FlixChatter Review – ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)

So apparently James Cameron has dreamed of making this movie, an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro‘s “Battle Angel Alita” manga, for over 20 years! It was before he made Titanic in 1997 and Avatar in 2009, and it’s his commitments to the latter that made him relinquish his directing duties to Robert Rodriguez. I have to admit though that my initial reaction to the first trailer was that the huge, Manga-inspired eyes are creepy looking. I read some Manga as a kid (specifically Candy Candy) but in the printed comics, of course they never bothered me, that’s how all Mangas are drawn. But cinematically, they can be quite eerie.

Now, I decided to see the movie anyway, two weeks before it’s open to the public in Feb 14. As it turns out, the eyes didn’t really bother me once the movie starts. It actually didn’t have the ‘cold, dead eyes’ effect like in Polar Express. Of course they can still be a bit disturbing at times, but for a character made up of cyborg parts, she’s pretty lifelike.

There are plenty to like about Alita. In fact, I immediately sympathize with this cyborg creature trying to discover her identity. It’s an action-packed coming-of-age story of a young girl who’s trying to piece together the mystery of who she is. Set in the 26th century, 300 years after ‘the fall’ where ‘the haves’ live in a floating city called Tiphares and the rest down below in Iron City. The story starts when a man found a still ‘living’ severed head in a junkyard, where the Tiphares dumps its trash. I thought Christoph Waltz as her father figure Dr. Dyson Ido is inspired choice, and at first you don’t know if he’s good or bad, which the Austrian actor portrayed really well.

The father/daughter relationship between him and Alita is actually one of my fave parts of the film, and the way Dr. Ido tried to protect her from the new world she’s thrusted into is endearing. It’s once Alita (Rosa Salazar, terrific in her first performance-capture role) discovered rollerball-style game (and also ‘puberty’ it seems) thanks to a boy named Hugo (Keean Johnson) that the action switches into high gear.

Before long, we, along with Dr. Ido and Alita herself, discovers who she really is. It’s not a spoiler as it says right there on the title, she’s a formidable killing machine, basically an ‘angel of death’ despite her seemingly innocent appearance. She’s able to fight a bunch of vicious Hunter-Warriors, sometimes all at once, even a huge one that looks like what Fantastic Four’s The Thing mixed with a Transformer. Knowing that she’s virtually indestructible kind of lessen any sense of suspense, and the more bombastic the fighting scene the less impactful it becomes. The first time we see the gladiatorial game of Motorball in this huge arena filled with cheering crowd was cool, but the second one just feels indulgent in the parts of the filmmakers. Yes, the action and special effects are cool, but it gets tiresome real fast too. In fact, at times it reminds me of all the loud metal clanging of Transformers, which is NEVER a good thing.

I’m not that familiar with Robert Rodriguez’s work, having only seen Desperado and Sin City. I think this movie is as much a James Cameron movie as a Robert Rodriguez one. We’re treated to a video interview with the filmmakers and some of the cast after the movie and it’s clear that Cameron was Rodriguez’s mentor throughout and Rodriguez helped fulfill Cameron’s vision. As we all know, Cameron is a perfectionist, so I doubt there’s really much ‘creative liberties’ the ‘chosen director’ would have if it clashes with Cameron’s vision.

What? You’re not impressed by my Damascus blade? How about my chiseled face?

In any case, it’s no surprise that Cameron, who co-wrote the script with Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon), loves cross-species, star-crossed romances. I kind of roll my eyes every time I see Alita gets all giddy over Hugo, even going so far as giving him his heart, literally! Most of the supposedly-romantic scenes end up being unintentionally hilarious. There are moments that remind me of Titanic, perhaps intentionally so? What’s genuinely funny are the scenes involving Hunter Warrior Zapan (Ed Skrein), a cyborg obsessed with his pretty face, the only ‘fleshed out’ part of his cybernetic being. The tall, lanky British actor relish on his character’s narcissistic vanity. It made me think that he might have imbued a much-needed dose of humor had he been cast in Altered Carbon instead of Joel Kinnaman!

The actual villain of the movie is never actually seen (played by a famous actor we haven’t seen in a while). We only know it lives in Tiphares and could actually ‘possesses’ other beings to communicate with people down below. I feel like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are pretty wasted here as their characters are pretty thinly-written. As the protagonist, Alita’s backstory itself isn’t as deeply compelling it could’ve been. It’s a missed opportunity really, as her relationship with Dr. Ido and Connelly’s character Chiren could’ve been explored more. It’s clear the filmmakers focused heavily in the spectacle of it all. After all these years, the technology (thanks to Weta Digital) finally caught up with Cameron’s vision of Alita, at least the way he envisioned to do Kishiro’s world justice. Yet all that money spent (about $200 mil) is kind of hollow when it’s just another ‘style over substance.’ I think science-fiction is the perfect genre for a ‘what does it mean to be human’ commentary, when humans would co-exist together with robots in the future. But unlike sci-fi classics like Blade Runner or Terminator, Alita doesn’t really add anything new to that concept.

Alita going googley-eyed over pretty boy Hugo

Visually speaking, it also didn’t really inspire that sense of wonder the way I did with Cameron’s previous creation Avatar. I recently rewatched that movie and I still had that ‘awe-struck’ reaction when we first saw Pandora in 2009. The floating mountains and that mountain banshee flight sequence still made me go ‘whoa,’ which I never felt while watching Alita. I’m not sure of its replay-ability value as right now, I don’t know if I’m eager to see this movie again nor do I care to see more of Alita’s adventures.

As I never read the Manga books, I’m curious to see the reception from their fans, especially in its native Japan. As a Southeast-Asian blogger, I’m not bothered that they hired a Latina actress to portray Alita as Kishiro supposedly didn’t even set the world of Iron City in Asia, it’s just supposed to be a melting pot type of futuristic dystopian city. I think the cast is quite diverse and the actors get to speak with whatever they’re most comfortable with (Waltz with his Austrian accent, Skrein with his Northern London brogue, etc.) I do think it’s funny that Alita made a comment about the many languages spoken in the city when I never heard of any other language being English being spoken in the movie [shrug].

Should you go see it? Well, if you like a sci-fi action adventure, I’d say it’s well worth seeing on the big screen. I don’t normally like watching 3D movies with those pesky glasses, but the effects and visuals look cool in IMAX 3D as the movie was optimized for such technology. I skipped Ghost in The Shell (just didn’t appeal to me at all) and I think Jupiter Ascending is absolutely rubbish, but this one has enough going for it for me to recommend. Just don’t expect a sci-fi classic or even something emotionally gratifying, just enjoy the ride for the high-octane action adventure that it is.

What do you think of ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL? Are you excited to see it?

15 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review – ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)

  1. This is probably a rental or Netflix for me now. With so many negative reviews, I don’t want to waste my money on seeing at a theater. Also, I’m not the biggest fan of Rodriguez.

    It’s kind of disappointing to me because I was very excited to see this film when Cameron said he was going to write and direct it. But of course he decided to focus on Avatar instead. I think one of the reasons he hold of making this film was because his script was leaked online in the mid 2000s, he was so pissed and got his lawyers to threatened any movie website that publish the script online with lawsuits. Also, he and the studio paid some tech firm to try to take the leaked script offline. After that leaked, he said he’s going to rewrite the script.

    1. Wow I didn’t know about that leaked script, though I wonder if it’s been changed significantly since Rodriguez came on board. I’d say if you like big spectacle action, it’s still worth seeing on the big screen maybe once it’s on the cheaper theaters, Ted.

  2. OK see…the eyes REALLY bothered me. The whole doll-like 12yr old looking that reminded me of the Big Eyes paintings – also didn’t work for me. And Motorball –really.. come on — total rip off of Rollerball from back in the day (not the remake) with James Caan – which was a much better movie than this.. I don’t think it was the worst Sci-Fi I’ve ever seen.. but so much of it is lackluster and I even got a bit creeped by Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido at the beginning.. Like he liked her a little too much. My take is if you love the comic story it’s based on, you will probably understand the film and like it a lot more. I didn’t hate it, it was decent enough time killer and free popcorn/drink to boot! hahahahaha I don’t think I care about the next chapters of it in the slightest though. It didn’t leave me wanting more and would probably have been best had it been done 10 yrs ago as we might not have seen the 4002500582 same-type cyborg movies that have already been done and it would have been fresh & new.. as it was, it was old and stole from so many other films.

    1. Hey Peggy! Ah yes, I remember those Big Eyes paintings, I haven’t seen the movie but remember seeing the stills from it. Well most Manga comics have those large eyes but I think it worked fine on printed piece than on the big screen, obviously more people are bothered by them.

      No it’s not the worst sci-fi, but it wasn’t a hugely memorable one either. It didn’t leave me wanting more either, and you’re right, it seems stale now that we’ve seen SO many cyborg movies even on Netflix alone. But hey, glad you decided to see it anyway, can’t beat free screening AND popcorn too! I know I won’t pay $13 bucks to watch this one.

  3. I’ll wait for it on TV though I’m not expecting much considering that Robert Rodriguez hasn’t made a film that I enjoyed since Planet Terror from Grindhouse. Plus, James Cameron is hit/miss for me about his ideas of cinema.

    1. I think the last movie I saw of Rodriguez’s was Sin City 2 which I enjoyed because I love Eva Green. Cameron is innovative in terms of technology but wish he’d collaborate with a real innovative STORYTELLER for once.

      1. James Cameron does need another writer to maybe edit his ideas and tell him this won’t work and stick to what will work. Rodriguez I understand is a filmmaker that works in a certain niche of B-movies and I’m fine with that. It’s just that he doesn’t get the right people to work with and tend to emphasize more on style over substance.

  4. My daughter is currently obsessed with Manga, so I’ve been wondering if she would be ready for something like this…but I’m still not sure (she’s 11). It seems like it could be a fun time (as you point out) but it’s a shame when more time and money is spent on the look of a film than the actual contents. Nice review. Glad I stumbled onto your blog today!

    1. Hi Drew, thanks for your comment. I think it might be ok to take your 11-year-old daughter, esp if she likes the Manga version. I mean it does have themes of a female empowerment and girl power which would resonate to young girls, but yeah it’s not a very deep movie and the stuff that did work (father-daughter relationship) wasn’t explored more, instead we got a pretty lame romance.

    1. Hi Rebecca! I actually don’t hate the eyes, as I mentioned in my review I was surprised how lifelike they are. They do convey emotions, I just wish the character development was better. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Pingback: Member Reviews: “Alita: Battle Angel” – Online Association of Female Film Critics

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