Typically I am not a fan of dystopias, mostly because that seems to be all modern sci-fi creators want to do anymore. When balanced with more utopian stories I think it’s just fine, but just as I don’t want all science fiction to be utopian I don’t want all science fiction to be dystopian. Each has their own thing to say or their own way to tell a fun story. However, Hollywood fears bright colors and sunlight…which is odd given they’re in California, which is loaded with both. Maybe they see it too often outside the windows of their mansions?
The fact that I was interested in Alita: Battle Angel is then something of a fluke, but given that my all-time favorite movie is in a genre I don’t typically follow AND is a poor adaptation of the source material stranger things have happened. I don’t know if Guillermo del Toro saw the original Battle Angel Alita manga by Yukito Kushiro or the original video animation by KSS Inc., Movic, Animate and famous (in the west) anime studio Madhouse. The story goes that he showed one of them (possibly even the novelization given Hollywood types and their lack of interest in anything with drawings nowadays) to James Cameron, who loved it. It took a few years for other projects to give him the opening, tapping Robert Rodriguez to direct. In 2019 the movie hit theaters…and the “fun” began.
I would be remiss not to discuss how the movie was drawn into the current internet arm of the culture war, which I swear has gone nuclear by now. When critics of Captain Marvel, the Bree Larson movie part of the MCU, were being called misogynists because they supposedly didn’t want to see a movie starring a woman Alita: Battle Angel was used as a counterpoint of how to tell the story with a female hero right. Instead of discuss the issue and try to learn from the perspective of others, a dying art on the internet, defenders of Captain Marvel decided to attack Alita, probably without actually watching any version of it because nuance is dead. I actually considered reviewing the two movies together but I’ve decided not to take part in that nonsense. It is not fair to either film and the people who worked hard on it to judge two unrelated movies based on each other. Heck, I don’t even do that for sequels. While not-Billy Batson is on the Finally Watched list (and Billy Batson in name only isn’t…sorry Shazam! but you shouldn’t have used Geoff Johns’ comic version as your guide) I’m going to review this movie based on its own merits.
RELEASE DATE: 2019
RELEASED BY: Twentieth Century Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment, and Troublemaker Studios
RUNTIME: 2 hour 2 minutes
VIEWING SOURCE FOR THIS REVIEW: HBO2 during a free preview weekend
That’s a new category frankly I should have added long ago.
STARRING: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keenan Johnson, Mahershala Ali, and Jennifer Connelly
SCREENWRITERS: James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis
DIRECTOR: Robert Rodriguez
BOX OFFICE: $404,980,543 worldwide, $85,838,210 domestic according to IMDB
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $170,000,000 according to IMDB
The Plot: 300 years after a great war, the floating city of Zalem flies high over the ground-based Iron City. Here a cybernetic doctor named Dr. Ido (Waltz) finds the remains of a cybernetic girl with amnesia. Naming her Alita (Salazar) after his late daughter and repairing her with the daughter’s intended cybernetic body, Alita is fascinated by the world around her but struggles to recover her memories. However, Iron City is not a fun place to live and she finds dangers all around her as well as friends like Hugo (Johnson), but she also attracts enemies from on high. The head of Zalem, Nova (Edward Norton in one of many uncredited roles IMDB lists), knows who…or rather what…this girl is, and will do anything to claim her through his agent on the ground, Victor (Ali).
Why did I want to see it: That controversy I mentioned earlier played something of a role given I do a story critique site. I have not seen any of the previous works but fans of that work seemed to think this was a good adaptation…which was already rare for comic and animated Japanese stories adapted into live-action English long before Netflix ever entered the picture. Basically the hype actually got me on this one.
What did I think: I’m not going to get into the controversy because that’s not what we do around here and like I said the movie should stand on it’s own merit, not compared to a unrelated property. And stand it does. While we only see Zalem from the outside the sets and CG used for Iron City are well done as is the virtual model for Zalem. Symbolism is used well, the action scenes actually allow us to see the action and it is amazing without being unnecessarily gory in the various deaths. While I’m sure the crew at Corridor Digital could point out some mistakes I sure couldn’t as an amateur. It’s a well realized world.
The story itself is also good. Alita’s line “I do not stand by in the presence of evil” felt like a quote from the larger production used for the fans, but it’s integrated well into the scene. The various twists are actually done well. Granted I knew what was going to happen to the dog when it went into that bar, which sets up another side threat. And yet Zapan (Ed Skrein) succeeds where Simon Birch from Ant-Man And The Wasp fails because it fits right into the story, the lore of the hunter killers, and just Iron City in general. I think it helps that the story feels like a series of shorter stories somehow woven together well into a full movie. One tale bleeds into the next as we follow the stages of Alita’s life and character growth. As she learns who she is she becomes more confident and a superior fighter, but she struggles and first she gets to live the life of a normal late teenage girl, finding love and friends while learning more about herself before she learns she’s a legendary battle cyborg made of lost technology. Although it does make you wonder how she ended up in a floating city’s earthbound junkyard?
Salazar does a great job portraying the different stages of Alita’s grown, from wide-eyed (no pun intended) innocent to fierce warrior. She wants to help others, especially the people she cares about, even before getting her new warrior body. She has a strong heart not only as a warrior but as a person and you feel for her when she fails while cheering her on when she succeeds. She grows into the “battle angel” nickname given to her at the sports tournament and we really connect with her. Even when she embraces the warrior the girl still shines through. She doesn’t have to give up her compassion to become a hunter or participate in the futuristic version of roller derby. Not knowing the source material I don’t know if the large eyes are really necessary since all of the other cyborgs just have obviously cybernetic bodies and I don’t think the others of her unit in the flashback had abnormal eyes, but by the end of the movie I was finally able to accept the look, distracting as it was early on. I still don’t think she needed it and despite the motion capture it gave Salazar not enough to do with facial acting.
Meanwhile, shout-out to Mahersala Ali for his death scene. Throughout the movie he made the acting transition between Victor and the Nova-controlled puppet look good but talking normally while his body slowly dies…such a good performance. He makes for a good villain though I get the feeling the real big bad was being saved for a sequel. I’m not sure when Alita meets Nova in the original but since the OVA doesn’t have the full story and I don’t have access to the manga I hope they do a sequel so we can see that battle. In fact all of the actors do well. Skrien as I said is a good side villain. Waltz at first seems to be using Alita to make up for his past sins but at the end he comes to treat Alita as a daughter and the two’s relationship is nice to watch. The same is true for Alita and Hugo. Johnson plays a young man who just wants to live the good life on Zalem by any means necessary but after meeting Alita starts to view his own sins as a bridge too far and eventually gains his humanity by losing his human form. While his ending is tragic he’s a better person by the end.
Was it worth the wait?: I very much enjoyed this movie. I wouldn’t mind getting the home video and now I really want to look into the source material to see how it compares. Alita: Battle Angel is my kind of dystopia movie, one with hope for the future and a hero to cheer on that isn’t a jerk who has to get better. Instead she makes others better even as she evolves herself, which is my kind of hero. Ignore the culture war nonsense and just see this movie.