Released: 14th February
Seen: 15th February
In 1991 the first volume of the manga Battle Angel Alita, or Gunnm as it’s known in Japan, was released. The series would follow the titular Alita, a cyborg with no memories except for a very particular fighting style that she ends up using to become a bounty hunter. The series ran 9 volumes between ’91 and ’95, with several follow up series continuing the story of Alita. The series is actually still being released today with an English release date for the latest one meant to come out at the end of April this year… and, as if always the case with these adaptations, I never read the original manga. My research tells me that this movie comprises of the first 4 volumes in the series… you can tell, you can seriously tell.
The story of the movie is the problem, it’s the biggest problem because they are trying to throw so much together that doesn’t fit. While the main through line is about Alita (Rosa Salazar) trying to find herself, you also have wild tonal shifts between a story about her joining a Motorball team contrasting with a story about her being a bounty hunter and the mystery of her origins and the mystery behind where her semi-adopted father (Christoph Waltz) goes every night, a mystery regarding a powerful man named Vector (Mahershala Ali) who answers to another man called Nova and then there’s the stuff regarding the secret sketchy things that Alita’s love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson) is going, and it jumps between all of these with all the grace of newborn horse trying to stand up for the first time. It’s shockingly slapped together and even though I’ve never read the books, I could tell that the stuff about Motorball is from a different book than the rest. You can tell when scenes don’t belong and there are times when I genuinely wonder if this thing is being shown in order because we’ll get a major piece of information, and then they act like nothing happened. It’s a mess and very difficult to follow. This isn’t a shock to me because the script is written by the man who brought us Avatar so he’s been off his writing game for a fairly long time… Oh, also, there’s an underwater scene in this movie and it isn’t as good as the stuff in Aquaman, I only bring this up because James brought up how much he cares about underwater scenes and went after one of the few movies to make a billion dollars so I’m just here pointing out that the film he’s attached to has a worse underwater scene, because I can.
Apart from that underwater, the visuals are absolutely top-notch and basically save the film from being irritatingly bad. This film was in development hell for an insanely long time because James Cameron wanted to wait until the CGI available was good enough to make everything look like they wanted it to and the wait was worthwhile. The designs in this film are over the top and glorious, but they all feel like they belong in the same universe. The big worry I had going into this film was that the gigantic eyes on the main character were going to be distracting but after a while, they just felt normal. Very clever design choices that are so well utilised that seeing a totally human face on top of these insane CGI robots actually feels like it works. They’re also so distinct that when the time comes for the big action scenes that you can tell where everyone is, something I shouldn’t need to comment on but after Transformers I feel like “I can tell which robots are punching and which robots are being punched” is a goddamn positive.
The action scenes are the reason to see this film. Robert Rodriguez has always had a great eye when it comes to fight scenes, yes even in Spy Kids. There’s a coolness factor that he knows how to put into every fight that we see and it gives the film a much-needed kick. Every fight scene feels intense; you don’t know how it’s going to go and are full of images that are insanely beautiful. The bar scene is an insanely fun explosion of action where fists fly and people fall apart and it’s genuinely awesome, littered with a few great moments of comedy and then the audience is sucker punched by a twist that leads into an underground fight. It’s great visual storytelling, which is good because if you’ve been trying to keep up with the written storytelling by this point in the movie then you will be pretty lost.
There’s also a strange inconsistency with the performances. Some of the actors are absolutely on their game and delivering fun engaging performances that make you root for their characters… and others are there because the budget is large and it’ll be a good payday. No one’s particularly bad, but there are some performances where you can tell that they didn’t really try that hard to create something memorable.
This is what the term “Popcorn Flick” was invented for. It’s relatively empty and forgettable, but enjoyable enough while it’s on screen. The visuals are great to look at and it’s nice to see what Robert Rodriquez can do visually when he’s handed an actual budget, now if he can be given a budget and a really good script we can give him the monster hit that he deserves because this one really won’t be huge (Seriously, who gives a 170 million dollar budget to an adaptation of a manga from the early ’90s and expects to make their money back? That’s nuts)