2019 Film Essays

Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Falls Short

Not long after the 1988 animated smash hit Akira, there was a rise in the popularity of Japanese geek culture. Adult oriented comics proved to be especially lucrative. Originally appearing as a series of short stories in Business Jump magazine, Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita (1990) took Japanese comics culture by storm. Now, almost 30 years later, visionary moviemaker and Alita fanboy James Cameron released his adaptation of the famed anime. Entitled simply Alita: Battle Angel, producer Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez attempt to bring this sprawling cyberpunk fantasy to life. Unfortunately, the fruit of their labor is largely a tedious exercise in narrative exposition with some of the most mishandled world building to appear on the silver screen since Disney’s John Carter (2012).

The movie begins exactly like its manga counterpart, introducing Dr. Dyson Ido and his latest scrap yard discovery, an amnesiac, female cyborg, whom Ido christens Alita. From this point forward, Alita’s primary objective is to discover the true nature of her origins. While doing so, she unravels the mysteries of Iron City, falls in love, plays a sport called roller ball and hunts down killer cyborgs. By throwing in the entire kitchen sink, Cameron causes more confusion than enjoyment. Rodriguez’s battle scenes and the performance capture acting of Rosa Salazar (Alita) are shining aspects of the film, but not enough to render it praiseworthy overall.

To Rodriguez’s credit, the action scenes in Alita: Battle Angel are balls to the wall fun. Not since Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005) has Rodriguez given audiences such an exquisite visual feast. The fight scenes are intense and expertly framed. Most impressive is the way Rodriguez slows down the time and motion of each battle as the fighters strike. The characters assume dynamic poses like the ones seen in Kishiro’s comic books.

What I find most appealing about these murderous metal machines is their uncanny way of moving. It’s as if the special effects crews harnessed the mastery of Ray Harryhausen and updated it for the 21st Century. In addition to the fight choreography, Rodriguez’s overall sense of visual composition is quite pleasing to behold. Select scenes demonstrate that Rodriguez and Cameron can storyboard with meticulous detail. Sadly, the unnecessary amount of exposition makes the film rather predictable. Due to this error in delivery, the climactic final battle loses its momentum.

While both Avatar (2009) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) make expert use of visuals and strong character relationships in their storytelling, Alita: Battle Angel plays out like a point-and-click adventure videogame with NPC exposition useless to a passive audience. The puppy love between Alita and the orphaned teenager Hugo is as exciting as watching concrete dry. This “crucial” character development may have worked better in potential sequels. Instead, it only gets in the way of this initial film’s meatier aspects, primarily the fight sequences and roller ball action. Unlike Jack and Rose in Titanic, the tale of Alita and Hugo is one love story that should remain at the bottom of the ocean.

The Weta Digital team does an excellent job raising the bar for performance capture. Using the latest technology, the crew brings to life the artistic depth of the original source material. Salazar deserves accolades for her depiction of Alita. Her facial expression and energy, as carried over to the computer graphics, are right on cue. By instilling in her physical movements the elegancy of a dancer, the curiosity of a teenage girl and the controlled ferocity of a warrior, Salazar is victorious. When she runs on the rooftops of Iron City, she is not just an actress in a motion capture suit, but Alita the Battle Angel brought to life.

The chemistry between Salazar and Christoph Waltz (Ido) is palpable and believable. They portray the passion and tension of a confused and energetic teenage girl and her overly concerned father/creator who just wants his “child” to live in peace. Salazar’s achievement foreshadows the day when performance capture acting will merit Oscar consideration, reminiscent of such speculation when Cameron’s Avatar (2009) was released.

To further place Salazar’s cyborg role playing in perspective, she puts to shame Scarlett Johansson’s live action portrayal of Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017). Salazar embodies the complexity of a confused amnesiac housed in the body of a cyborg, possessing magnificent powers. Johansson’s performance does little to show off the power and stamina of a robot mixed with the emotions and decision making skills of a human. Her movements as Major appear simply as a slow and cautious human. Johansson’s acting does not evidence emotional attachment to her source character. Salazar, by comparison, is clearly engulfed in her character’s lore and really wants to be the definitive version of Alita.

When Marvel Studios made a resurgence into the movie making game in 2003, business mogul David Maisel issued a critical mission statement for the company. He advised, “The movies should be made by people who love the characters, love the stories, and care about these movies being the best they can.” Cameron, it would appear, had the same goal in mind when crafting his newest sci-fi love child. Unfortunately, following many years of development, he overthought its execution. Hardcore fans of the Battle Angel franchise receive a few snippets of cool, signature Rodriguez fighting clips to pass around to each other on the internet. Salazar gains deserved recognition for good character acting. However, for newer cyberpunk fans attracted to Blade Runner 2049 (2017) because of its world building and more nuanced approach to storytelling, I recommend instead starting with the Battle Angel Alita manga, then moving on to the 1993 OVA anime Battle Angel, directed by Hiroshi Fukutomi. I’m not holding my breath for an Alita: Battle Angel sequel.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture. 

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