Sunday, April 7, 2019

Alita, Battle Angel - a review and thoughts - lots of them (Movie Review)

Alita: Battle Angel - 5.5/10

I finally went out to see Alita: Battle Angel. I have never read the manga so I had no pre-conceived notions. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, nor was it as good as it could have been. I'm going to do a summary of the story for people who might not know much about it, and then proceed to list what worked and what didn't. Trying something new with this review.

So the movie's plot is as messed up and overly-dense as could be and only had minimal internal explanation (often through stupid exposition), so I could be very wrong with this summary, but let me give it a try: Centuries (?) before the movie takes place, humans had colonized Mars. As things went on, the mars humans ended up attacking (did they really start it or was it the Earth humans?) the Earth. At the time, there were these big flying cities over Earth. As part of the attacks (including on the moon - which was a pretty cool flashback) the flying cities were targeted. Now, only one remains after the defeat of the Mars humans. The Earth elite live on that flying city while the rest of Earth humanity lives in various slums on the surface.

The major sporting event is a type of roller-ball/roller-derby with cyborg people. There is a big underground market for their parts and gangs of people who go out and attack cyborgs to steal their parts. There are also bounty hunters who get paid cash to catch criminals of all sorts. One of the best cybernetic engineers (Doctor Ido) also happens to be a bounty hunter and on one of his scavenging trips for parts in the local dump, finds the head of a cyborg young-lady that contains a living human brain, but is otherwise completely synthetic.

He connects this head to the body he made for his now dead daughter (plot plot plot plot) and we meet Alita for the first time. She doesn't know who she is, but is presumed to be a teenager and in one scene, proves she's got some special fighting skills. As her memories slowly return, she pursues various means of understanding her past while also pissing lots of bad people off. As part of this, she finds another body, what turned out to be her true body, that of an elite cybernetic martian warrior. After a horrible situation, the doctor has no choice but to plug her in to this new body and suddenly we (and she) come to understand that she's really a young adult elite fighting machine left over from the Martian/Earth war.

Then comes so much more plot, Ido's ex-wife, the guy in the city above, the cyborg sport, etc...I mean more plot than it is possible to describe, and in fact, it's all but incomprehensible really. There's also a romantic sub plot that ties into some of the action (more on that later). There's lots of fighting, etc... I won't give you any more details, other than to suggest that the movie is leading towards a reckoning between Alita and those running things up in the floating city.

So here's what works:
1) We don't actually get the final reckoning. Much like the ending of the first (and only?) Matrix movie, we're left understanding Alita's untouchable power and nearly divine calling, and we know what's coming, but it ends with that promise on the horizon. Leaving the audience knowing she'll be awesome and the salvation but not actually depicting it worked so well for the Matrix (and was ruined in its sequels by actually showing it - but showing it differently than any of us would have imagined). It will be interesting to see if this cliff-hanger or sorts spawns sequels or not and how well they do at fulfilling the vision.

2) For all the weirdness of how Alita's face is depicted (see below), the actress and the motion capture end up creating someone we do genuinely root for. She is an engaging screen presence, somehow despite being completely CGI against live-action actors.

3) This has some of the best fight scene editing in decades. Normally fight scenes are so frenetically edited that you can't tell a single thing that is happening (see Michael Bay). But here, through long shots, careful planning, lots of slo-mo, and other maneuvers, the fights are incredible clear and worthy of our time. Very very well done.

Here's what didn't work:
1) the plot. Oh my god. There was soooooo much plot. And more annoying than the long running time and over-abundance of plot points, was the poor editing where out of nowhere a character would know something they didn't previously know but we have no idea how they could have learned that new information. It suggests that there were lots of scenes cut out. And even though the theatrical release was too long, it might actually be improved with an even longer director's cut that restores the missing scenes. Better, would have been a much more streamlined narrative. I don't know what the narrative in the manga was, but whether this was true to it or not, sometimes things have to be different in a film to make it work. This plot did not. Overly complex but under emotional.

2) The eyes and the CGI in general. Much has been made of the decision to have Alita have large anime-influenced eyes but in a live-action envisioning. Many have commented with concern that she is the only character with the large eyes, but I actually think that all the Martian soldiers had them, so maybe they developed large eyes due to low light on Mars or it is part of their cybernetic designs. Whatever. It neither worked nor didn't work, but was a bit strange. You get used to it after a few minutes, so it's not distracting.

But the problem isn't their size, the problem is that they are CGI which means they're dead. The eyes are so important in a live action film and this hurt here because we never really feel that she is real, we know she is animated. Further, because Alita was all CGI, they didn't get her arm movements right during her non-fighting scenes. There's a weird balletic movement to the arms and hands and fingers in so many CGI characters in films that many in the audience won't notice it (having become used to it), but it simply is not how real people carry their upper bodies or use their arms. One particular moment that stood out was as she is coming down the stairs, squatting and looking through the railing, the way her hands too gracefully glide over the rails, just took me right out of the scene.

I'm also a fan of practical effects because they have a weight that CGI doesn't. Whether it is people, explosions, backgrounds, sets, etc... I like as much practical effects as possible (including good old matte paintings). What really really really kills me is that every background in CGI films has this ethereal, misty, soft-lighted approach. Maybe it worked for Lord of the Rings, but it isn't realistic, it looks animated, and it takes me out of the film. Also, everyone had cybernetic parts, but few (if any) were done practically so again, there is a lack of grounding, a lack of solidity. I almost wish the film had been a complete CGI animation like a Pixar film rather than live-action with CGI everywhere. Most people aren't bothered by this the way I am, but hell, it's my blog.

3) The romance - yuck. One, we don't need every heroine to have a love interest for us to connect with her. But if you're going to do it, do it well. So first, the guy they have her fall for is not a good actor, is not beautiful, but nor is he unique or quirky either. He's like someone who would have been the second choice actor to be on some soap opera, not a leading man or up and coming true actor for a big budget film. I don't know anything about him or his relationship with the director, but of all the men on the planet, why cast him? So then all the scenes with him, all his relationship to the plot, all her scenes of caring about him, being led astray by him, etc... are wasted because we don't care about him and don't want them to actually get together. She's too good for him but that isn't explored. Instead, we're supposed to root for them and be pained with the way things get "resolved." Could have cut this whole thing out entirely, focused more on her and Ido in a father/daughter way, and it would have been a much better film.

4) The whole film was very white. Yes, there were some side characters and background characters of color, and I won't get into the debate about whether the doctor and Alita should have been Japanese as even the manga creator isn't committing one way or another on that.  BUT, by hundreds of years in the future, there should have been a lot more diversity. The one black actor who had a sizable part was of course the villian. Why couldn't the love interest have been black, or Asian, or latinx, or Persian, or anything other than a mediocre, not-quite-good-looking, can't act white dude? I expect more diversity in the 24th century or whenever it was set. I also expect more diversity in the 21st century.

5) Alita's characterization. Wow has she got a screw loose, but not in a good fun way. Some scenes she's a starry-eyed teen, others she's a battle hardened young woman, other's she's super in love, other's she's a badass, other's she's getting manipulated and willing to give up everything for the stupid dude, other's she's running away, other's she deferential. Basically, it feels like what an adult man thinks a teenage girl is like - all hormones and inconsistency. And then I notice the script was co-written by James Cameron and I said to myself: "Oh, it really is what a old man thinks a teenage girl is like." But it's not what they are like, and the constantly labile personality is jarring and has no real motivational or emotional thread running through it. Hire a woman to write the script next time, would ya?!

So sounds like a lot more that didn't work than did. And that's true. And yet, I didn't hate it. It was big and bold and had some amazing moments, and the joy of the fight scenes and Alita's overall engaging performance (motion captured though it was), managed to turn the tides. This is a film I would watch again to see what more I could make of it, but I hope that will be in an extended director's cut that may help even out some of the plot and characterization problems mentioned above. As it stands in its theatrical version, I can only give it a 5.5/10, as being just enough of an enjoyment to overcome it's many problems, but not one I'd recommend to people either.



  1. I rate this movie 10/10. Best movie ever!!!

    1. Tell me more, what worked for you, or inspired you?


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