Review: Alita Battle Angel is a Lovable Mess

Passion projects can be quite a tortuous labor for filmmakers, spending years revising and ruminating on how best to put a fascinating idea or story your adapting on a film reel. James Cameron, I suspect, is fully aware of the effort involved with Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 1990s cyberpunk manga Gunnm. An adaptation nearly three decades in the making by the ambitious filmmaker and whose motion-capturing techniques developed for the project debuted earlier in Avatar, it is impossible to deny the labor that went into this project. Yet sometimes a long development period is an equivalent to over-cooking, and unfortunately this holds true for Alita. It is a mess, but a lovable one at that.

In a edgy riff on the premise of Astro Boy, Alita takes place in a dystopian Earth where, in the aftermath of a war that bombed the world into a classism metaphor, bioengineer Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers in the landfill deposited from the last floating city Zalem the remains of Alita (Rosa Salazar), a relic of this past conflict. After rebuilding her, Alita strives to find a place in this strange world she finds herself in while also reconnecting to her lost past; a search that brings her into conflict with the class system of the setting.

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The film oscillates between two distinct modes that fail to coalesce into a whole. The first is as a brash, cgi-fueled, action movie with a heroine who moves elegantly thru the chaos. It is here that Robert Rodriguez skills as an action director truly comes into play, translating the black and white manga panels to the screen in a way that never feels uncanny while also ensuring the characters never get lost in the mist of smoke, blood, spikes, and swords. The other mode, however, is where you’ll find the James Cameron who directed Titanic; a meticulously crafted teen melodrama that details the budding romance between Alita and Keean Johnson’s Hugo and the troubled father-daughter dynamic between her and Dr. Ido. And the melodrama is quite tender, facilitating an emotional narrative that I was endeared to and one that I feel that teenage girls, who would more readily relate to the ongoings on screen, would absolutely love.

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But as the film alternates between these modes is where it begins to fall apart. Often the actions scenes are over-blown, with sequences like the deadly version of roller derby going on so long that the initial drama that informed it is lost. Subsequently, the focus on teen melodrama can leave this action blockbuster with long periods without so much as a single punch thrown or just one measly back-flip. Compounding this issue is a screenplay with multiple false endings where the main conflict is seemingly resolved only for a new one to begin until film ends not on a resolution, but on a conflict that just started. The film at times feels less like the cohesive whole it’s trying to be, but merely an abridged version of the serialized manga it’s based on.

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Yet despite these faults, I can’t say that I disliked the film. In fact, at points, I loved it. While all the actors handle the material well, Rosa Salazar in particular crafts the character of Alita in such a way that she is believable when she goes from an emphatic teenager to an action heroine, allowing the audience to at least focus on her while the rest of the film meanders. And while the film may violently ricochet between a teen melodrama, an action blockbuster, and a sci-fi dystopia in such a way that it loses focus, when it does decide to linger it does so very well. Funnily enough, much like how Alita is a mixture of organic, mechanical, to downright alien elements in the setting, the film itself is a hodgepodge of disparate elements that might be inefficient when put together but nevertheless deliver on a good time. Frankly, I rather view an ambitious miss than a safe hit, and if you feel the same then by all means strap on a pair of skates and enter the gun dream.

Rating: 3 / 5

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