REVIEW – ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ is visually spectacular but narratively ghastly

When a big-budget blockbuster is pulled from its coveted Christmas release spot and dumped in mid-February, you tend to assume the worst. Even more so when that film cost $200 million and is written and produced by the man responsible for the two highest-grossing films of all time. Something didn’t quite add up and disaster loomed for Alita: Battle Angel. While not quite the catastrophe many have feared, the film is far from the triumph it may have been, resulting in a muddled piece of cinema that’s equal parts giddily entertaining and woefully laughable.

With all the hallmarks (both good and bad) we’ve come to expect from director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer James Cameron, Alita: Battle Angel is visually spectacular but narratively ghastly, proving once again Cameron’s biggest flaw is his ability to write a screenplay that doesn’t sound hokey and stilted. The script is a god-awful mess of endless exposition, unintentionally comical dialogue, and far too many plot threads that mostly go nowhere. And while the visuals are truly spectacular, serving up an eye-popping feast for the eyes, they ultimately mask a narratively shallow film that drags when the action stops.

Set in the dystopian future (is there any other kind?) of 2563, Alita: Battle Angel takes place on the junkyard streets of Iron City, a surprisingly bustling “wasteland” living under the looming umbra of the mysterious floating fortress of Zalem. After the catastrophic events of the war known as “The Fall” (which is irritatingly barely examined), Zalem became the exclusive metropolis for Earth’s elite, leaving the rest of us to survive in the land below.

While scavaging parts in the scrapyard directly below Zalem’s trash chute, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, phoning it in), a cyborg scientist who uses spare robotic parts to help build limbs for amputees and other half-human creatures, stumbles upon a broken and disembodied female cyborg with a fully intact human heart and brain. After rebuilding the cyborg and bringing her back to life, he names his pseudo-daughter Alita (Rosa Salazar) for reasons soon to be revealed. When Alita awakens, she has no memory of her past life as a super-advanced soldier in the apocalyptic war 300 years earlier.

With the innocence of a child and the impulsive attitude of a teenager, Alita begins to learn how life works in Iron City, taking a particular interest in Motorball, a Rollerball meets demolition derby sport that offers its champions the glorious prize of life up inside Zalem. With street-wise scrap-dealer Hugo (Keean Johnson) as her guide and burgeoning crush, Alita sees the gladiatorial competition as her path to escaping the apparent drudgery of Iron City. Given life is actually fairly decent with Dr. Ido, it’s rather unclear why Alita is so desperate to escape, but, alas, she wants out.

But when Alita finds herself in danger and under attack from a group of bounty hunters led by Zapan (Ed Skein), her impressive combat skills instinctively kick in, causing flashbacks to her past life as a fierce and deadly warrior. This catches the eyes of Ido’s scheming ex-wife and banished former Zilem resident Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and her nefarious partner, Vector (Mahershala Ali), who both oversee the Motorball tournament and seek to attain Alita’s abilities for the wicked plans of their unseen master Nova (played by a split-second cameo I won’t spoil because it’s truly impotent), as he watches events unfold from his perch in Zalem.

It’s clear Rodriguez, Cameron, and 20th Century Fox have grand plans for Alita: Battle Angel becoming an epic cash-cow franchise. There’s a hefty dose of sequel bait in this film, particularly the film’s painfully unresolved conclusion which seems to forget there’s a fine line between a tantalising teaser and frustrating dissatisfaction. It may have served them better to focus on getting the first film right before looking to the future. Didn’t anyone learn anything from The Mummy? Perhaps it’s a sign of Cameron’s hubris to think anything can become a franchise if you just throw enough money at it.

You can see every single dollar spent on this mammoth production in its spectacularly stunning visual effects, which, had the film kept its original release date, would likely be waltzing off with an Oscar later this month. It’s the kind of CGI-heavy film department stores will pop on their 4K televisions to dazzle passing customers. Whether visuals are enough to make the movie a true success will depend if you’re someone who expects something a little more than just a visual showcase. Crafted by the masters of Weta Digital, the film’s CGI work is flawless, with gorgeous and dazzling world and character design that are endlessly captivating to behold.

When the action takes hold, the results are remarkable and entertaining, particularly if you catch a 3D session (remember those?). The Motorball sequences are brutal and thrilling, as imposing cyborgs with all sorts of deadly weapons bash and destroy each other around the elaborate arena before breaking out into the Iron City streets for a bombastic chase sequence. Alita’s fight sequences are wonderfully choreographed, showcasing her incredible talents and deadly skills. It’s in these moments the film shines, but every time the action dies so does the pace and joy of the entire film, leading to an exhaustive number of downright dull moments that could put you to sleep.

The film’s biggest risk is crafting Alita as an entirely motion-capture character amongst a sea of human characters. With her big manga eyes and porcelain-smooth face, it’s hard not to see her appearance as the result of a garish Snapchat filter. She’s almost human enough that you soon acclimatise, but it takes longer to adjust than it should, and, at times, you’ll find it hard to forget you’re watching a digital creation. The execution of Alita never wholly blends harmoniously with the real-life characters surrounding her, causing her to consistently look jarringly out of place.

While not quite on the level of Andy Serkis mastery, Salazar gives it her absolute all, crafting an endearing and captivating character you instantly connect with. She’s perfect in the moments of pure innocence like discovering an orange for the first time or her first interaction with a furry creature. But in moments when she’s required to show anger, fear, or rage, Salazar can’t deliver the goods, leaving us with a performance that can feel forced, stilted, and never earnest enough to be taken seriously.

With a cast featuring no less than three Academy Award winners, it’s an ensemble any director would kill to get their hands on. It’s a shame Rodriguez all but wastes the impeccable talents of practically every supporting cast member. It’s pleasing to see Waltz in a role outside his usual bad guy schtick, but perhaps he would have served better as the film’s antagonist, as he seems entirely bored with being plonked into the shoes of a doting father-type figure. Ali tries his best to elevate his villain beyond the poor writing, but even he can’t rescue this one-note character. Likewise with Connelly, who vamps it up with a goofy performance that feels like something out of Showgirls. And, no offence to Waltz, but no one in their right mind would buy these two ever being married to each other.

The screenplay forces a romantic subplot between Alita and Hugo that’s rather pointless and hollow. While the dashingly handsome Johnson is a terrific find, oozing endless charm and charisma, he has zero chemistry with Salazar, making their blossoming romance feel entirely flat and unbelievable. The poor actor is saddled with the unenviable task of being the character who provides the exposition, leaving him with endless lines of dialogue where he does nothing more than explain plot point after plot point. Hugo’s interactions with Alita fail miserably thanks to woeful dialogue that is unintentionally hilarious and achingly uncomfortable.

It’s Cameron’s screenplay that proves the film’s fatal flaw. When you look back at films like True Lies and Aliens, Cameron’s gift for sparkling dialogue was one of his greatest gifts. But Titanic and Avatar were both let down by Cameron’s bungled dialogue, and, sadly, so is Alita: Battle Angel. His characters are all cursed with hokey and trite lines that often left my audience laughing when they really shouldn’t have been. If they’re not spouting bouts of exposition to explain the film’s convoluted plot and history, they’re bluntly communicating their every internal thought and feeling. It’s a gaudy example of a screenplay saying everything and showing very little, making one wonder if Cameron considers his audience too stupid for any other approach.

At the end of the day, Alita: Battle Angel is a grandiose spectacle with visual creations to delight your senses but very little else. And that’s likely going to be more than enough for many a viewer. But when the action halts, the film’s noticeable flaws are exposed. There’s a whole lot of style here and very little substance. With a host of questions and plot threads remaining unresolved, it’s clear Rodriguez and Cameron had their sights set on a sequel that likely won’t materialise. When you don’t allow a film to stand on its own two feet, you’ve failed at one of the fundamentals of blockbuster filmmaking.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Producers: James Cameron, Jon Landau
Screenplay: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Cinematography: Bill Pope
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Editor: Stephen E. Rivkin, Ian Silverstein
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: 14th February 2019 (Australia)

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