Review: Visually stunning 'Alita: Battle Angel' far from groundbreaking

February 17, 2019

Courtesy of Fox 

James Cameron’s name has become synonymous with terms like: blockbuster, inflated budget, and 3D. Often, it’s the visual storytelling of his films that resonate beyond the narrative he slips in between all the action. But whatever he throws in the oven, audiences can’t seem to get enough of it. As evident with “Avatar” - a film that faced impossible odds and managed to rewrite the status quo. His latest production effort: “Alita: Battle Angel” does little to change the perspective that he makes visuals and not narratives. Instead, directed with big-budget bravado by Robert Rodriguez, the manga based cyberpunk story “Alita” is an effective showcase for the technical effects boasted in the marketing, but the film becomes anchored by a rehashed and uninspired screenplay that gets in the way.

Coming across as a hybrid between “Pinocchio” and, strangely enough, “Rollerball” - that notoriously terrible LL Cool J and Jean Reno classic from 2002 - “Alita” could prove worthy enough to spawn a franchise (though a $500 million worldwide box office haul needs to happen) and I wouldn’t be shocked if the sequel is better than “Battle Angel” which seems to oversaturate its nearly two hour runtime with clunky terminology, characters, and subplots that either feel like wasted space or trimmed for time.

Whichever the case, Rosa Salazar lends her talents with genuine enthusiasm playing the spunky and badass Alita, a refreshing lead considering the genre tends to be dominated by her male counterparts. So it’s all the more shameful that she can’t shine behind her digital makeover. While her gigantic eyeballs are true to the original manga design, the image doesn’t translate as well to the big screen, and the effects are felt sparingly. But watching Salazar turn this puppet-like character into a full fledged heroine is refreshing.

And if Salazar’s Alita is the Pinocchio of this story, then Christoph Waltz is our steampunk Geppetto. Waltz is Dyson Ido, a cyber surgeon who specializes in repairing cyborgs from scraps found in the boroughs of Iron City, a second rate dystopian wasteland left to ruin after a vast world war many citizens refer to as “The Fall.” The war took place 300 years prior and the ramifications and effects are still echoed by those struggling to survive. For most of them, their only salvation lies in the possibility of reaching a far away planet said to be the safe haven they all crave.

For Ido, haunted by his past, Alita is his latest creation, a combination of wires and cyborg like mechanics to yield exceptional results. She doesn’t who she is, anything about her past, or how she got in Ido’s possession in the first place. Gradually, while thrown in the midst of insane action sequences, her memory gets triggered to battles that took place centuries before, which would explain her instinctive combat skills. Thus making her the perfect candidate for Iron City’s only true entertainment value: “motorball” - a sport that fuses elements of rollerblading, basketball and hockey - which, at it’s best, resembles the glory days of gladiatorial combat.

You would think “Alita” which plasters “Battle Angel” in the title, would highlight the characters fierce competitiveness. Except she’s only called Battle Angel once, and the motorball sport sequences never reach lift off. Instead, we do meet Alita’s bad boy love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson) and get a digressive backstory about her convluted dive into the underground scene of urban bounty hunters - where many of the cities least friendly citizens are put to work. This puts our titular character into a series of tight spots, culminating in a series of fluid stunt sequences that Rodriguez stages with gusto, exemplifying a more contained and focused movie wanting to burst out.

Contributing to those factors are the one-dimensional baddies in the form of Jennifer Connelly’s conflicted doctor who exists to offer up glares with lazy motivation as Ido’s ex-wife, and is the right-hand to Mahershala Ali’s (who is wasted in a role that, literally, amounts to nothing) elegant, but non-intimidating motorball mogul. Further enforcing how robotic and stoic most characters come across. It strips the film of any phisophical siginifcance, because it's hard to connect on a deeper level.

“Alita: Battle Angel” has its moments of pure sensation, and has laid steady groundwork to push these characters further. On a technical scale, the visual effects lend itself to the 3D format, and Salazar’s motion-captured portrayal is soothing and welcomed. You can’t knock Cameron or Rodriguez for pushing the technology forward, even if “Alita” ends up playing like it was made from scrapped parts of better films.

Grade: B- 

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