Alternative article title, Alita: Battle Angel- Domo Arigato, Christoph Waltz-O. Changed for the sake of succinctness.
I experienced something while watching Alita: Battle Angel that reminded me of seeing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace on opening night. It was the first time I can remember having a verifiable critical thought towards a movie, before I’d just sort of accepted a film for what it was without finding gaps in logic or storytelling flaws in the way that a casual audiences does. But that thought suddenly intruded and it was simply, “Oh, we’re going now. The movie is just going. And we’re in it. Things appear to be happening.” This feeling of joining the story, seemingly in media res, when there isn’t really anything going on, is disorienting and, ultimately, the worst foot to get off on. The opening of a film is like a handshake, it’s an introduction to the characters and laws of its universe, it’s a sampler of what’s to come and how you’re going to spend the next 2 hours or so of your day. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the original Star Wars, how the opening works like it’s own movie within a movie. Alita: Battle Angel doesn’t do that at all, we’re just watching people do things and provide exposition. In fact, I’m not exactly sure what the stakes were the entire duration of the film. Had the main characters not sought out some kind of conflict nothing of consequence was going to happen, no one is in danger or being oppressed. Everything was fine.
The literal and figurative heart of the story is Alita herself which is a terrific risk to take, it requires the audience to sympathize with this almost purely CGI creation with weird, unnecessarily large eyes and in this Battle Angel so effectively misses the mark it’s hard to know where to look in a given scene. Not to say there isn’t a verisimilitude and charm to her voice and mannerisms, she just visually doesn’t quite escape the Uncanny Valley and her interactions and chemistry with the rest of the cast suffers for it. Visually, it’s as vivid and cacophonous as anything else on the big screen these days but the final product is joyless and devoid of any direction.
All of this is really strange considering the heavy weight talent involved and the amount of time it’s been in production. James Cameron was originally planning to direct this but instead chose to commit the rest of his living days to the Avatar….quadrology (?) and handed the reins over to the occasionally gifted Robert Rodriguez, which, it turns out, is a little like asking a jazz musician to sit in with a classical quartet; to wit, these are two directors who seem to have conflicting skillsets. Rodriguez made his bones volunteering for experimental drug trials in order to fund his first feature, a micro budgeted classic that used wheelchairs in place of camera dollies, who found more success branching into kids films and eventually pioneering the flexibility of digital filmmaking and green screens with Sin City. Cameron, on the other hand, is tyrannical perfectionist and world builder who has some bizarre and magical ability to make films with dull, predictable, recycled plots into the most financially successful movies of all time. Alita makes more sense for the latter to breathe life into, to do whatever Cameron-y thing he does to make an original IP about cyborgs from the future playing Rollerball interesting. Rodriguez fails to do that.
Speaking of which, the least believable thing about this whole used cyborgy future is the suggestion that rollerblading has suddenly become popular again. Look. I understand that this is based on a manga. I even threw my anime eyes on, as it’s a medium that has a different beat to it, a tempo that slightly different than the typical Hollywood formula. Take, for example, Pacific Rim. That movie is, for all intents and purposes, a live action anime, complete with racial and cultural stereotypes. However, Alita doesn’t fit into either camp and at its finale I was a little surprised that it was over. Just from a pacing perspective the third act is, quite simply, missing.
The real shame in the whole experience is not only how much time and effort has clearly been put into the production but the absolutely wasted cast. Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connolly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley, and a truly what-the-fuck cameo at the end that was even more jarring and dog-tilting-its-head-in-confusion inspiring than the sudden and pointless Darth Maul appearance at the end of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Sadly, Alita: Battle Angel has a ton of potential to explore some interesting concepts about identity, humanity, and consciousness that it never bothers to so much as pay lip service to, instead relying entirely on its special effects and cinematography to carry the experience and, even more disappointing, is going to be one more arrow in the sling for studio executives who argue against introducing new or original intellectual properties. And the Transformers sequels will continue coming but at least this time it’s not the audiences fault.