Thu, 21 Feb 2019
Alita: Battle Angel (12A)
Running time 2hr 2min
ALITA: Battle Angel is the second Western film to attempt the ‘live-action manga reimagining’ thing, following belatedly in the
footsteps of 2017’s Ghost in the Shell; indeed, the latter makes for an instructive starting point here, as this new feature is very much cut from the same thematic and aesthetic cloth. A dystopic cyberpunk setting, reminiscent of Western sci-fi? Check. Cod-philosophical commentary on robotic intelligence? You’ll find it in bucketloads here. Even the envelope-pushing violence has more in common with GitS than the family-oriented action-fantasy flicks Alita otherwise seems to be aping.
Nevertheless, there’s something decidedly half-cocked and scatty about its vision – its futuristic locales, gorgeously-rendered as they are, are hollow and derivative. Generous spurts of well-choreographed action, for their part, are unable to compensate for a lack of compelling character drama. After two hours, you leave the multiplex feeling like an android – cold, baffled and empty.
This critic is willing to lay the lion’s share of the blame at the feet of director Robert Rodriguez, the man who brought you El Mariachi and Spy Kids. Rodriguez works best with lean, energetic screenplays; as a world-builder, he’s a bit of a flop,
lacking the drive and discipline of, say, Ridley Scott or James Cameron (who’s on production duties here, having himself conceived this project 15 years ago). An undertaking as lore-heavy as Alita required a subtlety that’s rarely in evidence here. The film tortures itself to explain away the internal logic of its universe, leaving no stone unturned in its long trot to the finish line. It’s a movie that’s high on talk (warring factions, urban landscapes with their own cultures, subcultures and sub-subcultures) and low on memorable content – unlikely as it is that we’ll ever see the sequel teased by Alita’s ending, one might find themselves at odds to envisage what more Rodriguez has to say.
And all this in spite of the fact that, frankly, there’s nothing new under the sun here. Iron City, the film’s clumsily-christened setting, is a sepia-tinged scrapyard à la Neill Blomkamp’s Africa-inspired sprawls – if you’re looking for sheer visual oomph, you could do so much better, and Rodriguez is unable to animate this portrait of post-apocalyptic soullessness with a captivating backstory. The Alita of the title (played by Rosa Salazar) is a cyborg rescued from a refuse pile by an eccentric scientist (Christoph Waltz), in a scene that vaguely recalls 1990’s Hardware; her robo-amnesia is the stuff of cliché, and is handled with little of GitS’ storytelling vigour. Iron City’s denizens dream of ascending to Zalem, an idyllic sky-metropolis where the ‘other half’ live; the great unwashed below vent their frustrations in games of ‘Motorball’, an ultraviolent sporting extravaganza that evokes both the grindhouse fantasies of the ’70s and ’80s (Death Race 2000, The Running Man) and more recent commentaries on the bread-and-circus nihilism of the modern West (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, The Hunger Games). Rodriguez demonstrates a real eye for an action sequence in said duels, as Alita battles to become Motorball champion; regrettably, this subplot is gradually sidelined in favour of facile chosen-one heroics, with the appearance of the evil Vector (rising star Mahershala Ali, in one of his most phoned-in performance to date).
If there’s a case study to be had regarding movie budget abuse, Alita: Battle Angel is indisputably the one – all the technological and financial resources in Hollywood (it cost in the region of $200m) can’t redeem it of its impersonality.