Remember when the first trailer for Alita: Battle Angel was released and the collective response from the movie-going public ranged from “What is up with those eyes?” to “Dear God! Kill it with fire!”? Or remember before that, when James Cameron finally announced that his decade-spanning goal of adapting Yukito Kishiro’s manga into a film was actually going to happen with Robert Rodriguez at the helm while other American manga adaptations including Dragonball: Evolution, Speed Racer, and, of course, Ghost in Shell not only failed but bleached the entire cast, and the collective response from the fans of the source material ranged from “Oh, come on!” to “Dia goddo! Hi de koroshimasu!”?
Well, I don’t personally know anything about the source material but what I do know is that the eyes got much, much better. What I also know is that Alita: Battle Angel is Robert Rodriguez’s best film since Sin City (obviously), James Cameron’s best work since Avatar (also, obviously), the best American manga adaptation I’ve seen (I mean… yeah), and one of the most entertaining new worlds to fill the big screen in a long, long time.
Looking at those giant eyes on screen is a reminder of both how far film technology has come and how far it has yet to go. The good part, for now, is that Alita, film and character, is beautifully realized. Whereas many action films – effect driven or not – tend to muck about with jittery camera work and extreme close-ups that obscure the image on screen, Alita presents a clear picture of the action, letting us see the grace in the character’s movement and the force with which she instinctively strikes her target. The action is very anime-esque with spinning leaps and ridiculous physics, but here we can actually see why the spins are needed and are given a reason for breaking physics. The city wherein this action takes place, with its proliferation of cyborgs, humans with robotic replacement limbs, and weirdly tall motorized unicycles, appears somewhat limited in its claustrophobic streets, yet the ramshackle surroundings and reliance on materials pulled from scrap yards and off other beings adds to the believability to the chunky, obvious tech worn by those same cyborgs and humans (still, it might’ve been fun to have someone comment on those giant peepers.)
There are of course times when Alita’s computer-generated features veer too far into the uncanny valley, and when the human faces super-imposed over cybernetic bodies evoke memories of Paul Giamatti screaming “I am the Rhino!”, but it’s the overwhelmingly successful execution of Alita‘s effects which make those mistakes noticeable. Whereas effects in the past demanded a constant suspension of disbelief, Alita‘s mixture of visual effects technology and filming techniques result in only occasional disbelief, as it is almost entirely impossible to tell what is real from what isn’t, even when what we’re focused on is a character with gigantic anime eyes.
A big part of this believability comes from the performances behind that technology, the central figure of which is obviously Rosa Salazar as Alita herself. Although only truly visible in her face, and even then only a portion of it, Salazar excels as a young woman trying to rediscover her identity. She is at once small and vulnerable in her early form and in scenes with her father figure Christoph Waltz, and self-assuredly badass in her fight scenes against frequent foes Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley. Whereas other largely computer-generated protagonists feel distant, Salazar’s performance pulls us toward Alita. We identify and sympathize with her as much as the other characters do, and the clarity of Alita‘s action sequences let us see the expression on the actress’s face, making the duality of the character between naïve girl and battle-hardened warrior much deeper than a cliché flip-of-the-switch personality. Yet, while the film takes great pains to emphasize Alita’s heart, stating that it holds enough energy to power the entire city, this is sadly where the film itself lacks.
Fascinating as the world is, with a backstory that unfolds in short bursts of exposition, the plot of Battle Angel itself is underwhelming. The primary cause of this the central romance between Alita and Hugo, which sees Alita follow the pattern of falling for the first suitable man she meets (see also: Fifth Element, The). Unfortunately rather than take its time to show this romance develop over the course of several weeks or months its importance to plot necessitates that boy and cyborg go from what’s-your-name to I’ll-rip-the-heart-from-my-chest-for-you in only a few days, with all awkward and obvious dialog to match. While this could be seen as authentic to how quickly teenagers find “the one” the speed at which the romance develops glosses over many chances to develop supporting characters such as Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido or even Hugo himself who has little identity outside of his dream of reaching Zalem. This stunted development is furthered by pacing issues which occasionally halt the emotion of previous scenes. However the most unfortunate casualties of poor characterization are also Alita‘s best talents. Mahershala Ali turns in some nice physical and verbal contortions but Jennifer Connelly is mostly there to provide some backstory and remind us that even without computer enhancement she is one of the most beautiful beings in the history of creation. These two Oscar winners are essentially background players seemingly set up as major figures in the inevitable sequel.
Much of the criticism already directed toward Battle Angel stems from the fact that it is very clearly attempting to set up a franchise of Alita films. And yes. It does. There are several plot threads introduced in the film’s two-plus hour runtime that are nowhere close to tied up before the surprisingly short credits end. Films such as Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are frequently cited as examples of telling a complete story while also setting up for sequels.
What these critics forget is that those films leave plenty of unfulfilled plot points as well. The Emperor isn’t in the original Star Wars, and Zion and Mount Doom are mentioned but never visited until the sequels. Alita‘s plot may not be entirely fulfilling, largely serving as an introduction to the world, but that doesn’t mean the journey is cut short. Essentially, if the series were to end here, her story could end here. However, the sheer quality of Alita‘s filmmaking, the intrigue of its world, the hints at larger themes of class warfare and identity, and clear biblical analogies, demand that we spend more time learning the secrets of this world. If Battle Angel is the short story which precedes the novel, or what the Hobbit is to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the original books, not the movies), then we can be both satisfied and ready for more.
Although readers of the original manga, especially those most interested in its more substantive elements, will find places of disappointment in Rodriguez’s adaptation, the wider movie-going public, those who most knew the film as that one with the humongous eyes, will find much to enjoy in Alita: Battle Angel. Like the design of character herself, the flaws are easy to see and even more obvious in isolation. But taken within context, Alita is a wonderful piece of spectacle filmmaking crafted through years of technique and technology. Hopefully sequels will offer a better story, deeper themes, and more fleshed out characters, but what we have here is an excellent start. And an excellent start alone offers the best reason for a sequel: we want more.