Film / Theatre Reviews

Alita: Battle Angel


Sometimes crappy films are interesting.

Their failures flag up ludicrous studio decision-making, or a creative ego gone unchecked, or just a series of small misguided steps that, in retrospect, were so obviously the wrong path to go down. For those of us professionally curious about why stories do or do not work, these movies are instructive and shareable; the critics’ version of “Hey, smell this!”. But, really, most of the time, bad or boring movies are bad or boring in ways that are totally predictable. Watching them is an exercise in low expectations met.

Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez’s big-screen translation of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk series, known in Japan as Gunnm (“gun dream”), has the soulless shine one would expect from a manga turned that’s gone live-action Hollywood. Kishiro’s story is a cybernetic spin on dystopic tropes already well-known from studios’ strip-mining of popular young-adult material. It centres on “Alita”, a cyborg rescued from the junk pile by robo-doc Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz’s pure-hearted Geppetto), who coaxes her back into the world with paternal care and cannot protect her from her own warrior instincts.

It’s the year 2563 in a place called Iron City, a sprawling multicultural techno-slum with the mechanoid chunkiness of Elysium or Chappie. The place is overshadowed, literally, by Zalem, a super-rich enclave which hovers in the clouds above. Zalem is the last of the planet’s sky cities, the only one to survive a viscous past conflict referred to obliquely as “The Fall”, a space war which, according to Alita’s flashbacks, involved her shooting lasers on the moon.

A strict caste system means no-one gets to ascend to Zalem, except the champion of Motorball, the only sport in town: Robot Wars on roller blades. Otherwise Iron City is for workers, scavengers and dreamers, a semi-lawless state patrolled by licensed Hunter-Warriors. Alita’s hormone circuits are frazzled by the glamour of all this professionalised combat and the soft-boy smiles of Hugo (Keean Johnson), a gearhead with dreams of riding the glass elevator. Alita is built for slow-mo violence: her operating system connects her to a lost fighting elite, and when her basic teen model gets ripped apart, Dr. Iso hooks her up with a sweet, super-powered upgrade.

Some manga weirdness survives. Ed Skrein has a wicked appeal as a bounty warrior with a vain fixation on his own good looks; one of his colleagues is a cyborg cowboy with a flock of mechanised hell-hounds. But the stylistic expressiveness of the manga form, well-suited to animation adaptation, gets lost in the pedestrian story-boarding and much-praised photorealism. Human faces are grafted onto impossible, videogame boss bodies, with alienating effect.

It is quite difficult, most of the time, to buy CGI, bug-eyed Rosa Salazar as a person really engaged with the characters around her, partly due to the wobbly alignment of dialogue and expression, and partly Salazar’s eager line readings, which always seem to come from someone who is just not quite present. Still, when the film stays on her, it’s a passably silly coming-of-age adventure; when the action kicks in it turns into a dumb videogame cutscene.

Alita’s worst sin is how cynically it sets up a conflict it never resolves. Down in Iron City, Vector (Mahershala Ali) rules the roost, helped by Ido’s ex-wife (Jennifer Connolly), but even he’s just a pawn of cloud city’s all-seeing overlord Nova. Nova is the real prize, and a chastened Alita vows to traverse the space between and deliver some sweet justice. And just when she’s about to get her chance at a chance, the final cuts, leaving the potential third act hanging in the air. The source material is a sprawling nine-volume comic, and Battle Angel corresponds roughly to the events of only the first two, but the title tag still hits like a slap in the face.

What’s that Woody Allen line: the food is terrible — and the portions are so small.

Alita: Battle Angel is out on wide release.


Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.