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Review: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)


Title: Alita: Battle Angel

Genre: Action/Manga/Sci-Fi

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Bias: I've never read the manga on which the film is based, and (generally) I haven't read a lot of manga.

Grade: C+

In A Nutshell: 500 years in the future, a scientist discovers the remains of a robot. He brings her home and rebuilds her, only to discover she has a past she doesn't remember, and who attracts the attention of Nova, a powerful foe who rules the floating city above them.

The Critique: Can a movie with dialogue this clunky, this many plot contrivances, so many one-dimensional characters, so many unearned character relationships, so many bad performances, so much wasted talent with the cast and creators behind it, and with way too many plots be a bad movie if it’s still entertaining throughout? Those are the questions I wrestled with throughout, and immediately after, this film. Because, despite all of those things, there are moments I loved, a well-realized and unique world, and visually-stunning sequences that elevate the movie. I also found myself responding to it in much the same way I respond to most of the manga and anime I've tried to get into, where the concepts are incredible and the execution has such heightened melodrama and attempts at comedy that I'm never quite sure how seriously I'm supposed to be taking it all.

And I think that's why I struggle with Alita: Battle Angel. Because it so perfectly and lovingly captures that tone, and it does so in a visually-engaging way while translating it to live-action (or a replication of live-action). Criticizing it for doing that seems akin to criticizing the Marvel films for having over-the-top villains and heroes wearing funny-looking costumes. If you're a fan of the genre, these things aren't a bug, they're a feature.

Having said that, there are some genuinely cringe-worthy performances. Despite featuring in much of the two hour run-time, I never once got used to Hugo (Johnson), whose pretty bad performance isn't helped by some of the lines he has to deliver. And the dialogue (which is often actively bad) feels like a slap in the face to the insanely talented group of actors that appear in this film, including three Oscar winners and three Oscar nominees.

The actor who comes out of all of this the best, despite the fact that you never really see her, is Salazar as Alita, who sells her character's whiplash-inducing evolutions with enough energy and sincerity that you buy them (and this might be helped by the mo-cap nature of the performance reading as a step removed from the reality of the rest of the film). Ed Skrein is also pretty great as one of the film's four or five antagonists.

I guess where I come down on the film is that it's genuinely thrilling to watch (if you have a decent threshold for CGI) while being a mixed-bag in just about every other respect. There's well-staged and well-shot action sequences, interesting world-building, and an engaging lead. I definitely enjoyed it more than Aquaman or Ready Player One, both of which, in theory, fall into the "pretty to watch/meant to be fun" category. This feels like it was made by someone with a genuine love of the source material and genre, executing it as faithfully as possible (which is also why I had less of a problem with Aquaman than RPO, as the latter, fairly or not, felt like a cynical exploitation of nostalgia - though that might also originate from the book itself).

Oh, and two slightly-spoilerish warnings: there's a John Wick-ish moment with an animal, so if that kind of thing bugs you, be prepared; and the film so obviously builds to setting up a sequel that, given the opening weekend and the fact that it took over a decade for James Cameron, and later Robert Rodriguez to make this film, is unlikely to ever happen, so the final moments are a bit unsatisfying.

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