good

Fans of the original Manga series and the anime aesthetic in general will be delighted to finally see a live action adaptation that at last does faithful justice to the distinctive look and feel of anime. After many decades of patience for filmmakers and audiences, special effects has finally mostly caught up with the wildly imaginative worlds of Japanese animation. Allowing the genre’s iconic cyberpunk creations to be realised on screen more photo-realistically than ever before.

Alita is a labour of love for writer and producer James Cameron, who has spent two decades striving to make this project a blockbuster reality. His trademark flare for turning fantastical future tech into an exciting action packed reality remains very much in evidence. Armed with a vast budget and iconic source material Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez have crafted a truly dazzling post-apocalyptic world where super powered cyborgs, decaying ruins and glittering cities in the sky coexist convincingly. The attention to detail and the lived in feel of Alita’s world largely succeeds in immersing audiences.

Relative newcomer Rosa Salazar does well to make titular heroine Alita a captivating figure. She does well at balancing both sides of Alita’s complex personality. She is equally earnest playing her naïve young wide eyed wonder and then as required transforming into a confident indestructible cyborg super soldier. Salazar’s own face transformed by painstaking CGI into a literal embodiment of the original anime character remains reassuring capable of genuine emotion. Most importantly her endearing performance keeps Alita distinctly human.

Christoph Waltz is on typically fine form as the kind hearted cyber doctor who adopts a fatherly role in rescuing Alita and guiding her on her journey of self-discovery. The sincerely sweet natured affection between him and Salazar’s Alita is a nice contrast to the generally brutal world around them and gives the film a steady emotional centre.

In truth though the film’s most valuable assets are its action set pieces. Deadly battle between weird and wonderful mechanical warriors gives audiences a truly original and spectacular spectacle. During these sequences audiences can revel in the dazzling visuals fully and bask in the film’s very best big budget attributes.

The Bad

While Rosa Salazar does a fairly good job at making Alita an endearing presence in the film, the fact that the character is fully CGI with dramatically overly enlarged eyes is at time a little jarring and unconvincing. In certain shots it looks obviously cartoonish and masks what might well have originally been a decent emotional performance. With so much of the film’s settings and characters necessarily artificial it may have been a better choice to at least leave the main character with a more authentically human face.

In a similar fashion, the other cyborg characters which populate the world of Alita are well designed and stick close to the source material, however at times it’s difficult to avoid being distracted by how odd it is to see perfectly ordinary human faces superimposed onto elaborate robotic bodies. Some will be impressed by this distinctive imagery, others will find it creepy and more clearly fake.

While the film boasts a mostly solid cast of familiar stars, unfortunately newcomer Keean Johnson proves to be a little ill-equipped for his considerable screen time. As Alita’s love interest Hugo he is a mostly bland presence, robbing the film of credible romance.

In truth the entire cast struggles a little at times, doing their best to work through heavy handed exposition and oddly soulless emotional exchanges. It really doesn’t help that Robert Rodriguez is a director well known for prioritising slick CGI style over emotional substance. Oddly given the films dark visuals and hyper violent action, the film’s acting and narrative style almost seems skewed toward a younger less sophisticated audience. A side effect of its unexpected pg13 rating,

One of the biggest complaints casual audiences may have by the end of the film is that it’s abundantly clear that key plot points, characters and some of the most potentially interesting parts of Alita’s world have been purposefully held back for what is assumed to be inevitable sequels.  Time and ticket sales will prove whether or not this confidence at launching a new franchise has been misplaced or not. For now what it does mean is that this film feels far from complete and functions more as a lengthy exercise in initial world building rather than delivering a self-contained story.

It’s worrying that after over 20 years of planning and endless development screenwriter James Cameron has only been able to produce a lacklustre script peppered with heavy handed dialogue and predictably lazy clichés. Much like his box office record breaker Avatar, Cameron delivers high tech style largely lacking in substance. It’s a cause for concern as the world awaits his never ending series of seemingly unnecessary Avatar sequels. His chronic preoccupation with special effects and obsessively pushing the limits of CGI is becoming an obvious problem.

This film only serves to cast further doubt about whether or not the once essential Cameron is actually capable of recapturing the undisputed blockbuster greatness of his early work, now an increasingly fading memory from the 1990s…

The Ugly Truth

Alita Battle Angel has some unquestionably well-polished and original visuals, used to create several entertaining action set pieces. Unfortunately a threadbare plot, a few awkward performances and holding too much in reserve for possible future instalments handicaps audience satisfaction. Alita will be a welcomed delight for long term Anime fans and anyone with a particular fondness for this character and the cyberpunk genre. It succeeds far more than any previous live action adaptation of Japanese animation, even if it isn’t quite perfect.

Review by Russell Nelson

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