Review of Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Film info: Wikipedia, IMDB. The film is based on a manga series which I have not read.

Poster art for Alita: Battle Angel

Poster art for Alita: Battle Angel

This review contains SPOILERS (a lot of them).

I enjoyed it! I would count it as a solid cyberpunk action film, though not a hugely impactful one either emotionally or philosophically. The technology and setting of the world raises lots of very interesting questions but the film is decidedly not trying to answer them; that's just not something it's interested in. The film moves forward pretty reliably through its plot, which is constructed well enough but doesn't inspire me.

For me, the strongest aspect of the film is the central character of Alita, backed up by an interesting world (interesting to me even if the film doesn't care much about exploring it). Even though the other aspects of the film aren't amazing they pull their weight---there isn't really any part that felt jarring or got in the way for me.

Rosa Salazar did a great job. I imagine acting for CGI is pretty tough. I also really liked Ed Skrein as Zapan, and Mahershala Ali as Vector (particularly for his strong transitions to Vector-controlled-by-Nova). Jennifer Connelly didn't have much to work with; could probably have been a very interesting character but the film didn't have time to explore that. Christoph Waltz was Christoph Waltz; Ido was fine but spent most of his time being fatherly (which I thought they did well - it wasn't over done) or just providing exposition. Keean Johnson as Hugo was probably the weakest main character for me; his character had very strong goals, but the motivation for those goals wasn't explored in any depth.

The CGI is pretty good. Alita mostly stays on the safe side of uncanny-valley. That is, she looks CGI but she doesn't look freaky so it's fine. Her teeth/mouth are kind of weird when she smiles widely though.

Alita is tough and self confident in her physicality, without being a generic 'bad-ass' who sees romance or emotional vulnerability as being a weakness. It's also good that her physical confidence is shown pretty early, certainly in the kids motorball scrimmage but even before that when she instinctively goes into a fighting stance when the Centurion walks toward her, and saves the little dog from being crushed by accident. Some films with a secret bad-ass girl who doesn't know her own powers keep them weak and unconfident right up until they're suddenly forced to fight and find that they're invincible. But Alita clearly has confidence from the beginning, even though she doesn't know the extent of her skills.

When Ido talks about his daughter, there's an exchange:

{% screenplay %} Alita: Did you find peace?
Ido: I found you.
Alita: I'm not your daughter. {% end %}

I think the reading of the line "I'm not your daughter" stands out in a good way. She's not being mean or accusing him of something. The line comes across as gentle, slightly sad, but also direct, firm and honest. Something Ido needed to be told, and also something he seems to accept. I thought it was a really nice moment.

I think she falls for Hugo too easily. I can somewhat forgive it for her being a teenager, but then is she really intended to be a teenager? Unclear. Ido initially thinks she is, and she behaves like it in various ways, but when she gets the battle suit and it adjusts to her own body image, Nurse Gerhad notes that she's older than Ido thought (she grows boobs; it's actually pretty funny). And of course she actually used to be an URM Berserker. Did URM use child soldiers? I feel like she should be at least a young adult, but then if so she should be a bit more mature in her behaviour from the start, and probably shouldn't immediately go doe-eyed at the first pretty boy she sees. It doesn't make sense to me that she would act more like a little girl just because she woke up in a little girl's body.

Speaking of waking up in a little girl's body, Alita is totally unperturbed by waking up in a body she doesn't recognise, a body that doesn't fit her subconscious self-image, being notably younger than her true self. She also seems pretty unperturbed by having no memories at all, and when she's told that she's over 300 years old that doesn't seem to cause her any kind of concern. To a large extent I'm happy to ignore how un-freaked-out she is about her strange situation---the film doesn't want to spend time on her being freaked out, plus she's a pretty confident person and freaking out isn't necessarily in character. On the other hand I feel like she could have expressed a stronger and clearer desire to find out about herself; asking Ido more stuff and pushing him harder early on to help her find out who she is. If finding out her history is a significant motivator for her (until her motivation transitions to destroy Zalem/kill Nova) then perhaps that should be more apparent.

It was really weird seeing Jai Courtney show up for like one second for a character that was pointed out by Hugo as the most likely motorball final champion. Probably no one else found it weird, I guess Jai Courtney is not that well known, I just happened to recognise him. Actually I think I misrecognised him and was thinking of Channing Tatum. Sorry Jai. Sorry Channing.

Also weird seeing Edward Norton (uncredited according to imdb??) playing Nova at the end. Why wasn't he credited? He was only on screen for a few seconds, with I think no words at all. Anyway, weird. I assume they wanted him as a hook to be used in the sequel but I guess there won't be a sequel. Which sucks, because Alita totally deserves a sequel just to get more of Rosa Salazar.

Hugo's redemption arc isn't very clear. It feels like he is intended to have a redemption arc: He falls for Alita, realises that mugging people for parts is wrong (or just realises Alita wouldn't like it if she found out?), quits his gang, and when he gets shredded by the defence ring and is about to fall to his death, he thanks Alita for saving him. I guess that could be taken to be "thanks for saving me from Zapan" or "thanks for saving me from the path I was on", but I'm assuming its the latter. But although his decision to quit the gang is shown, the motivational change that drives that decision is not shown very effectively.

More generally, I think Hugo just has weaker characterisation than Alita does. And that's a pity, because he has the background for a strong motivational and emotional arc. It looks like they have everything they need to build an interesting character but didn't have the time or combo of writing/directing/acting to pull it off. Clearly he's dead set on getting to Zalem, as he sees it as the way out of his shitty life down in Iron City. But then it doesn't seem like his life is actually too tough - we don't see him struggling for food, he has enough money to get a nice leather jacket and keep a motorbike-wheel-thing, he can buy Alita chocolate when he wants, he clearly has friends. So is he just ambitious, feeling like he's destined for more and that getting to Zalem is the only way to achieve that? When he quits his gang that's apparently not the result of giving up on his prior dream so he can be with Alita in Zalem, because when he gets his cyborg body he tries to walk up the cargo delivery tubes.

After Alita has her battle-body and sneaks into Hugo's place, it's pretty weird offering her heart to him. Even if she (thinks she) loves him, that heart is totally unique and an intrinsic part of her. It's not even clear that she can drive her URM body without her URM heart; I would assume it takes more power than a normal cyber-body. It feels like such a weird scene, it's like Alita is ignoring her own motivations and desires (finding out more about who she is, for example) all for a "love" that doesn't really have a reason except for her being a dumb teenager. In fact it feels so weird that I wonder if Alita actually isn't sure Hugo can be trusted and is baiting him to see if he'll sell her out. She switches really suddenly into that intense teenage-girl infatuation driven "I'd do anything for you, I'd give you my heart!" thing and then switches back out again suddenly once Hugo refuses her heart. Of course, he then does sell her out by getting her to try out for Motorball, but perhaps he doesn't know it's a setup. Anyway probably the whole "I'd give you my heart" thing is just a very dumb, unsubtle declaration of love. Kind of over-the-top.

Later when Alita saves Hugo from Zapan, she does the whole "I'd give my life for his" thing again, and it's kind of dumb. She just has no reason to love him like that. She could love him and still have a reason to live that doesn't revolve around him. She could love him and want to save him and still want to live for herself. The whole thing of being willing to immediately give her life for his feels weak, because there's no motivation for her to feel so strongly about him.

Since Alita doesn't actually seem like a bloodthirsty person it's a little surprising that she enjoys Motorball so much as a spectator, seeing people getting ripped apart. Wanting to participate makes more sense since she's a bit of a thrill-seeker, and playing Motorball provides opportunities to make money or get to Zalem. Perhaps cyborgs getting torn up just doesn't count and is just considered to good clean fun?

When Vector meets Hugo and his gang to pick up the grind-cutters, and Hugo takes his goggles and mask off, it's supposed to be this big reveal, but it's pretty obvious it's going to be Hugo. He just ditched Alita at the Motorball game, right after Chiren and Vector were talking about taking the grind-cutters to use for Grewishka, he goes off with his gang right then. It's not jarring, it's just not surprising; it fell flat.

Where are the rebels? It seems like everyone thinks that life is totally wonderful for the people in Zalem and shitty and hard for the people in Iron City. Where is the graffiti from people who hate Zalem for keeping everyone down? Where are the people saying "fuck Zalem we're better off down here where at least we're free to be human"? Everyone seems to either have an ambition to get into Zalem, or to just accept their lot in life and that Zalem is wonderful and not the enemy.

Why do people think that becoming Motorball Champion will get them into Zalem? Clearly nothing else does, and Zalem is 100% exploiting everyone, so why would they believe that Zalem actually honours any commitments about bringing the winning champion into the sky city? Given how obviously evil Zalem is, I just don't see why anyone would trust that propaganda.

Actually it's implied that Zalem is not so awesome in terms of freedom at least, since Ido and Chiren were kicked out for having a disabled child, but that's irrelevant to what the general populace thinks. Why does Chiren still want to get back to Zalem?

The world depicted is pretty violent and harsh, but it is not particularly gory, presumably due to targeting a 12A rating. For me this is a positive thing; I'm not into torture porn or spraying blood and guts everywhere. There is some cyber-blood and some cyber-faces getting smashed up or sliced up, but mostly it's pretty clean. It's not clear how much pain people feel when their cyber-bodies are damaged... I didn't notice much screaming.

When Ido goes to get the bounty after Alita takes out the first ripper gang, why does he only get the bounty for one of the gang, not the Bioshock Splicer looking guy? Did that guy not have a bounty? If so, will murdering him come back to bite anyone? I guess not.

In the flashback when Ido talks about his daughter's death, he says "Alita couldn't get out of the way fast enough" but it really doesn't look like she was actually in the way in the first place; the door is to her right, not behind her.

Pretty lucky that there's exactly one perfectly protected and preserved battle-ready cyber-body prepped and ready to go in the URM ship when Alita goes there!

I really want to learn more about URM and the war. Given what we see of Zalem (plus Alita's background herself), it seems unlikely that URM were actually the bad guys.

It's kind of nice that Alita does the whole speech of "I came to ask for your help" with the bounty hunters. Her physical confidence and skill does not come with unexplained street-smarts; instead she's actually fairly naive. Though perhaps so naive that she didn't expect a fight... it certainly seemed like she was looking for one when she started insulting all of the hunters.

Can't believe they let Grewishka kill the little dog :anguished:

Dislike the end-titles music.