I have to be honest, I wasn’t excited to see Alita: Battle Angel. My apathy to this film started from the moment I saw the first trailer. It looked like a very interesting idea, with a lot of potential, but I couldn’t help but notice that none of the dialogue grabbed me. Not one of the characters stood out as memorable. I finally saw it this week, and unfortunately, it seems on this occasion that first impressions were pretty much spot on. I am not saying that this film isn’t good, it’s no way near bad, but it isn’t fantastic either. It is just fine. And that’s part of my problem with it.
One of the things that can make or break a film is character and dialogue. Sometimes I forgive films with minimal budget and/or lacklustre visuals simply because it has engaging characters and a good script. For example, I love the show Buffy the Vampire slayer in spite of frequent budget constraints making the effects look dated and cheesy. Why? Because of the characters. Joss Whedon is brilliant at creating scripts with very relatable, frustratingly human characters. I grow to love almost every character he has written and as such, I love the show despite its flaws. However, a film can have incredible visuals and top-notch action, but if the characters don’t feel fleshed out to me, I’m just not going to care what happens to them. Sadly, this is the case for Alita.
Alita is brought to life with a lot of vulnerability and innocence by Rosa Salazar, but she is given little to work with. The weird big eyes she is given in post make it hard to empathise with her, especially because no other characters have them. I realise this was adapted from a traditional Japanese anime, in which all the characters have huge eyes, but then why don’t all the characters have this? The eyes are distracting, but beyond that we know nothing about Alita as a character. We see her do a lot of stuff, and we know she’s impulsive and good at fighting. But what else? Other than a generic sense of justice she doesn’t particularly stand out. But then none of the others do. Christoph Waltz seems fatherly one moment and sinister the next, but at least he has a little personality. Keean Johnson doesn’t even manage to make Hugo, Alita’s love interest, seem like a real person at all. The extent of his character is that he wants to improve his station in life, and he likes Alita, for no obvious reason. Even the villains, played by great actors like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connolly, barely get enough screen time, and have no depth to them.
The problem is that the script seems to have had so many potentially humanising moments cut down or left out altogether. The dialogue is so matter of fact and blatant that it becomes funny at the wrong moments. Alita calls people evil and declares that she must fight evil, with a straight face. Potentially interesting conversations last a few seconds at most, like when Alita asks Doctor Ido if humans can love Cyborgs, to which he simply says “Yes”. Most of the dialogue just feels very generic and I struggle to remember any of it, even though I watched the film yesterday at time of writing. This lack of compelling conversations and too fast pacing means that I never feel I have enough time to get know or even particularly like any of the characters, so when any of them die, the moment feels empty. I don’t care what happens to any of them, because the film won’t let me.
I think the film suffers from trying to create broad appeal. Anime typically has a very specific style, and watering that down with so much generic dialogue makes for a weak experience overall. Robert Rodriquez is great at creating stylistic films, and the Spy Kids films have shown that he can make very distinct characters, but I just felt a little disappointed this time. Don’t get me wrong, he remains great at memorable action, Alita’s fighting style is certainly unique, and there is a lot of fun in watching a small cute looking cyborg destroy a bunch of big and tough ones, but it just isn’t enough for me to care about what’s going on, and I want to care.
The visuals are incredibly impressive, although like Ready Player One, it’s over-reliance on CGI to create background and characters gets a little annoying. Computer generated imagery can be breath-taking, but using it for both background art and most of the characters smacks of complacency. It would’ve felt more impactful if the characters were only partly animated, and used actual physical costumes. But like I say, the visuals are good. The action is also fun. It was surprisingly visceral and gory, considering that this is a PG-13 film, but it was a welcome surprise. Personally, I think they could have gone further and made this R-rated, or at least a 15, then it could have really taken advantage of the brutal setting. But that’s really just a nit-pick.
Despite all I have said, I don’t mean to imply that this film is worthless. It is entertaining and visually fun, and not too long. It had a lot of good production design, and the world it creates is interesting. But for me, it was kept from being truly engaging by the mediocre dialogue and lacklustre characterisation. I realise a lot of these complaints come from the script, and that really is what drags the film down for me. There is a lot to enjoy here, and if you can look past the script’s failings, you’ll have fun, but sadly for me, I couldn’t. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I’ll probably forget it very quickly.