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If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Movie

Alita: Battle Angel
(2019)

 

Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm doesn’t, on the one hand, feel overly like a Rodriguez film. In that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus. But on the other, it doesn’t particularly feel like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. In spite of which, there’s something quite likeable about the ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel: a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Generally, one should start with the plot, but Alita leads with the eyes. Rightly so? I don’t know. There are some odd undertones, or perhaps they’re just overtones, to the whole conception of Alita, a teenage killbot designed to look like a doe-eyed child, in imitation of the predominant manga style, who is then furnished with the name and frame of a cyber-surgeon’s adolescent daughter (she’s named after his cat in the original).

It isn’t until much later that Alita is given a fuller figure (which means breasts, pretty much), and while one might read various thematic reasonings for this – she initially sees this new twenty-sixth century world as through a child’s eyes – the aesthetic choices can’t help but feel dubious (her romantic interest has restraint enough to plant a kiss on her only when she has been physically enhanced). It isn’t enough just to blame the United Republic of Mars, or whoever designed the manga.

So the plot, then. Alita’s path of self-discovery is engaging material, playing into the destiny-foretold trope, and the recovery of her skill set (Panzer Kunst, the new Gun-Katana?) is envisaged with due air-punching triumphalism. Those who aren’t Alita – such as Jennifer Connelly’s Chiren and Keean Johnson’s Hugo – are invariably set on escaping the third-world squalor of the Iron City for up-top Zalem (basically Elysium, excepting that we don’t get to see it), either by doing what big cheese Nova asks for or attempting to win the cyborg rollerball-derivative game of Motorball.

A consequence of this is some rather awkward plot mechanics driving the third act, whereby Alita, rather than going to confront Nova as we might expect – who was, after all, her nemesis three hundred years earlier – enters a Motorball tournament in order to get Hugo, with whom she is besotted, his dream ticket to Zalem. The stakes are thus raised in the wrong direction – we’re asked to care for Hugo’s fate, a character so clumsily devised that he announces his resignation from the criminal life in a manner directly leading to his former partner’s death – no matter how engrossing the subsequent altercations may be.

Compounding this is that Alita’s love interest is a complete drip, so there’s nothing to invest in between them. Particularly problematic when their tragic love story – à la Titanic – is supposed to be the key to the movie. Admittedly, there appears to be an attempt to place Alita and Hugo on the same physical-emotional level, when he has his head chopped off and placed on a robot body (there’s absolutely no effort to address the ramifications of the loss of one’s essential biology here, but let’s face it, even Robocop shied away from that in its sequels). However, this is decisively undercut when he plunges to his doom during a reckless climb towards Zalem; it’s kind of risible, rather than impacting.

Other performances are land better, although none could be said to fulfil their potential. Rose Salazar imbues Alita with a personality beyond the more overt distractions. Connelly isn’t thrown enough to make Chiren a rounded character, but she nevertheless conveys inner conflict. Mahershala Ali is a Matrix Reloaded outfit in search of intriguing villainy, but at least he looks cool; the Nova mind-control element is the closest the picture comes to expressing the lurking potential for the surrender of one’s faculties that comes with invasive technology.

Christophe Waltz is sympathetic as Alita’s surrogate father, and he fares better than he has in many a Hollywood movie lately. I confess to having failed to recognise Jackie Earle Haley or Michelle Rodriguez or Casper Van Dien. And then there’s big villain Nova (Edward Norton, but virtually unrecognisable and lacking any of his usual edge, possibly because he doesn’t get to do anything, and now won’t next time either).

The future world is rendered through a mixture of immersive and not-so immersive CGI (whatever Rodriguez says about physical sets, he’s ultimately embracing the same whirl of pixels he always does, only considerably more professionally achieved ones this time). Even Alita varies in terms of how real she seems, such that at times, we are simply looking at an all CGI environment with an obviously big-eyed CGI protagonist (the Mars flashbacks, with the numerous big-eyed Berserkers, in particular). The various cyborg constructions are often highly effective, particularly Ed Skrein’s Zapan and Jeff Fahey’s McTeague (plus his robot dogs). Generally, though, the more elaborate their actions and capabilities, the less congruous they become.

One might suggest both plot and effects are curiously reflective of each other – a mixture of the engrossing and ungainly – in which case, the movie proceeds in like manner all the way to its non-conclusion, deciding to throw multiple potential climaxes at us that, wearisomely, aren’t actual climaxes. Indeed, we finish at the point where most movies decide they’re going to confront the main villain, because this is the first in a planned series. One that simply is not going to come to pass (no way it makes enough to break even, not with a $200m budget).

I’m all for grand visions and SF going way out there, but Alita: Battle Angel is a mass of conflicting impulses, Rodriguez’ B-movie sensibilities adorning an A-movie production, with results that are both impressive and cheesy. It doesn’t deserve to be labelled a turkey or flounder as a complete flop, but it’s in no danger of persuading you to fully invest in the proceedings. There’s no attempt to dig into the material beyond the immediate spectacle and the hero’s quest. As a consequence, Rodriguez’ movie feels rather inessential, despite the extravagance furnished on it.

And yet, it is worth seeing; this is one of the few Real 3D pictures out this year, and Cameron is still the format’s champion, if nothing else. One of the insurmountable, however, is that the content is rather caught in a conceptual bubble of twenty years past (unsurprising, as Gunm first appeared in 1990). In that sense, although much more appealing, it’s in a similar boat to Ghost in the Shell; when its live-action version finally arrived, its moment had long-since passed (and you can bet Warner Bros will still make their forever-languishing-in-development-hell Akira at some point). As far as Alita going (relatively) belly up is concerned, though, I guess the upside is that it can hardly matter to Fox now they’re going to be Disney’s problem.

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