Gal in the Shell
Alita: Battle Angel is directed by Robert Rodriguez, co-written and produced by James Cameron, and stars Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, and Keean Johnson. It is based on the 1990's Japanese manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro.
I usually hold any film attached to James Cameron in very high regard, mostly because I have found films with his direction to be "experiences" as opposed to just casual viewings. While Alita: Battle Angel does not have Cameron's handiness in the director's chair, Cameron makes contributions in the producing and screenwriting departments, so it's fair to say that Cameron has a meaningful attachment to this film. Sadly, Robert Rodriguez is not capable of delivering the same kind of "experience" that James Cameron has been so adept with when it comes to his most popular films, and the trailers for Alita did not make it out to be anything groundbreaking or something else that would have me wanting to see during its opening weekend. Of course, the claims that it was a movie that just had to be seen on the big screen and the fact that Alita was getting rave responses from audiences, I gave in to my curiosity and coincidentally found myself going to not one, but two female driven action movies (the other being Captain Marvel) in the same week.
Alita: Battle Angel is 2019's earliest example of a science fiction film that excels in the action and visual departments, but falls short in the story and writing areas. I'm tempted to compare Alita to 2017's live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation, because that film starring Scarlett Johansson dumbed down the material from the Ghost in the Shell manga series so much that all the visual effects that movie had to offer could only go so far. And while Alita isn't straight-up dumb by any means, I'm hard-pressed when it comes to thinking up any truly thought-provoking themes that the film might have buried somewhere in its story. It's disappointing, because James Cameron has been quite good over the years when it comes to putting meaningful ideas into the narrative of his action driven sci-fi films, although the glaring "save the environment" message in Avatar might be evidence that perhaps Cameron is not as good at screenwriting nowadays as he was back in his prime.
I know I should stop sounding like I'm putting all the blame on Cameron, because he was a co-screenwriter with Laeta Kalogridis and it's Robert Rodriguez who directed the film. Should I stop blaming Cameron though for Alita's shortcomings, though? Production for the film basically started when Guillermo del Toro introduced Cameron to the manga series, and Cameron fell in love with the manga's concept. For years, Cameron talked about how he was planning to direct an Alita: Battle Angel film and that he had a script in the works, only for the production to end up experiencing delay after delay after delay. When Cameron made it readily clear that his top priority was several more Avatar films and not Alita, in comes Robert Rodriguez: offered the directing job from Cameron after combining the rough draft script with all of Cameron's notes.
The final result is a story that takes place in the year 2563. 300 years prior, Earth was devastated in a cataclysmic event known as "The Fall", with specific details of this event not given to us right away. While out scavenging through a junkyard outside the metropolis Iron City, Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz) uncovers the disembodied head of a female cyborg, but not just any female cyborg. Ido discovers that the cyborg head has a fully functional human brain. Ido attachs a cyborg body to the head and names his new creation "Alita". Alita (Salazar) has no memories of her past, but she later discovers that she is incredibly skilled in combat: something that helps trigger some of her past memories. As Alita struggles to uncover who she is and where she came from, she befriends a boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) and finds herself up against other, powerful cyborgs that want her dead.
- There's definitely nothing I can do to knock Alita's lovely visuals and high-octane action sequences. What's really commendable about the action is that hardly any of it involves bright colors or gigantic weapons that would more likely fit something you'd see in a superhero film. It's the kind of action that is more focused on building adrenaline as opposed to spectacle. When Alita is engaging in a fight, there is hardly any use of extreme wide shots that would make the action become boring or any rapid-fire editing that would be an assault on the eyes. There's a clear sense of choreography to all the punches and kicks that are dealt, and even during the fast-paced racing sequences that happen later in the film, the action is still incredibly well-defined in regards to where characters are and how they are moving. As for the visuals, Robert Rodriguez doesn't settle for making this a gloomy, sun-deprived representation of the future, evident in a brighter, glossier color scheme that makes even the night-time scenes look somewhat cheery. Alita's anime-style eyes are definitely a good look, and they never prove distracting, mostly thanks to a committed Rosa Salazar performance in which she does things like eat a chocolate bar and talk to a dog with playful curiosity. If Robert Rodriguez had decided to make Alita a silent movie by chance, I'm positive he could have still found a way to make it work.
- The main issue with Alita's writing is how aimless the plot turns out to be, never making it clear exactly what the story is hoping to accomplish. After establishing its futuristic world and all the important characters, the plot becomes almost completely stagnant, as if it can't decide who should be the main villain or what kind of challenges it wants to throw Alita's way. When it comes to villains, we've got the shady entrepreneur Vector played by Mahershala Ali, as well as the narcissistic cyborg played by Ed Skrein. Good luck though trying to figure out their motivations and what their respective end goals are. By the time the plot does figure out something to do during its second hour, it's basically too late, and thus, the movie concludes by rushing through several important scenes that don't get any kind of proper build-up nor any sort of rewarding payoff. Then of course we have the very last scene that just screams 'sequel' right in your face, and it honestly diminished the whole movie a little for me. I have never read the manga series, so I can't confirm that there has always been a larger story at work, but if Alita is ever going to get a sequel, I don't get why the ending has to be so on the nose about it. But anyway, Alita's messy writing is another classic example of story and character not being able to back up the visuals and action. If a younger James Cameron could have written the screenplay, we probably would have had ourselves a pretty great sci-fi action film.
So overall, Alita: Battle Angel is not at all a bad film. I enjoyed it enough to say that I was happy to see it on a theater screen, and not wait until I could watch the Blu-Ray on my TV at home. Alita shines bright when it comes to action and visuals, but there are definitely some rusty parts when it comes to writing and plot. How different the movie would be had it been James Cameron directing, we'll never know. Given that the origins of this movie are rooted in James Cameron, I can't help but feel this should have been Cameron's next major film, assuming he would be willing to step aside from anything Avatar related for at least a little while. I like Robert Rodriguez enough and respect his style, but this movie is just begging for James Cameron's direction. Alita is making a big enough splash at the box office that I am confident at least one sequel will be in the works. Who knows? Maybe Cameron would be willing to take up one of those projects. I'd definitely go back to see more of Alita in the theater if that turned out to be a reality.
Recommend? Yes. The action and visuals are definitely worth seeing.
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