Wednesday 13 February 2019

Film Review: Alita – Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron's long-gestating adaptation of a niche Japanese manga finally makes its way into cinemas – here are my thoughts on Alita: Battle Angel.

Alita: Battle Angel has been trapped in development hell for donkey's years, with James Cameron originally looking to direct an adaptation of the manga way back before Avatar was even a twinkle in his eye. After Robert Rodriguez replaced Cameron (who serves as producer) and the ball started to roll, Alita's long road to the big screen ends this weekend – but was it worth the wait?

Set several centuries in the future after a cataclysmic war that left society in ruins, the film centres around an amnesiac cyborg called Alita (Rosa Salazar), who wakes up on the scrapheap with no recollection of how she got there. A talented and compassionate doctor called Ido (Christoph Waltz) takes her under his wing, while secrets relating to Alita's past soon surface and reveal her true nature.

Alita's biggest issue is that in trying to do so many things, it excels at very few. The plot winds its way through a Hunger Games-esque YA uprising narrative, a frenetic roller derby meets Quidditch tournament, a cute love story between man and machine, and a series of flashbacks that fill in the blanks and chronicle the intergalactic war that led to society's collapse.

It's both too long, clocking in at a smidge under two-and-a-half hours, and scant on the specifics. Rodriguez has rendered this future dystopia with such eye-popping wonderment that you crave to learn more, itching to scratch beneath the surface and soak up every morsel of lore. The universe has much to enjoy and many places to go, so it's a shame that when the cop out ending arrives, I felt like the story was only starting to get going.

But while it it doesn't gel narratively, Alita is nothing short of sublime in a technical sense. The VFX and integration of 3D is seamless. Rodriguez is a director who wholly commits to his genre, whether that be pulpy noir in Sin City or hack 'n' slash horror in From Dusk Til Dawn. 

Alita continues this trend, wearing its anime and manga influences on its sleeve – big eyes, bigger swords, slo-mo shots that look like splash pages and outlandish designs that pop with colour and detail. The action is nothing short of brilliant, with the frenetic fights and especially the demolition roller derby – known as 'motorball', a beautiful ballet of carnage.

Alita herself is a marvel of CGI wizardry. In melding Salazar's performance with computer effects to dial up those anime aspects, the film successfully traverses the 'uncanny valley' and isn't frightening or plain weird (*cough* Will Smith's Genie *cough*).

Ed Skrein is having a ball as a villainous rival cyborg, but by and large this is where the commendable performances peter out. Keean Johnson's boyfriend character Hugo is a bland as white bread while Christoph Waltz does his usual thing. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly play two other antagonists, but their motivations aren't clear. To be fair, this comes back to the clunky and cliched writing.

The Verdict: 7/10

It might not sound like it, but I had a really good time with Alita: Battle Angel. The plot may be a familiar collection of cyberpunk ideas, and the dialogue is stilted and wooden, but everything else is outstanding, especially the action, the visual effects and Tom Holkenborg's score. See it in 3D on the biggest, best cinema screen you can find.

Alita: Battle Angel is in cinemas across Australia from Thursday 14 February.

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