Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel


Alita, the girl, is a cyborg -- a sophisticated robot with a human brain, made 300 years before she is found in a garbage heap by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) and reconstructed. She is a relic of a time past when things were made with care. And so is her movie.

They just don't make 'em like they used to anymore.

Alita is directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. It's based on a manga, so this cyberpunk scifi adventure (I can't even type those words without smiling) starts out with established and already well-loved characters ready for adaptation. I can't speak as to accuracy, but I get a strong impression that it was done with buckets full of TLC, based on the results. There are beautifully minute details, expert pacing, clever turns and subtle foreshadowing, and I didn't except almost anything it does. And it retains a distinct Japanese feel, from the world, to plot points, to tone, and right down to characterization; the heart and soul of the story.

The greatest of its characters is its protagonist, played through motion-capture by Rosa Salazar. I only knew her from The Maze Runner series where she was fine, though those movies are certainly not for showing off acting chops. And after watching the Alita trailer I had doubts over believability, characterization, and the design that made her eyes so big. Then the movie proved all those doubts unfounded one by one. At times I tried to imagine the mo-cap pajamas, but the standard was that my brain believed what it saw, and I had to try and twist it to see it as fake. Especially when live-action characters touch her casually and you can see the weight and existence of her. Motion-capture has always been fascinating to me, and it continues to make impressive advancements.

You can see Salazar in her effortlessly. And she is charm itself. 

But even then, characterization is where I was most wowed. I wish I was thirteen again, or that I could send this movie back in time to thirteen-year-old me, because she would have fallen hard for this movie, and the girl who powers it. Alita is naive, charming, tenacious, confident, totally unflappable, and as weird a moment as it was, my favorite part of her became clear when she declared that she gives all or nothing. She loves people with everything she has, or she fights them, and there's no in between. And she makes wise decisions over who falls in which category. She has faults and obstacles to overcome, and a spectacular origin story arc to do it in.

I was entranced by the balance of her; her sweet smiles and open heart (sometimes literally) countered by her ferocious and ruthless power, and her unwavering decisiveness. Thirteen-year-old me could've used a decisive fictional role-model. And after all that, the eyes that I raised an eyebrow at in the trailer... well they became as essential part of her. And with that realization I began to understand the care that must have gone into this film. She and her film weren't just haphazardly chopped together, but whoever made the decision to include her appearance so accurately must have known her well enough to understand how vital it was. It wasn't some lame excuse to use more mo-cap; it was the backbone of the whole story.

There's life behind those animated eyes. And that's the magic of motion-capture; it's made to capture motion, and somehow captures the soul too. 

The characters that surround Alita are there to support her, and it's within that role that they feel full and engaging. I've never liked a Christoph Waltz character more (though I do usually see him play bad guys) and I was eternally impressed by the love interest not being there only to be a love interest. Often the fate of female love interests but now feminism has only flip-flopped the problem; but this is a rare case. Hugo (Keean Johnson) doesn't cease to exist when he's not by Alita's side, is important to the plot beyond being a thing to fall in love with, has character, and to my gleeful surprise, even has good chemistry with her. Their side of the story is cheesy, sweet, compelling, and even has real stakes.

Alita's relationship with Dr. Ido is also compelling, has some neat twists to it, and some real-feeling moments of conflict. Rebellious teenager and everything. Those three make up the center of the movie. On the outside is people like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, who you could say were underused, but they work within their confides and do a good job. There's also Jorge Lendeborg Jr. who was totally normal (why oh why couldn't he have been like that in Bumblebee??) and Lana Candor who I think should pop up in more random movies. Ed Skrein made an extremely fun and uber cool villain, and Jackie Earle Haley was the big physical villain for fighting. Oh, an Eliza González of Baby Driver was there for a hot second too.

I honestly expected the romance to be an eye-roller. And it kinda was. But I fell for it anyway. It was a good eye-roller.

Even the naysaying grumpy old bores who don't like this film readily admit that it's an impressive feat concerning visuals and action sequences. I honestly expected there to be full-blown battles in this somehow, but wound up loving how static and small-scale it was. The biggest action was this hardcore sport called Motorball, that's like a roller derby mixed with basketball on a NASCAR track from hell. It's exactly as awesome as it sounds, and reminded me a bit of Speed Racer. The combat fights were typically one-on-one which is exactly my speed. They were small, and get personal fast. And brutal even faster. The PG-13-level violence shocked me every time, and the movie makes serious choices that it can't take back. And it makes them boldly.

It did things that I didn't want it to do and made me deal with it, and with that earned my full respect. I have a few complaints that boil down to personal taste rather than anything actually flawed, but can be summed up in that I wanted more. It seemed like Alita herself soaked up a lot of the budget, and while I am glad of the more intimate plot, the scale could've gone bigger visually for my money. The look of it was neat and certainly cyberpunk, but a clearer style and cleaner, more striking cinematography could've turned this compelling story populated by lovable character into an absolute trifecta of science fiction. Still, if budget was what prevented that, they made the cuts in the right place.

I love high aesthetic in my scifi, but character and story should and do come first. Anyway, there's slow-mo shots like this so who's to complain? 

I also want more in that I hope a sequel gets made. I'm tired of movies that only exist to sequel-bait, but I'll readily defend this, as that's not at all the case here. This movie was an origin story, and couldn't have existed without this first chapter. Though it leaves us with the impression that bigger things are to come, it stands on its own with a whole, completed plot; builds itself up carefully through emotional journeys, and developing characters and relationships; and doesn't leave anything unexplored in order to tease.

A beautifully versatile movie, it perfectly mirrors Alita's personality, hitting beats of silly camp, then melodrama; one second it's sweet and cute, and the next unexpectedly, disturbingly dark. It takes itself seriously, but is fun and unafraid to play around. Like its amazing and unique heroine, it's made with care of craftsmanship; and like its heroine, it works hard to discover what exactly it is, and then it is that, exactly, with undeterrable passion, and a heart that will never fail.


  1. I saw the trailer for this, and even though I'm not usually much for robots/cyborgs/etc. or action, it did kind of pique my interest. Thanks for such a thorough and careful review! It should be helpful in deciding whether or not I want to watch it. :)

    (I've probably said it before, but your blog is really neat. I think it's so cool how much effort you put into making such great, concise but not too bare-bones movie reviews.)

    1. Thanks Olivia! I nearly didn't see it bc of people saying it was dumb. I was hoping to give an accurate and thorough description, so you make me feel accomplished. :) There's lots of action/cyborg stuff, but also more character drama than the trailer makes out, which grounded it for me. I hope you enjoy if you decide to go! (Thanks so much!)

  2. Nice Review. You definitely enjoyed the film a lot more than I did. To me it was a pack of Wafers. Good looking from the outside - empty from the inside. The visuals, performance capture was all done seamlessly but the story could have been better. It was so formulaic. Many times I felt the makers didn't know what genre they are targeting. Is it YA, or Sci-Fi? It didn't completely fall into any category. I like your take on how it personifies ALITA herself but maybe its not how Rodriguez, or Cameron imagined.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I see where your coming from, I just disagree that they're flaws I guess. Like, I loved that it hit multiple genres -- why limit it to one? And it may be formulaic on a base level, but the way it built up from there continually surprised and impressed me, so I'd say it used the formula well. The story could've been more for my taste, but they had to balance it with action and world-building too, and it was more than I expected, so I was happy. Sorry it didn't work as well for you though!