Review: Alita, Battle Angel

Al Ridley reviews recent film Alita, Battle Angel

Al Ridley
25th February 2019
Image: YouTube

There’s one thing that adaptations of written works bring to film: bloat. The sheer information density in your average book, the length of your average manga serial, the complexity of adaptation and the difficulty of making cuts means that film adaptations often struggle to present a dense text in a 24fps format. Alita: Battle Angel is yet another film that suffers because it can’t pare its source material down.

It’s hard to sum up Alita in a paragraph. A Westernisation of long-running cyberpunk manga Gunnm, Alita takes place in a world three hundred years after ‘The Fall’, a cataclysmic war that destroyed most of humanity’s technology. The film takes place in Iron City, your standard Blade Runner cyberpunk sprawl beneath the elusive floating city of Zalem, where a sketchy robo-doc finds the broken, impossibly advanced Alita in a trash pile deposited from Zalem’s waste chute. After he fixes her up, Alita spends the film discovering who she is, what she is and her ties to both Zalem and the world before the Fall.

Acting-wise, Alita is cohesive, with the exceptions of some notoriously hammy performances by the villains. Controversy was raised over partially digitising Rosa Salazar’s face in order to give her animé moe-moe eyes, but it works surprisingly well. She straddles the uncanny valley with mechanistic precision, somehow managing to be both terrifying and vulnerable. Her occasional bursts of strength seem as much a surprise to her as to the audience. It’s a shame that Alita is so pressured to turn her into a self-assured engine of destruction, because the moment she starts spouting stereotypical heroic dialogue (including the most awkward delivery of the word ‘fuck’ I’ve seen in years) she loses a lot of her likeability.

Aesthetically, it's an absolute treasure, full of sweeping cyberpunk vistas and some Bay-esque cyborg gore that deeply fulfils me.

Alita’s haste in turning her into this Death Machine is the film’s major flaw, because it’s really at its best when she’s discovering herself. Early in the film, there’s a brilliant scene where Alita instinctively adopts a combat stance in front of a security android and doesn’t entirely realise why or what she’s doing, and is terrified by the implication. But soon, with little real development, she’s tooled up with enough confidence to just walk into a bar and kick a bunch of bounty hunter ass.

It reeks of a character development arc accelerated to fit within the 122-minute runtime. The film in general is full of a smattering of different smaller arcs welded together for a hint of cohesiveness, with numerous emotional highs that feel like the climax but just lead into more. It reeks of sloppiness, especially with an ending that’s basically a pile of cliffhangers rather than a conclusion.

But that’s not to say that Alita isn’t enjoyable. Aesthetically, it’s an absolute treasure, full of sweeping cyberpunk vistas and some Bay-esque cyborg gore that deeply fulfils me. The soundtrack is passable, though I wish a little more synthwave could have stolen in between the orchestral beats. And you could do worse for a little mindless robot action.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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