My wife and I caught an advance screening (2 weeks early) of the James Cameron/Robert Rodriguez teamup sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza “Alita: Battle Angel.” We were really, really lucky because we had the opportunity to catch the IMAX 3D test screening. This kind of movie was made for IMAX 3D viewing.
Let’s go ahead and get all of that out of the way.
The effects crew did a pretty remarkable job here. It has an appropriate Hollywood effects budget for the ambition of the production, and you can tell that no detail was too unimportant here. The scale of Iron City and the utopia above is on full display. The melding of real actors and sets with motion-captured actors is flawless and well done. The action scenes are some of the best filmed. You can tell that the director Robert Rodriguez felt in his element during these. Gratuitous violence is pretty much his main hallmark in a wide range of cinematic history. Robert is the guy who did Desperado, Dusk till Dawn, Sin City, etc. He’s been a frequent collaborator with Tarantino, and if you’re a fan of that genre (and I am), then you’re going to enjoy a lot of the movie.
This movie has a lot of violence, but the gore aspect is hard to really quantify. The majority of the characters that engage in combat scenes are cyborgs and the damage to parts and persons is overwhelmingly done to plastic, metal, and non-human parts of the body. You rarely see characters wince in pain. You often can’t tell if characters die. In fact, characters are so robust here that they frequently survive if nothing is left of them but their heads. This comes up as important in this film, and if the film does well enough to get sequels, I’m absolutely certain that the rest of the series will have plot elements that require this. A side effect of the near indestructibility of humanity and the absolutely frenetic pace of the battle scenes is that emotional impact is really hard to come by. My wife and I discussed scenes that we believed were meant to be emotional pivot points of the film that had very blunted impact. It didn’t kill the movie or anything, but it almost left me scratching my head about why certain things weren’t just cut from the movie and left alone.
And this is really the only problem the movie has. It is trying to do so much to fill in world building that the emotional arc of characters is often muted. There’s a dog scene in this movie that I’m sure was supposed to have a certain impact, but my wife and I discussed this and we felt like it had been so poorly foreshadowed and emotionally anchored in our minds that it might as well have been left out of the film. Characters are stabbed and destroyed so often that unless they have a weird facial expression or a completely destroyed face, you can’t tell if you’re really looking at a dead character or a character that is just at a low point that may recover. And it’s not happening a few times in the film. It’s happening dozens of times an hour. You’ll understand what I’m talking about when you watch the film: which, btw, I think you definitely should.
This script is obviously a James Cameron script, but with his filmmaking involvement mostly on the periphery. There are social issues here. There are technology issues. There is a bit of a weak love plot, and a lot of missed potential in the emotion impact of many scenes (probably 7-8). But there are a LOT of scenes between all that, and the movie has so much fast-paced, devastating action that you’re not going to feel “robbed” or upset about it. You’re likely to just think “man, if they would have just had a dramatic pause for a few seconds, that might have been a more effective scene” or “if they would have just focused on the conflict between Alita and Hugo’s activities for half the film and had them meet up in more of a less deliberately thrown together way, this would have had a lot more impact on my feelings.”
The characters here are strong and mostly developed. The lead character is very personable, and you’ll like her. There is some talent wasted here, but it’s mostly because of the pacing. Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali show what the world has done to capitalistic intentions. Christoph Waltz did what he could to fill so many different supportive roles for Alita, but there really wasn’t enough time to develop him further and show his conflicts more (e.g, the rush between soft and hard body–don’t want to give too much away here). But again, these are not completely lost moments. These are just less impactful moments than they could have been for me and my wife as we watched and discussed later. I mean a central motivator and anchor point for Christoph’s character is sort of mowed through like lightning. If you blink, you’ll miss it, and you will mostly use your imagination to understand why he’s helping Alita and try not to focus too hard on exactly what the character motivations were that caused it. It’s sort of random.
In my opinion, this is a film worth seeing and pretty solidly in the 4/5 category. I’ll probably see it in IMAX again as the 3D, sound, and action are absolutely what the format is for. However, the 1 star missing here is for what might have been with a movie that focused on the first 3/4 of the film and didn’t try to force so much of the manga source into so short of a movie. There are misfires here. And if the movie doesn’t make back its budget and marketing (200M baseline before marketing, it seems, so probably 600-800M or so to get a solid greenlight and building fan base), then you might as well throw out another star here because if the series ends with this movie, it’s a very hollow ending. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen because there’s a lot more story to tell here (and I’m not an Alita comics fan, I just see where this should be going and it’s a conversation our society should be engaging in).