Alita: Battle Angel Review

James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez’s new anime adaption has a human passion wrapped in a clunky, metallic shell.


Jace Henderson, Graphics Editor

Director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron’s new movie “Alita: Battle Angel,” the  live-action adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga, “Gunnm: Battle Angel Alita,” is a strange script wrapped up in production values that only Hollywood’s best and most wealthy could afford.

It’s not to be understated that the production design is entirely cutting-edge in every sense of the word. The bustling cities and sweeping vistas are completely breathtaking, and the sheer amount of things going on in every scene is astounding. It looks like something that could only really be achieved with 200 million dollars in 2018. But underlying every gorgeous backdrop or scene is a strange, befuddling and sometimes even frustrating script that kept my interest for every second of it’s runtime.

At the heart of “Alita: Battle Angel” is an incredibly uncool and sometimes downright lame movie. Every ounce of production is embedded in a style that tries to be as “cool” as possible, but only if that idea of “cool” was derived by standards set in 1993. Every shot of the bustling city streets is littered with bandana-wearing street hoodlums. Everyone dresses like they got their fashion advice from “HOOK’s” Rufio, with crazy-colored hair and tight leather that embodies the epitome of cool in the mid ‘90s. The police are now replaced by cybernetic bounty hunters called “hunter warriors,” and even “motorball,” the movie’s fictional future sport of choice, revolves around jacked cyborgs roller-blading to the death. These choices probably have something to do with Cameron and Rodriguez’s dedication to accurately adapting Kishiro’s work, which itself ran from 1990 to 1995, and thus is shaped around the trends of the time.

But even looking past the intentionally “radical” world-building, the story and sometimes even acting seem straight out of a ‘90s Disney Channel original movie. The film’s love interest, Hugo (Keean Johnson), is easily the weakest performance of the entire core cast, but he has such a bland ‘90s boyfriend vibe, it’s almost hard to complain about him, because anything better wouldn’t fit the movie’s tone. His performance is bad, but it’s entertainingly so, and he definitely fits the mold of someone a naive teenage girl would easily fall head over heels over. On the other end, the supporting villains Zapan (Ed Skrein) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle-Haley) absolutely kill it in their respective performances, each sporting varied and interestingly detailed mo-capped designs, and as mentioned before, the world is full of amazing detail.

Of course, the pinnacle of the movie’s performances in both acting and motion-captured technology is Alita (Rosa Salazar) herself. Salazar shows a great emotional range throughout, perfectly nailing both the intensity of the battle scenes and the more light-hearted “fish-out-of-water” moments. She has a good chemistry with everyone in the cast, aside from Hugo, funnily enough, whose romantic scenes always felt flat and felt about on par with Alita’s chemistry with the dog. What ended up surprising me most about her performance, however, was how much I ended up liking her eyes. Like most, I was apprehensive about Alita’s large CGI’d eyeballs, as one misstep in visual direction could transform the film’s leading character into a frightening and distracting visual monstrosity. However, I must applaud Rodriguez and his team for stepping up their visual fidelity since “Spy Kids 3,” giving Salazar’s performance less of a distractor, but more of a performance enhancer. It’s almost shocking to see how much more depth was added by simply increasing the size of her eyes, but I was certainly presently surprised by the outcome.

Speaking of surprises, I was also surprised by the direction of the film’s plot. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but the film’s story focuses less on an overarching, hero vs. villain narrative, and instead finds itself focusing on Alita’s characterization more than anything else. It’s certainly an interesting choice, making it less of an action movie, and more of a character-driven, coming-of-age story that just so happens to have fighting battle robots. What’s left is a movie that feels more faithful to its original manga incarnation, but is sure to not be a crowd-pleaser. There’s lots of touches, small random little beats that are scattered throughout that most directors wouldn’t have even bothered with. Characters lackadaisical trapezing on the rooftops, brief top down camera shots of action scenes, or Alita whispering to herself quietly to pump herself up before a big fight, are just some examples of these, and they really show Rodriguez and Cameron’s passion for the source material. Rodriguez’s directorial care seems  to be going unsung, which is a shamel, as it makes for a world that really clicks and feels alive.

And even if the world and characters isn’t what you’re watching for, this has to be some of the gnarliest PG-13 action here. It seems Rodriguez has tapped into the “Samurai Jack” mentality of violence, that being that any level of violence is allowed so long as there’s no human blood spilt to tip off the ratings board. And luckily for Rodriguez, almost every villain here is a robot. Weird, gooey, sometimes very fleshy robots, but still robots. These guys are perhaps the most visceral, gore and intestine filled cyborgs I’ve ever seen outside of “Alien” or “Akira,” and I’m sure the latter was a large influence. Almost everyone here gets torn to pieces or sliced to bits in some truly unsettling displays of carnage. Even Robert Rodriguez’s previous ‘R’ rated films don’t have this level of weird and gross splanchnic violence.

The main takeaway here, is two things, one being that this film is weird, and I mean, really, really weird. Weirder than the trailers made it out to be, and that’s accounting for the fact that the trailers make it look really weird.

And the other point is that the film’s messy plot and structure work for and against it in a way. The ending is absurdly unsatisfying, a choice that makes sense in a movie structured around character work above spectacle, and it’s an appreciated hat-tip to the original’s more serialized nature. But on the other hand, it has such a sequel-baiting, cliffhanger ending, that, for a movie that will probably never have a sequel (if we’re judging off of the box office numbers), the ending is sure to underwhelm and frustrate. The journey the film takes you on helps capture the feel of the property its adapting with a staggering accuracy, but the frustration of there never being a satisfying resolution is ever present. However, the emotional journey the film takes you on to get to that frustrating note is pretty compelling, and it’s easily the best anime-to-live action film adaptation that we’ve ever gotten out of Hollywood.

It’s a more fleshed out “Ghost in the Shell” or “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” for kids, weird kids, and if you’re not a weird kid, you probably won’t like it. The film takes you for a ride without that begs you to not think too hard about whatever nonsense you just saw. If you’re one of the five fans of the original, it’s sure to be a treat, but if you’re just a common man looking to watch a cyberpunk, detective, motorsport, action-packed romance romp, then give this movie a shot. You might pleasantly surprised.