Movie review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from “Alita: Battle Angel.” I remember seeing a trailer for it all the way back when I watched “The Last Jedi” in theaters in December 2017, so I’m assuming somewhere along the line it got delayed or pushed back.

The film was finally released in theaters Valentine’s Day weekend. Despite a decent marketing push, it opened to under $30 million over the weekend…not quite what the studio was hoping for from a potential franchise-launcher.

The film is based on a manga series about a young woman named Alita who is haunted by her past as a cyborg super-warrior. She’s torn between wanting to live as a regular girl and to also use her unique powers to help people. Of course, there are some who don’t care about her as a person and merely want to weaponize her, and she has to fight to protect herself, her family, and her friends.

If you’ve seen the ads, you’ve probably figured out that the character of Alita is brought to life via CGI, with large eyes and a mechanical body. At first I experienced a bit of “uncanny valley” but I got used to it as the film went on. You can sense the performance of real-life actress Rosa Salazar driving the character.

I enjoyed this film more than I anticipated, and my favorite part was actually the world-building. The story takes place in a sort of post-apocalyptic/steampunk city called “Iron City,” where there are many people with cyborg parts walking down the streets. In the sky above you can see the more prosperous, floating city of Zalem; many people trapped down on the ground in Iron City dream of someday traveling upwards and finding a better life.

Iron City felt lived-in, with a distinctive design and its own unique culture. I thought the population mix of humans and cyborgs was fascinating; some cyborgs have just one robot arm while others appear to have almost completely robotic bodies. Licensed vigilantes called Hunter-Warriors help keep the streets safe from crime.

I thought the story was pretty good as well, although the dialogue isn’t particularly strong (and some of the actors’ delivery of this dialogue is a little flat). Of the side characters, my favorite was definitely Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido. I loved watching he and Alita’s relationship develop, as she starts looking up to him as the father she never had.

You’ll see several other famous faces pop up throughout the film — notably, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, although I wish the script had given them more to do. I also thought the character of Hugo, Alita’s love interest, came across as a little bland, which is a shame because there’s some really interesting twists with this character towards the end of the film.

My biggest disappointment with the film is that it introduces some thought-provoking themes but never really dives into them too deeply. Whenever cyborgs show up as part of a story, it’s a great opportunity to examine the question “what makes us truly ‘human’?” How does it feel to be a cyborg: part human and part machine? At what point would a cyborg stop being human and simply become a robot? In the film, there is one character who is saved from death by being converted to a cyborg in an emergency operation. Was that ethical? How much say did this character really get in what happened to them?

Again, the film does look at some of these issues, but not with the level of complexity I was hoping for. Like the dialogue, it remains on more of a surface level.

While “Alita: Battle Angel” doesn’t achieve cinematic greatness per se, I still enjoyed watching it and would like to see more of the story. I am disappointed to see it stumble at the box office, because this probably means we won’t get to experience the rest of Alita’s journey. Maybe it was just a hard film to market? Maybe it would have worked better as a Netflix miniseries?

Regardless, I would like to return to the world of Iron City and maybe even see other stories involving different characters in this setting.

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