Hello, everyone! My name is Lily: Blog Angel, and I’m here to spread the gospel about Alita: Battle Angel, 2019’s best new sci-fi movie and the inspiration for many Halloween costumes to come. It’s got epic action sequences, eerie uncanny valley CGI, and Christoph Waltz in scrubs. And after a veritable drought of good movies (this movie buff hasn’t been to the theaters since OCTOBER!!), it was engaging enough to keep me in my seat for 2 hours. I’ll even commit to the inevitable sequel. Is it deeply flawed? Of course. Would I see it again? Absolutely.
Synopsis: In a dystopian world set 500 years in the future, Dr. Ido discovers the head of a cyborg discarded from Xylem, the last sky city, and rebuilds it into the teenaged Alita. Although at first Alita remembers nothing from her former life, a chance encounter with violence awakens her hidden martial talents. Soon Alita is diving deep into the seedy underbelly of Iron City, chasing bounties, competing in Motor Ball, and falling head over heels for Hugo, a local boy whose cute exterior hides a deep secret. Alita’s prodigious fighting talents soon attract the attention of Iron City’s elite. Vicious and power hungry, they will stop at nothing to preserve the status-quo. As Alita battles the darkness in Iron City, she must come to terms with her past and uncover the truth of her forgotten identity.
My take: The dystopian ramshackle aesthetic of Iron City is nothing you haven’t seen before, but that doesn’t disqualify Alita from being a visually stunning film. The moody blue and green neon nightscape scenes pay homage both to the iconic neo-noir of Blade Runner and classic German Expressionist films. By day, Iron City is a vibrant multicultural city with grandiose European architecture, taking visual inspiration from Neill Blomkamp’s dystopian cities in District 9 and Elysium and perhaps even some hints of design from The Stacks in Spielberg’s Ready Player One adaptation. I’ve never seen the anime, so I’m unfamiliar with how the creators drew Iron City, but while James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez’s vision plays off existing dystopian aesthetics, it still manages to be visually stimulating.
The most exciting parts of the film, the real money shots, are of course the battle sequences. Alita’s CGI movements mesh the delicacy of a dancer with the explosive impact of a bullet. Unlike the mundane fight scenes of Marvel movies, the CGI nature of Alita allows the fight scenes to defy the laws of physics. None of it is at all realistic, but does it have to be? Watching Alita defeat her foes at lightning speed had me on the edge of my speed.
Although the fight scenes are gorgeous, there’s still something harrowing in the über-violence of Alita. It suffers from the same problem as almost all action movies these days: excessive brutality without consequence or analysis. Cyborgs are cut in half, faces are torn from their skulls, bodies are ground up in an incinerator. Even though the violence in the film is “justified,” it’s still just another movie dressing up brutal fights with splashy set-dressing. I was thoroughly entertained, but like any junk food, it tastes good going down and leaves you with a stomach ache. There was an underlying theme of good vs. evil in Alita, but no deeper analysis of when violence in the name of good can be just as destructive as violence in the name of evil. So when Dr. Ido tells Alita that her lethal fighting skills don’t make her into a weapon à la Iron Giant, it’s disheartening to see her use those skills by becoming a vigilante bounty hunter. If the main character misses the “point” of the movie, was there even a point at all?
Without the visual highlights of Alita to distract you, the plot falls flat. Personally, I liked Alita. She’s cool, funny, intelligent, and wickedly talented. As someone who is bored to death of buff dudes pummeling each other, it was a treat to see a woman scissor kick a gang of macho men into oblivion. Some could argue that Alita falls into the Mary-Sue trope because she’s so powerful, but that’s due to the film’s structure problems. Clearly, Alita: Battle Angel was written with a sequel already in mind because it’s almost all exposition and rising action. Alita has no chance to have a character arc because the movie itself has no arc and no resolution. Alita is also in a unique position because her journey to become a super-soldier happened before the movie began. The audience has no opportunity to see her struggle and fail. I liked her because she is a like-able character, but I wasn’t engaged with her on a deep level because there was no deeper story to engage with. The same goes for the other characters, who despite being appropriately affable or repugnant, are paper-thin. Alita’s love interest Hugo is like any anime guy: cute, funny, conveniently ready to fall head over heels at a moment’s notice. I was slightly stirred by their romance, yet I probably wouldn’t recognize him in another film. The one relationship that really touched me was the one between Dr. Ido and Alita because it was given the most room to develop. If the film had focused more on Ido and Alita, it would have been more poignant.
As it is, Alita is mostly a vehicle for exposition and pretty action scenes. Even with all the info-dumping, the plot meanders into confusing territory and it’s unclear exactly why some characters make the choices they do. It would have benefitted from a significantly pared down exposition and a lot more rising action. Also nice: a climax, a falling action, and a resolution, but hey, that’s what the sequel’s for. Remember when we were mad about them splitting one book into three movies? At least they tried to make each part into a self-contained story. Alita doesn’t even try to do that, preferring to save the meatiest part of the story for the sequel. It’s an exciting film, a stunning film, but it’s not satisfying. As I said above, I’d watch it again for the spectacle, and I’ll watch the sequel to see where the story goes. However, I can’t help but feel cheated. I paid for a movie, but what I got was a two-hour long, $200 million dollar trailer for the sequel.