Movie Review

Film Review: ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019): A Movie of Moments Undermined By its Own Content (And lack thereof)

Rosa Salazar Ed Skrein Alita Battle Angel

Alita Battle Angel Review

Alita: Battle Angel (2019) Film Review, a movie directed by Robert Rodriguez, and starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Eiza González, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Casper Van Dien, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Marko Zaror, Elle LaMont, Edward Norton, and Idara Victor.

Alita: Battle Angel is a film with a satisfying first act, a second act that ends with a galvanizing battle, and haphazard third act that degrades and makes paltry all that came before it. Because of this fact, it is difficult to recommend Alita: Battle Angel. In the end, Alita: Battle Angel is an entertaining film strewn with massive wasted opportunities i.e. missing scenes and moments that could have made the film a great science fiction drama and a must-see cinematic experience that delivers a gut punch instead of what is actually levied – a quick, feather-light jab that leaves no impact.

Dialogue Sophistication and Incomplete World Building

There were instances of good, simplified dialogue in Alita: Battle Angel that simultaneously answer a multitude of questions. One such moment is when Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) explains to Ninety-Nine / Alita (Rosa Salazar) that the floating sky city of Zalem was possible due of engineering. That single line of dialogue says everything that is needed.

That level of dialogue and plotting sophistication is completely absent when it comes to other key aspects of the world characters inhabit in Alita: Battle Angel. There is no overarching government structure in the film and the street-level one is only concerned with identified murders.  No work has been put into the regular law and order aspects of the world (like in Dredd) by screenwriters James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. In Alita: Battle Angel‘s world, there is no 911, no police, no FBI, no marshal law, no aldermen, mayors, or governors. In Alita: Battle Angel, there is only a nightmare version of the Wild West where you can do as you please without repercussion except murder (unless you do it where no cameras are present).

It is in this environment that somehow people and cyborgs walk around care-free, under the preposterous illusion of law and order due to the presence of myopic and meager Hunter / Warriors. In effect, 2563 is a technology-rich medieval time period.

Because of this story-setting, Zapan (Ed Skrein) killing an innocent cyborg as a pretext to hunt down and kill Hugo (Keean Johnson) is an absurd contrivance. Why do you need a pretext when you live in a world with no police officers, no police detectives, and no prisons? Why not just kill Hugo out of sight of the surveillance cameras (and who is minding those cameras? It’s never disclosed in the film.) and then dispose of the body? Or leave the body in an alley for Alita to find.

Why all the artifice? Why all the machinations in a screenplay that paints such a vastly incomplete world? It isn’t necessary.

The Best Fight

The best fight scene in Alita: Battle Angel is the second confrontation between Alita and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). All the other fight scenes in Alita: Battle Angel pale in comparison to this one. It is the most violent fight in the film, the F-bomb is dropped in a rather effective manner, and Alita almost dies. Unlike all the other combat scenes in the film, there are real stakes during this particular battle. Alita is not invincible during this fight as she is in the third act of the film. The odds are even between Alita and Grewishka, she can die, and almost does as she unflinching throws herself, body and soul, into the jaws of a lion, and is literally ripped to pieces.

At no other time, besides this fight scene, does Alita face consequences for recklessly entering dangerous situations without forethought for consequences.

The Love Story and Cybernetics

The love story between Alita and Hugo, despite is artificial pathos, strikes a nerve with the viewer. The viewer sees Alita’s instant interest him and goes with Hugo’s eventual interest in her. The problem is that in the anime film this movie is based on, Alita looks like a real human being, including her eyes. In the live-action film, her head and hair look artificial. Not enough work was put into the cybernetic plotline of Alita: Battle Angel for the viewer to see how a human being could fall in love with something put together in a factory. Cybernetics and that type of love exist in a giant explanatory void that is never approached, delved into, or filled by the plotline of this film. In both Blade Runner films, the artificial beings look one hundred percent human thus when they fall in love with humans or vice versa, its easy to understand. In Alita: Battle Angel, the artificial beings look like monstrosities. In the Blade Runner films, the person or company that makes the artificial beings (and what they are used for) is explained. In Alita: Battle Angel, none of that foundation is present.

The industry of cybernetics in Alita: Battle Angel is comical. It has no cost and is everywhere, like air and water. In a film using current realities as a baseline, cybernetics would be rare, exuberantly expensive, and would resemble the human body parts that they are replacing à la Logan. In Alita: Battle Angel, human beings are walking around with factory machinery sewn to their shoulders. Other horrific ‘replacements’ are so common, no one is bothered by the sight of them. Also at issue is the sheer number of amputees and people that seem to have voluntarily given up part or all of their human bodies for cybernetic ones. Why would they do that? For what purpose? Is everyone in the future rich, enabling them to be able to regularly afford $600,000 surgeries (supposition based on the fee and material costs for an artiforg in Repo Men)?

Descent from Average to Below Average

The third act of Alita: Battle Angel is where the narrative of the film falls apart and the missed opportunities and inconsistencies begin stacking up, destroying all the surprising and somewhat rewarding work put into the first two acts. It’s like James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis decide to end certain story-lines in a flippant way with no regard to how the viewer, who has traveled with these characters on their journeys, would take it.

Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly)’s death is given short shrift in Alita: Battle Angel and is off-screen, two egregious faults within the script. Why kill such a pivotal character off-screen? It’s exactly like the massive mistake made regarding Cyclops’ death in X-Men: The Last Stand all over again. Dr. Chiren’s death is given no weight. It isn’t a meaningful death. It isn’t a comeuppance death. It isn’t even a “you reap what your sow” death since Dr. Chiren eventually sees the error of her ways and begins to reverse course. It is a completely vapid death, with zero emotional impact.

When the grand reveal of Dr. Chiren’s death happens and the glass box is shown containing her body parts, the box might-as-well be empty. Here’s why: a.) Dr. Chiren is a poorly written and unsympathetic character so the viewer doesn’t care that she is dead and b.) what is displayed in the box looks like a child’s chemistry set with toys floating in bubbling water. It’s supposed to be a horrific moment yet it falls flat.

 – Non-review Aside Begins –

One way of doing the horrific version of this scene would be:

Alita enters the room where Dr. Chiren’s dead body is located. Dr. Chiren’s dead arm is over hanging the left side of the table, still connected to her body. The camera is to the left, underneath, and away from the arm so that the lens can clearly see who enters the room. Alita’s eyes widen in horror as she approaches the table and sees who is on it and what has become of them. Then Alita sees the glass box with the harvested body parts in it. After a few moments, a male voice behind Alita says: “That is the only way someone from down here gets to Zalem.”

Another way would be:

Dr. Chiren is dead on the table and two bio-techicians are “unwinding” her while having a casual conversation à la David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas as a commercial about Zalem begins playing on a monitor in the room.

The video talks about the beauty of Zalem, the sights and sounds of Zalem, the pleasures and opulence of Zalem, as Dr. Chiren’s dead face stares at the ceiling and her body softly rocks as her organs are removed, her eyes are sucked out of their sockets, and then the crescendo, a bone saw and brain detachment, the camera on her face for almost all of the procedures (the viewer’s imagination filling in the rest via the various sounds of the procedures.)

That would have been poignant. That would have been poetic. That would have been affecting and could have been shot it in a way to maintain the PG-13 rating.

Instead, what does the viewer get in Alita: Battle Angel? An empty box.

 – Non-review Aside Ends –

Hugo’s Decapitation

When Hugo is decapitated in the third act of Alita: Battle Angel, it is another instance of a dramatic scene, an emotional-wretching moment, left off-screen. This is a brilliant and horrific turn in the film’s storyline surrendered to oblivion without cause, creating a gigantic missed opportunity by the film’s screenwriters and director Robert Rodriguez.

Even Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith showed Anakin Skywalker get his legs and remaining arm cut off on-screen (while retaining the film’s PG-13 rating). It was something pivotal that happened to that film’s main character and deserved to be on-screen. It is the same with Hugo’s decapitation.

Here are all the questions that the viewer will never have answers to: Who made the decision to cut Hugo’s head off in that scene? Was it Dr. Chiren, Alita, or Hugo? Did Hugo consent to that, knowing what it meant? What was Alita’s emotional reaction to the decapitation of the person that she loved? Did Alita cry? Did she scream? Did she hold Hugo’s hand as it was happening?

The lack of this scene (and the emotional moments and decisions surrounding it) in Alita: Battle Angel is one of numerous, gaping, self-inflicted wounds that the film accumulates at an accelerating pace during its third act.

Hugo’s after-surgery, wake-up moment is the next huge scene unwritten and unfilmed in Alita: Battle Angel. Hugo wakes up after being decapitated and his human body is gone, replaced with a machine body. He is a eunuch. He will never have sex or have sex again. From the neck down he is a machine. There is no scream. No dawning horror of his new existence. No sense of loss. No emotional reaction. This things don’t happen because the wake-up moment, like many other key moments in the film, is off-screen in a script that cares more about Motorball than human drama.

There is an argument to be made that Hugo would not have emoted dawning horror at his new cyborg existence because he lived in a world filled with cyborgs and he was in love with one. The arguer could continue and say that Hugo would just think “now I am one of them,” that only in quite moments, when he was alone, would Hugo realize what he had truly lost. There is truth to that argument but either way, none of it is on-screen in the film – not the horrified Hugo reaction nor the passive and accepting one.

Instead, the film rushes the viewer into the next CGI, action set piece that contains minimal emotional undertones.

Going to Zalem

Hugo thinking that he can just waltz up to Zalem after his head transplantation is ridiculous and the laugh-out-loud moment of Alita: Battle Angel. The viewer gets it, Hugo is in shock, but his choice of destination after leaving Dr. Ido is ludicrous and suicidal. Hugo, who studied Zalem, who dreamed of Zalem, would have heard all the stories of the defensive measures present on the cables connecting Zalem to Earth. No reason is given why he believes those defensive systems aren’t still present and active. Losing his body might have caused Hugo to have a mental break and to chase the one remaining dream he had left. It is so rushed, however, that Hugo’s mental process in making his Zalem decision is left off-screen. This results in the scene’s emotional resonance being dead on arrival. The scene ends on a sad note but it also significantly misses the mark because of the missing elements leading to that moment.

The Ido Inconsistency

From the moment that Dr. Dyson Ido, an intriguing yet empty character, meets Alita, he looks out for her, treats her like a human being (commensurate conduct in a world filled with cyborgs), and as a member of his extended family. Ido completely contradicts that conduct and sentiment in the second and third acts of film when it comes to Alita and Motorball. In the first act of Alita: Battle Angel, Dr. Ido tells Alita to stay inside his home at night because of body-part thieves and murderers roaming the streets. That makes sense, he cares about Alita. So when Alita says she is going to enter a Motorball tryout, he says absolutely nothing? No objection? Not only that, he helps her? This is nonsensical. So he doesn’t want her walking the streets at night because of possible threats but he is amiable and encouraging of her taking part in a gladiatorial game where the contestants are routinely ripped apart and destroyed? It’s a narrative non-sequitur. It’s like editor Stephen E. Rivkin cut a scene out of the film that explained Ido’s change in thinking. This scene gap and atypical choice by Ido, during a turning point in Alita’s life, is detrimental to the film and glaring to the point of a siren going off.

The Ending

Alita trying to get to Zalem through Motorball at the conclusion of Alita: Battle Angel is an idiotic plot point. Even if she wins, it doesn’t mean Nova (Edward Norton) will allow her to ascend to Zalem. Nova can just pay someone to kill her, blow-up the transport bringing her to Zalem (“Oops. Malfunction.”), or bomb the city block Dr. Ido’s lab is located on while Alita is asleep. Why doesn’t Alita try to fix the downed United Republics of Mars (URM) ship and fly it to Zalem? It would take years, maybe decades, but she is a cyborg. She has the time. She would have better luck with the URM ship (which still has power after three hundred years, denoting the resilience of URM tech) than relying on the Motorball tradition of the victor getting to go to Zalem.

Getting to Zalem By Becoming Motorball’s New Champion is an unthoughtout plot-point. Ending Alita: Battle Angel on such an inscrutable note is a disservice to all the good plot-points that came before it.

As the end-credits begin rolling on this film, the viewer realizes how great Alita: Battle Angel could have been and how far from it the film truly is through terrible choices in the film’s script.

Rating: 6/10

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