Alita: Battle Angel Pushes The Envelope Too Far

“Alita: Battle Angel” boats impressive acting but lacks in plot development (Facebook)

“Alita: Battle Angel” boats impressive acting but lacks in plot development (Facebook)

By Matthew Dillon 

Based on the Japanese manga, “Alita: Battle Angel” takes place in the only surviving city of a post-apocalyptic world. Ido (Christoph Waltz), a doctor for cyborgs, finds the damaged but salvageable remains of Alita (Rosa Salazar) and adopts her after rebuilding her mechanical body. As she discovers more about the world, where people live at the mercy of cyborgs and “hunter-warriors” that pursue them, Alita unearths more of her past, as do the antagonists, who take interest in the power that Alita discovers within herself.

Live-action manga adaptations have had a long, disastrous history in American cinema. Fans of the originals as well as newcomers disregarded films like “Dragon Ball Evolution,” “Death Note” and“ Ghost in the Shell.” “Alita” unfortunately engages in the whitewashed casting that has drawn so much ire towards similar adaptations, though it has a little more diversity than the aforementioned movies. Despite that, the film manages to avoid most of the problems typically associated with this genre. Unfortunately, it manages to come up with a few new ones.

“Alita” is so dedicated to the source material that it appears misguided at times. The film preserves as much of the original manga’s story as it can. Unfortunately, in doing so, it removes a lot of elements from their original context and leaves them adrift. Also, a few key visuals do not translate well into live action. Nowhere is this better seen than in the decision to give Alita large eyes that look like they were taken straight out of a Margaret Keane work. The effects used for this are impressive, but it takes about half the movie to get used to them. Less forgivable is the failure of the film to properly establish a setting in “Alita.” Exposition is introduced in a clumsy, inorganic way and fairly late into the movie. Even by the end of “Alita,” a lot of vital aspects of the world are left largely unexplained; most glaringly, the question of how cyborgs work in this setting.

The film is not without its strong points, though, which lie mainly in the acting. Salazar gives a great performance, making the vicious and naïve Alita believable. Without that, it is hard to see how the film and its strange decisions would have worked at all. Waltz gives Ido a paradoxical kindness and duplicity, making his character one of the more interesting ones. Mahershala Ali’s role as Vector, a crime boss and the master of the ruthless, futuristic sport Motorball, manages to make his character threatening enough. Unfortunately, the other actors are largely forgettable and suffer compared to these three.

“Alita” is reminiscent of a high-speed, single-minded sci-fi action flick that went out of fashion in 2005, thankfully, with better production value. While this might sound like an outright condemnation, there is a certain charm to the brutal, kinetic fight scenes and the raw, unpretentious approach towards character design and themes.

I would rather watch “Alita” over the slew of “ A Quiet Place ” knockoffs we are currently stuck with. However, it has inherited all the flaws that come with the high-speed style. Most notably, the excess of special effects makes “Alita” feel like an animated movie. The scenes that emphasize the human actors feel out of place next to the sheer reliance on computer-generated imagery in almost every other sequence. The few attempts made to mix live action with animation have disastrous results.

While most of “Alita” is a genuine, intense, if at times shallow action movie, it becomes nearly incoherent in its final act. The film decides to drop the plotlines it was juggling, though some were certainly better than others; Alita exploring her humanity (or lack thereof) was more engaging than the game of motorball that kicks off the convoluted climax of the film.

The plotlines “Alita” does not rush to completion are left unresolved, to be concluded in the sequel it sets up. In that way, the film’s unsatisfying ending interferes with almost everything that directly leads up to it. While hardly a perfect experience, “Alita” does have a certain charm to it. It is a genuine, flashy action movie that tries to do a little more than it is capable of.