There’s a lot to unpack here with this movie so let’s just jump right in.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is based on a Japanese comic book (better known as manga), with a similar name. The original source material, which eventually had an animated adaptation, was titled “Battle Angel Alita.”
This live action adaptation of “Alita” opens by introducing Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a robotic prosthetic surgeon who, in a search for parts, discovers the remains of a female cyborg. Ido brings the cyborg remains back to his repair room and after giving her a robotic body, brings her back to “life.”
Soon after waking up, Ido names the cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar). While Alita functions normally, though, she can’t remember her past life.
Alita in the manga.
As she starts to explore the dystopian, cyber-punk city she lives in and builds an identity, Alita meets Hugo (Keean Johnson), a teen who introduces her to the dangerous sport of Motorball.
As the story unravels, Alita learns that the sport isn’t the only danger out there, as there are also criminals who tear apart cyborgs for their parts and gangsters who make a big profit off it. Plus, there’s a floating city in the sky where the elite live, which also seems to have its hands in things going on at the ground level.
Alita in the anime.
So just from that introduction, it’s easy to tell there’s a lot going on here. There are several story threads going on in this adaptation, and while they’re all great concepts and can work in a format that is extensive like a manga, it comes off as rather clunky and convoluted in a two hour film.
There are multiple villains and string-pullers here, and the flick unfortunately lacks a tight focus. While the source material is rich in stories to tell, jamming too many into one product may have been a mistake, and the picture could probably have benefited from one of them being edited out, or reduced.
What does help the narrative, though, is the journey Alita goes on and her overall arc as a character. Watching her learn about the world, along with the thin line between more artificial beings and humans is compelling.
Her evolution from being a curious, peaceful person to a warrior ready to fight for a cause is also handled well and improves the cinematic experience.
It of course helps to get a strong performance from Salazar, who does solid work using the motion capture technology to give a well-rounded portrayal. The initial naivety the character has is convincing and her growing resolve and willpower is inspired, thanks to Salazar’s work.
Things get rather rough, though, when it comes to the supporting cast.
First and foremost is the case with Waltz. He’s a two-time Academy Award winner and of course very talented. However, he feels so miscast here. There are times when he seems too stilted or stoic, especially later in the film when it turns out he has a second job as a bounty hunter. Unfortunately, when that’s revealed, Waltz doesn’t channel his performance from “Django Unchained.”
The weakest link of the film, though, is by far Johnson as Hugo. He carries very little screen presence and gives a performance severely lacking in charisma and charm. His moments with Alita lack conviction and the sequences near the end are woefully unconvincing.
Rounding out the cast are two alright performances. Both Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali and Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley are fine in their villainous roles, although the characters they portray are rather underwritten.
The screenplay, and the direction from Robert Rodriguez, do leave quite a bit to be desired here. The film just doesn’t flow as naturally as one would hope with a sci-fi epic like this. It’s a shame too, because the movie was heavily backed by James Cameron and he had a hand in the script, yet he didn’t direct the movie. It also didn’t help that the movie is only rated PG-13, when the source material and overall tone practically beg for an R rating.
Visually, though, “Alita” looks great. There’s an amazing style featured and the inspiration of its anime roots are definitely on display. As a longtime fan of the art style, seeing a well-crafted adaptation in live action is a treat. This is especially true during the combat sequences. Even with so many moving parts and several things happening on screen, the action remains in focus and well captured through the camera.
“Alita” is a flawed film, with some major stumbles from start to finish. Yet thanks to some key aspects, such as the main character, lead actress, interesting source material and great visuals, it somehow works out to being a very watchable and pretty enjoyable time. 3.0 out of 5.