I’m a person who wears a lot of his favorite pieces of pop culture right on his sleeve. I talk about movies, comics, books, and tv ad naseum, and am generally really open to most things. But, there are certain things that occasionally surprise people that I have almost no experience or interest in, especially things that often get labelled in the increasingly large and unhelpful category of “geeky.” It can be easy to assume if I check off a certain amount of boxes, I probably like most geeky things. And, for the most part, that ends up being correct. I love stories, and can usually find something to appreciate in any type of story. But, one of my biggest blind spots, something I have no real interest in, is the world of anime. I’ve tried, both anime and manga, and for whatever reason it just does nothing for me. It’s obviously impossible to write off an entire medium, and there are definitely some anime stories that have connected with me. But, by and large, the entire aesthetic just leaves me cold. So, I wasn’t exactly excited to check out Alita: Battle Angel, a long gestating project from James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez based off a popular manga. Neither are filmmakers whose recent output I’ve enjoyed, the whole look of the movie didn’t seem like something that would work for me, and I was just worried any pre-conceived notions of typical cyberpunk anime aesthetic would keep me from getting into this movie. But, I started hearing some vaguely positive things about the film, mainly in the context that it was kind of a fascinating mess. The sort of movie that would be divisive when released, but that would grow a substantial cult following, becoming one of those Velvet Underground sort of pieces of pop culture that eventually inspire a whole generation of people who clicked in on its wavelength. Which, is the type of movie I can usually enjoy. But, boy oh boy did this movie land with a dull thud for me.
The story follows a young cyborg woman who gains the name Alita after her consciousness is awakened in a new robotic body after being found by a lonely doctor named Dyson Ido. They live in a huge slum known as Iron City which sits beneath a floating Metropolis called Zalem, together creating the last bastion of humanity on a devastated Earth. Alita’s existence is a bit of a mystery, but Ido begins treating her like a daughter, taking her around the city and teaching her about life. Which is when she meets a young man named Hugo who immediately takes a shine to her, and begins teaching her about life in ways that Ido never could. Through Hugo Alita learns about a brutal sport dominated by cyborgs, the winner of which could supposedly ascend to Zalom, his true dream in life. But, Alita’s pleasant life is thrown into chaos when she learns that kindle Dr. Ido moonlights as a special type of bounty hunter known as a Hunter-Warrior, and that he’s gotten drawn into a case involving a ruthless cyborg assassin called Grewishka. Ido is almost killed by Grewishka, but in the process some hidden memories of Alita activate, causing her to become a fearsome warrior, defending her surrogate father. Which, gives them some clues to Alita’s identity, which are confirmed when more memories lead her to a downed space-ship containing a new robotic body.
It turns out that Alita is an assassin cyborg built by a group of human settlers on Mars, and was deployed to fight in an ancient war with the humans of Earth, which is what ended with the world being in the state it’s currently in. Alita wants to use this knowledge to take down Grewishka, but Ido refuses, causing Alita to disobey her father and sign up to become a Hunter-Warrior. But, shortly thereafter she’s attacked by Grewishka, who has received some upgrades courtesy of a Iron City mobster named Vector and his Zalem overlord Nova. Grewishka fights Alita, and while she wins the day her body is destroyed. So, Ido puts her in the Martian body, and she immediately decides that she’s going to use that body to win the brutal Motorball sport, in order to send Hugo to Zalem. However, the powers that be don’t want that to happen, but they do want Alita killed so they can use her technology for their own gain. So, attempt to murder Alita, and mark Hugo for death. Alita’s able to survive her assassination attempt, and even saves Hugo by essentially killing him herself. She keeps his head alive though, and is able to put it on a robotic body, before gaining vengeance and killing Vector. But, Hugo can’t live like this, and attempt to climb into Zalem, killing himself in the process, and giving Alita a new mission in life. Destroying Zalem.
I understand that there are people who are enjoying this movie. And, if you’re one of them, more power to you. I’m glad that you found something that resonated with you, and if this does in fact go on to become a cult favorite, I’ll be glad people found something they dig. But this movie just does nothing for me. It’s kind of everything I don’t like about anime, especially the cyberpunk subgenre, rolled into one messy little experience. After a while I was hoping that the movie would at least be insane and weird enough to keep my interest, but I felt like it was just too boring to even do that. The movie is absolutely saturated with exposition and backstory, tossing us into a weirdly defined world that requires whole monologues of explanation to make sense of, and honestly ends up feeling like it’s trying to condense a whole television season’s worth of content into one movie. It felt like there were about four self-contained stories within this movie, ending and just starting a whole new movie at the drop of a hat. And none of it was compelling to me. The story is incredibly thin, and the aesthetic is just kind of unpleasant. I’m seeing the movie lifted into a similar category as the sort of movies that the Wachowski siblings make, and while I don’t always like their output I usually still find myself entertained by the sheer spectacle of their movies. But Alita: Battle Angel just didn’t have enough going on under the surface to reach those absurd points.
The movie I was most reminded of after leaving this movie was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft. Similarly, I left that movie with pretty low estimations. It was a big, crazy, and colorful attempt to be something different, but the actual narrative just didn’t work, and it ended up becoming an interesting failure. And, that’s generally how I feel about this movie. This movie wasn’t trying to be easily accessible. It was on its own wavelength, and you either got on it or you didn’t. It did its own thing, proudly, and attempted to be a huge spectacle unlike anything you’d ever seen before. Which I admire! A common complaint about most modern American blockbusters is that they all feel the same, and even if it’s a formula like the Marvel Cinematic Universe that most people seem to enjoy, it can become tiring to see the same structure over and over again. And this movie definitely was trying to break that mold. It’s just a shame that there was no real story under all the flash and style. It was just a collection of vaguely heroic tropes and cliches, all of which are so tired and threadbare that it almost felt like this movie was a parody. And, whenever it tried to do something new, it just came across as incredibly ill-conceived. I mean, Hugo’s entire character arc seems to be that he realized that innocent people he was abducting and dismembering for Vector was maybe not a good thing. Seriously? I don’t know, I appreciate the idea that people are out there trying to push some boundaries and create a movie that can stand on its own, doing its own thing, it’s just a shame that it was held together with scotch tape, narratively speaking.
Alita: Battle Angel was written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk